David Binder first met Gail Farrow in 1987, in the offices of the AIDS Action Committee in Boston. Binder was a white guy, a photojournalist with a patient eye and an interest in social justice, living in Cambridge; Farrow was a reed-thin, 25-year-old black woman, living in Roxbury, with a fierce devotion to her children and a dreaded fatal disease. Their meeting would do nothing to slow the work of the virus attacking Gail’s immune system, or enable her to live long enough to see her four sons grow up; but it would transform her family’s future nonetheless.
Their meeting marked the beginning of a profound collaboration between Farrow and Binder that would continue for the rest of Farrow’s life, and, remarkably, for decades after her death. It began a project that would offer an extraordinarily intimate look into American lives, and important aspects of American life, that are typically hidden from view, or ignored.
For the next three decades, Binder’s camera would document the life of Gail’s husband and sons as they coped with the sickness and death of a wife and mother, and moved into the next phases of their lives. The result would be something highly unusual within a contemporary media universe obsessed with surface, sensation, and speed, and shamefully uninterested in the lives of men of color unless they are carrying microphones, basketballs, needles, or guns. It would begin as an AIDS chronicle, but evolve into something more expansive and universal. Binder’s quiet and unobtrusive camera would follow a family drama that unfolded, not in minutes or hours, but in years. It would show Gail’s husband Ronald walking a tightrope between past and future, trying to move on while maintaining a deep connection to his late wife, and shadowed by the stigma of Gail’s diagnosis. It would follow the boys’ fitful progress to adulthood, including their struggles with their father, with drugs, and with the law, as they grew from boys mourning a mother’s death to men forging connections with women and having children of their own. It would be an exploration of love, and loss, and prejudice, and pain, and persistence, not as abstractions, but as elements of lives as they are actually lived by black men trying to make their way their way in a difficult world. Perhaps most unusually of all, it would be journey guided by Gail Farrow’s wish to hold her family together.
The project has proceeded in several stages. Beginning in 1987, not long after his first meeting with Gail, Binder and his camera became a daily presence in the lives of the family. Quietly, unobtrusively, he chronicled Gail’s harrowing physical decline, with its multiple hospitalizations and emergency room visits, and Farrow’s heroic efforts to take care of her husband and children despite her own failing health. She would die at home, in November of 1989, after a final visit from her sons. Binder stayed with Ronald and the boys for the next six months, documenting their grief and their halting steps forward. The result was a photographic essay that showed AIDS, not as a scourge or plague, but as an authentic human tragedy, affecting real human beings. The essay appeared in Health magazine in 1990, and generated an extraordinary audience response. One reader was so moved that he got in touch with the family and paid private school tuition for the boys for the next eight years. Binder stayed in close touch with the family, as both friend and photographer. In 1998, he contacted Ronald, to ask if he would be interested in working with Binder on a new chapter of the family story. Ronald agreed, and the result was a second photo essay that introduced readers to Ronald and the four boys, showing them as they made their way nearly a decade after Gail’s death. (Each installment, or chapter of the family story, it should be noted, stands on its own, and does not assume that readers or viewers have prior knowledge of the family’s history.) In that second photo essay, published in LIFE magazine, Binder’s camera revealed a family that had moved beyond the wrenching trauma of Gail’s death, but which was still very much defined by both her memory and her absence. It revealed Ronald’s often awkward effort to provide parental guidance to his sons, and the boys’ struggle to make sense of feelings of anger and sadness they didn’t quite understand. Perhaps most memorably, it showed Ronald transition into a new relationship with a woman, with whom he fathered a daughter, and his struggle to reconcile his new life with his deep feelings for the wife he lost a decade before.
In 2003, Binder began the third installment of the project, which was both a continuation of and a departure from what had come before. It was a continuation, because it continued to document the family’s unfolding story; and it was a departure, because it was no longer a set of documentary photographs, but rather a documentary film. Still relying on a photographer’s discipline and patience, and still committed to the same deep respect for the integrity of the subject, Binder moved to a medium that enabled him to unite sound and image, and to literally let the characters tell their own story. In “Calling My Children,” Binder made a film that presented the story of Gail’s family from her illness and death in 1989 up to 2008. Featuring a mix of still photographs and moving images, and the first person testimony of Ronald and the boys – now young men – the film showed a family for whom the tragedy of Gail’s death seemed, had been metabolized by every member of the family, and become part of their identities. We see it shadow Ronald’s relationships with his sons, and the boys’ relationship with the world. The film showed a family still bound together, even as its members confronted an array of daily struggles and setbacks, including incarceration, failed relationships, and abortive college careers. At once poignant and melancholy, the film made viewers care about five black men who were confronting not only the loss of their wife and mother, but also the myriad hurdles that come with being poor and minority in American society.
Binder is currently working on the next segment of an unfolding family narrative that has been ongoing for more years than Gail Farrow was alive. In this documentary film, which incorporates a mix of still photographs and moving images in a style similar to “Calling My Children,” Binder reintroduces us to the family at an especially compelling moment. We meet Ronald Jr., Frank, Kennie and Bennie as young men in their twenties, at about the same age as Gail and Ronald when the project began. They have become parents themselves, with young children about the same age that they were when the family was confronting their mother’s failing health. Fittingly, one of those children, Bennie’s daughter, is named Gail, after her late grandmother. And by now, much as Gail Farrow had hoped, the story of the family reaches not just across the span of a life cut short by illness, but across generations. In this new documentary, we will see a family experiencing a few victories, a few defeats, and many split decisions. We’ll see Ronald confront yet another life transition, as he approaches retirement from his job as an assistant teacher in the Boston public schools, but the center of family gravity has clearly shifted to his sons and grandchildren. Binder’s camera will take us inside the lives of young men dealing with their father and with one another, trying to carve out meaningful lives in a challenging and often unforgiving urban environment. We’ll see them juggling jobs and family responsibilities, and working with community organizations to mentor neighborhood kids. Most of all, we’ll see all of Gail Farrow’s children defining their late mother’s legacy, and trying to make good on the promise one of them has had etched onto his forearm, with initials and a date, signifying the day the world changed: G.F. 11-10-89 R.I.P.