Darcy Padilla met Julie Baird in 1993, in the lobby of a rundown AIDS hotel in San Francisco. Baird was barefoot beside her boyfriend, pants unzipped, holding an 8-day-old infant.

Padilla, a documentary photographer, had been working on a story about urban poverty when she met Baird, the woman she would spend the next 18 years photographing.

“You usually don’t see a family at a place like that,” Padilla recalled. “I was shocked. I wanted to understand their story more.”

The resulting essay, titled “The Julie Project,” documents Baird’s struggles with AIDS, addiction, incarceration, the birth of five more children and her eventual death.

“Julie dealt with manic depression,” said Padilla. “Some days she would slam the door in my face and say, ‘Not today, b—.’”

Regardless, Padilla persevered, and was eventually awarded the prestigious W. Eugene Smith award in humanistic photography. The award includes a $30,000 grant and is given annually to a photographer who upholds the tradition of Smith’s concerned photography and dedicated passion.

“When I approached Julie, my goal was to photograph emotion,” said Padilla, “to help someone understand what it’s like to go through something incredibly hard.”

Baird passed away from AIDS-related pneumonia on Sept. 27, 2010, and the pair’s decades-long friendship came to a close — but the black-and-white images of Baird’s struggle will continue to resonate with viewers around the world.

“When I go to sleep at night, I see her face gasping for air,” said Padilla, “But I loved her sarcasm, her humor. When I told her I got the grant, she said, ‘Well, it took you long enough.’”

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