I met Gail Farrow in 1988 at a weekly dinner for people affected by AIDS in Boston. I had moved from the Midwest to take a job at the Boston Globe as a photographer in 1987. In responding to the big issues of the day, I was looking for stories on HIV/AIDS. Twenty-six years later I’m as suprised as anyone that I continue documenting Gail’s family, and documenting Gail’s legacy.
I love the work I do. I’m a naturally curious guy. And my work as a reporter, a journalist, and a storyteller is an endlessly rewarding experience. Being able to witness our world and to contribute to the conversation is a pretty terrific place to be in life. And never as much as with this story on Gail and her family.
Gail was a 27-year-old mother of four young sons, a woman of color, a woman living with AIDS. But the story I saw in Gail wasn’t an AIDS story per se, it was a story of a mother who knew her time with her children was short, a woman who knew that her children would grow up without their mother and a woman who knew how that would affect them. And this was a story of a disease that came with stigmas and prejudices and needless added pain.
Gail was looking to leave something of herself for her kids and for her husband. When I met Gail at that dinner, and explained what I was interested in doing, she knew that I was the vehicle for her interests. She knew it the moment she met me. And I understood it the moment I met her.
A devoted mother and wife, Gail Farrow had always been a fighter, facing down the stigmas of being poor and black in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a historic redlined economic ghetto in North America. Then, on top of those inherent injustices, Gail encountered the greatest challenge of her life: in 1984, a blood transfusion during cancer surgery infected her with the AIDS virus.
At first, doctors and nurses dismissed her as yet another “victim,” someone incapable of understanding HIV and its treatment. But Gail’s strength and character steeled her through circumstances extreme even for Roxbury, a place where drugs and murder were commonplace. Gail took control of her medical treatment. She insisted she be allowed to convalesce at home, when possible, so she could care for her kids. She demanded that interns listen to her. She astonished her doctors, forcing them to see her intelligence and teaching them stigma-shattering lessons about her, her community, and her disease.
I initially spent a year and a half everyday from 1988 to 1990, documenting Gail’s last year of life and her family’s early adjustment to their lives without her. That first story was published in a 1990 issue of In Health (Hippocrates) Magazine, and generated extraordinary readership response. Among the many readers that responded to this first publication of Gail’s story was a most extraordinary response from a man in Bowling Green, Kentucky. This man, of working-class means, contacted the magazine to let the family know of his interest in paying for private school for all four of Gail’s children. He did indeed pay for the children’s Catholic schooling for eight years, until his personal finances became untenable.
I’ve continued producing updates on the family in 10-year installments. The second installment was for a 1998 issue of LIFE magazine. “Calling My Children” is the third and most recent installment, and the first film version, released in 2009.
In “Calling My Children,” we see that 20 years after her death, Gail’s hopes for her family collide with the realities of their lives. In letters she left before she died, she wrote, “I am asking you now to be the best you can be. Always support and love each other. Listen to you father. He loves you and is a good man. We loved each other and wanted you boys to grow up with the kind of life we never had.” Gail hoped that her family would rally in her absence to remain a connected unit.
In “Calling My Children” we get to know Gail’s husband, Ronald Watson, struggling to deal with the loss of his wife and the challenges of being a single father for his sons. We see Gail and Ronald’s children, Ronald Junior, Frank, Kennie, and Bennie Farrow grapple with feelings of abandonment, guilt, responsibility, and hope.
“Calling My Children” has been wonderfully successful on many terms. The film has screened at numerous film festivals winning many awards (including the prestigious CINE Golden Eagle), and was honored to be the only film screened at the United States Capitol in conjunction with the XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012). But beyond all of that, I’m most pleased in how this project generally, and “Calling My Children” specifically, has helped Gail’s family heal and connect.
Ronald, Ronald Jr., Frank, Kennie and Bennie cherish the photographs and the last film. They talk about how it has helped them heal and helped them communicate with each other in a way that they have been unable to directly. Ronald works as an assistant teacher in a Boston Public School. He uses the film and the magazine articles to help other people. Frank came back home after attending AIDS 2012 inspired to educate and be in service to his mother’s life. Gail continues to inspire her husband and their children in the most personal terms, just as she and her family have inspired viewers from a wide variety of American society.
When I started this project in 1988, I was looking for stories and images that could transcend the shallow imagery that was representing AIDS in the mass media. I was interested in stories that would connect AIDS with people who were not yet affected by the issue. Stories that transcended stereotypes, clichés and sentimentality.
What began 26 years ago as a story of a woman in Boston living with and dying of AIDS-related complications has grown and deepened into an intimate family portrait of generations dealing with loss and healing.
I’ve recently started the next and fourth installment on the family and have launched a Kickstarter campaign to support this next production. Gail’s children are now young men with wives and girlfriends and with children of their own. They are around the same ages that their parents were when this project began back in 1988.
Watch a trailer:
It’s always been my goal to have this work contribute to many conversations; issues of HIV/AIDS, issues of health care, issues of race, and of compassion and recognition, and of children who grow up without their mother. As this story continues to grow and change, I can’t help but see that Gail and Ronald’s sons are the young men at the heart of President Obama’s recent terrific “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which is concerned with young men of color who are at risk through a variety of circumstances. Hopefully, this project will continue to contribute to the national conversation on many new levels.
Ronald Jr., Frank, Kennie and Bennie are as amazing as their mother. The next chapter of the family’s story promises to be rich with new generations, with new memories and with the continued legacy of Gail Farrow.
David Binder is a photojournalist and filmmaker. He also teaches at the Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University. His photojournalism has won numerous awards and has been published around the world. To contribute to his Kickstarter campaign, click here.