Darcy Padilla

Julie with Rachel, 1993 (c) Darcy Padilla

I have been thinking a lot about documentary photography over the last few weeks. Since we announced the MA in Fine Art we have had a number of students and former students asking us about an MA Photography and specifically courses in documentary photography. We are not ruling anything out, but it will be May before we discuss plans for the next academic year with our trustees again and we already have a full commissioning programme for this year.

We have an assessment event going on at the moment and I spent a very enjoyable evening yesterday with four assessors discussing the relative merits of work by photographers such as Tom Wood, Paul Graham and Martin Parr. As the evening wore on the opinions voiced got more strident, but a common thread was the issue of intent and positionality. This prompted me to write about a body of work which I wanted to draw to OCA students’ attention.

Darcy Padilla’s Julie Project is a story of two lives intertwined. Darcy Padilla was 27 when she met Julie in 1993, Julie eight years younger at 19. Over the following years Darcy photographed Julie until her death in 2010. Take a look. I can’t stop thinking about Julie, it has taken me a couple of weeks to order my thoughts sufficiently to write this. The story may be specific, the emotions stirred are not. This for me is great photography and Darcy Padilla clearly achieves her purpose.

17 Comments

  1. Alison McCauley 3 November 2010 at 5:52 pm

    This is humanistic photography at its most potent. I found this series of images to be both moving and thought provoking. I’m inspired by Darcy Padilla’s work.

    Reply
  2. Dave B 3 November 2010 at 10:11 pm

    Thanks for sharing this Gareth. I’m not surprised that you took a while to gather your thoughts on this. I’ve just gone through the whole set and story and I have very mixed feelings, which I’ve tried several times to express in words here but failed. I think I need to go through this again, so rarely do we get such an insight into anyone’s life let alone such a tragic one.

    Dave B.

    Reply
  3. sue w 6 November 2010 at 12:29 am

    I am not a photographer but I cried through this. I can’t believe this amount of poverty exists and is ignored in America. Julie and her children have had the hardest of lives and Darcy has shown me what social documentary is really about. Also she showed the human spirit at it’s most determined. I think this story will stay with me for a long time.

    Reply
  4. CliveW 7 November 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Alternatively one could question the appropriateness of the luxurious technical approach and the repeated knowingness of the compositions.

    Is there a moral difference between the single record of a moment of human suffering and its careful plotting over an extended period?

    How does Eugene Smith’s The Wake, or some of Don McCullin’s work, compare in terms of intent and effect; for the subject, the photographer and the viewer?

    Are we being informed, appealed to, or colluding in emotional tourism?

    Reply
  5. Dewald 8 November 2010 at 9:01 am

    Thanks for sharing Gareth.

    Clive’s questions are jotted down, as that is probably what is in my mind right now, but I’m not sure what to think or how to put into words.

    Will have to come back to this in a few weeks… now it’s a bit much. But well worth seeing…

    Reply
  6. Alison McCauley 8 November 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Trust you, Clive, to eloquently express ideas that I didn’t dare allow myself to even consider initially. My first response was replaced rapidly by an intense discomfort, as I imagined myself as the photographer, in Darcy Padilla’s place. I don’t think I would be able to spend that much time documenting someone’s suffering if I thought I might have the power to influence the direction that person’s life took. A day after viewing this project, I began to imagine a scenario where a photographer, in a situation like this, could even have the power to “encourage” his or her subject to make decisions that increased their suffering, but that made the photographer’s documentary more compelling. I’m sure that’s not the case here, but it could end up being a fine line between documenting and negatively influencing a subject. I was aware of DP’s work on inmates with AIDS and I had seen her Haiti photographs, but her Julie Project is different in that she was closely involved with Julie’s life over 17 years. I think that if I were in DP’s situation, I would feel that documenting the misery of one life (made more miserable by repeating the same avoidable mistakes) over a sustained period of time would make me feel I was being exploitative. I feel there is a moral difference between this and the single record of human suffering.

    Reply
  7. CliveW 8 November 2010 at 6:02 pm

    Hi Alison, good to see you back on the scene. ‘ }

    At the weekend Gareth lead a party of us around some of the current photography exhibitions in Brighton and some of those shows raised similar issues.

    This is a series by an ex-para http://www.stuartgriffiths.net/photos-back-from-war.php

    My photographer friend of over thirty five years, Allan, recorded a video interview with him for his art website…

    http://www.artfacesussex.co.uk/General/phoenix-brighton-stuart-griffiths-closer

    This photographer was also dealing with returning soldiers in her Brighton exhibition…

    http://www.soldiersface.com/ http://www.suzanneopton.com/#/veterans

    Compare and contrast.

    One thing Soldier’s Face did remind me off, which was something I’d half forgotten, was that several years ago, for two consecutive years, I photographed the annual report for a major cancer charity in this country.

    In the course of it I had to photograph some terminal patients, one of which I photographed in a very similar way to Soldier’s Face; while he was receiving physiotherapy.

    There’s much I could say about that session, and indeed the whole experience over the two years, but it seemed to me that the essential difference between what I did and Soldier’s Face was that I didn’t direct him, I just recorded what I observed.

    I made one print for the client and then handed over all the negatives to them.

    Reply
  8. anned 8 November 2010 at 6:20 pm

    I have an issue with the way the work is presented – Julie becomes a project, a subject. Where is Julie’s voice in this work, maybe I missed it? The photographer seems to me to be a palpable presence throughout as though implicated in Julie’s situation. It makes me uneasy.

    Reply
  9. Gareth 8 November 2010 at 6:26 pm

    Thank you Clive. You have articulated precisely the concern I felt when first seeing these images and it is clearly a concern that has provoked similar thoughts for Dewald, Alison and Anne.

    To risk offense, the parallel with Don McCullin is a challenging one. If he saw someone wounded and took their photograph and then came back an hour later and took another photograph and then repeated the exercise until the person died, I think we would feel pretty uncomfortable about the portfolio.

    That said, for me intent trumps other concerns. If you live in a selectively blind society and the photographer’s intent is to challenge the viewer to confront what is happening nearby, do the ends justify the means. ‘Maybe’ I hear myself saying.

    Reply
    1. CliveW 8 November 2010 at 6:37 pm

      As far as I’m aware though McCullin never did that, but of course it’s always a ‘maybe’, every photographer has to square it with their own conscience.

      Reply
  10. Shelly Holland 8 November 2010 at 6:39 pm

    A harrowing story.

    When I look at Eugene Smith’s The Wake I’m aware the suffering of the person who has died is at an end. The suffering of the mourners may ease with time. Julie’s story is one of prolonged suffering. I’m wondering if that would be clear from a single image. I think there could be a moral difference between a single record of a moment and a record made over an extended period of time. The record of a single moment could be considered, or a reaction to something happening in front of you. I think a record made over many years is more likely to be deeply considered. In an article by Nicholas Wroe in The Guardian, Saturday 22 May 2010, Don McCullin explains that his early motivations were more about impressing other photographers and convincing editors he was the best man for the job than attempting to change peoples perceptions. He said he “should have been making people think the images I was making were of things that should be unacceptable in our world….”

    I have to assume the intent for the project is as set out in the photographer’s statement.

    For me as viewer the project informs me of a way of life totally alien to me. It makes me feel privileged for the life I have, though that has not been without emotional pain, much the same as most people’s lives. It also makes me feel powerless as observer. What is there the ordinary person can do to help, to alter the existance, ease the suffering of people like Julie?

    So, I’ve felt informed and appealed to, though there’s nothing I can do. Have I colluded in emotional tourism? I really don’t know, but the thought is uncomfortable. Clive’s questions have made me think as much as looking at the project itself.

    Reply
    1. CliveW 8 November 2010 at 8:25 pm

      Hi Shelly good to see you back ‘on the bike’ and contributing here too.

      With respect to your contribution about Don McCullin I think the motivations for all of us to make photographs, what ever our chosen obsessions maybe, are as complex and diverse as the rest of our motivations. I don’t think documentary photographers necessarily have a backstage pass to the moral high ground that the rest of us lack.

      At the risk of repeating myself, Tim Page told us at a college seminar back in the 70s, if I remember correctly, that the reason he did war photography was because he was addicted to putting himself in harm’s way.

      One can imagine that in a live situation they are reacting instinctively when under threat themselves and it’s the perspective of time and the experience of reactions to their work that leads them to more of an understanding of their motivations and responsibilities as conveyors of those images.

      Reply
  11. Peter Haveland 10 November 2010 at 11:04 pm

    “the appropriateness of the luxurious technical approach and the repeated knowingness of the compositions.”
    I think what we have here is a form of post-modern ironic subversion of the content by the technique. Richard Billingham used a throw away, snapshot aesthetic (oh so carefully contrived!) to emphasise by ironising the situation of Ray and his drinking buddies in Ray’s a Laugh, Tom Wood uses a variety of ‘tricks’; reflection, blur, camera shake etc; to subvert the ordinariness of the scenes he has recorded and turning them into extraordinary images, and here the impeccable technique seems to be a deliberate contrast to the subject matter, so emphasising the hopelessness of it, rather like the ‘golden hour’ images of hulks on the river bank by Zarina Bhimji. The work of McCullin et al is much more in the Modernist Realist tradition of all those outdated, uprated TriX images of wineo’s round the bonfire that we all took for our portfolios in the 60s. This tradition requires the matching of technique to subject matter to imply a deep concern even empathy with it whilst maintaining at least the gloss of detachment.
    I think one can make a case for Padilla’s work being a contemporary equivalent of the series images of Hogarth, the Rakes Progress for example, a moral tale…without the satire of course, as befits our times.

    Reply
  12. tom smith 13 November 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Thanks gareth.
    I went through the whole article and pictures
    of darcy padilla and as most of the comments show i found it
    a very moving story if not at times disturbing.It must have been
    hard at times for padilla to continue.The photographer in
    question seems very dedicated.A lesson for us all perhaps.A great
    article.
    Tom.

    Reply
  13. AMANO 24 November 2010 at 1:21 pm

    I feel this photo-document spread over 18 years asks quite a lot of questions rather than suggests answers! Its’ an account of basic human suffering in today’s world in which millions now have AIDS, many more live lives with self-destructive habits and countless live in poverty.
    When visiting India, where I am at present, one sees poor people yet they often joke and laugh. It makes one ask the question as to what poverty really is!
    We all suffer to some extent, as Buddha pointed out, and thats’ what surely makes a piece of work like this strike home and touch us.
    Enough said .. this is my initial response which I felt worth sharing. I think not just of the people in this story but also the old woman working her way past the tourist shacks on the beach this afternoon; I had to give her a few rupees but probably she is not as needy as some others … like the children one sees selling newspapers on the beach or performing conjuring tricks to the sound of someone banging a rhythm on a tin plate.
    All this on a tourist beach … almost glad I’m only here for a day! Back to photographing tomorrow.
    Amano

    Reply
  14. AMANO 26 November 2010 at 2:12 pm

    On reflection, I find myself with various responses to this project.

    We are asked to take a lot on trust or just plain faith (could not this whole portfolio be a setup?!) being encouraged to respond with a kind of predictable sympathy!

    Did Julie never laugh or have good times!?? I am sure she did but they are deemed irrelevant perhaps to this body of work.

    In regard to the photographer’s practice, its’ the recording of the intimate conversation between mother and son at the end that strikes me as weird. One can almost hear the photographer saying, “Its’ OK Julie, you can talk to your son one first and last time but first I have to get the friggin’ microphone in place!”

    In the UK, its’ said that almost all the prostitutes are also drug users. Julie’s story is far from unique yet the telling of it is remarkable.

    Martin Parr is a different kind of social documentary photographer .. he records the misery of the rich !

    Just a few thoughts for consideration from a Level 1 student !!

    Amano

    Reply
  15. Kieron Town 2 February 2013 at 7:21 pm

    This kind of leaves me with a few questions.

    Did the photogrpaher choose Julie knowing that she would slowly get ill and eventually die?

    And if she so did Julies death become her ultimate photo?

    I know there was a very strong friendship that developed but surely both of their strengths have to be admired for continuing the project right to the very end.

    I find this kind of work thought provoking but a little disturbing at the same time.

    Reply

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