An intimate portrait of life in the Bronx, formed out of an unlikely friendship

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Last fall, The Washington Post partnered with Visura in an open call for submissions of photo essays. The Post selected five winners and three honorable mentions out of almost 300 submissions. We are presenting one of the winners today here on In Sight — Chantal Heijnen and her work “Uncle Gil.”

Heijnen told In Sight more about her project:

"This ongoing portrait series is about a most remarkable man living in the South Bronx. Gilbert is a retired special education teacher originally from South Carolina who moved to New York in 1965.

"Our unlikely friendship started on New Year’s Eve of 1999. My husband and I were visiting New York as tourists from Holland. We were staying with a friend who was living with Gil. During the first night of this millennium, a special friendship with Gil was formed. Before going back to Holland, Gil told us, ‘You’re always welcome to visit me.’

"Many visits to Gil followed, and he also came to see us in Holland. In 2008 I decided to pursue my new career as a photographer in New York City. Without hesitation Gil generously offered us the chance to stay with him. ‘You can stay at my place for a few months while getting settled and finding your own apartment,' he said.

"During these months our friendship grew stronger, and I continued documenting Gil’s life, friends and family. Gil noticed that we weren’t able to afford our own place after those first few months and welcomed us in his house for as long as we needed. We ended up staying with him and his other roommates for five years.

"We shared rent, meals and our experiences of living in New York. Gil told many stories of what it’s like to be a black man — how it was normal having to sit in the back of the bus in the fifties and sixties — important experiences I wasn’t enough aware of as a privileged white woman from Holland. Gil inspired me to continue to reflect on my social location as a white, able-bodied, straight woman, not wanting to unconsciously contribute to the reality of this unjust system of power, oppression and privilege.

“A month before our son was born, we were able to find our own apartment in Harlem, not too far away from Gil. Our friendship spans over two decades now, and we have become each other’s family. We still see Gil every Sunday, especially after he was diagnosed with lung cancer and his emphysema worsened. Knowing that life is impermanent, we appreciate every moment of our friendship.”

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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