Gil's bedroom is his sanctuary. Some of his friends call him a "bed potato," and his favorite activity is watching television while resting in the bed. "TV is my best friend," he says. (Chantal Heijnen) Gil's mother, Mary, is very caring. She had Gil when she was 16, and their bond is very strong. They both look after each other. Every night they talk on the phone. (Chantal Heijnen)
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.”
Gil loves to stay in his apartment and look at the world passing by his window. (Chantal Heijnen) Originally from South Carolina, Gil moved to New York in 1965. For the past four decades he's been living in University Heights, The Bronx. His four-bedroom apartment has always been filled with love, family and friends. First he shared this apartment with his mother and brothers and sisters, now he's sharing the apartment with close friends who call him Uncle Gil. (Chantal Heijnen) Wayne is a very good friend who has been living with Gil for decades. He calls Wayne his son. (Chantal Heijnen) Gil used to work as a teaching assistant in a public school in the South Bronx. (Chantal Heijnen) Outside view from the kitchen window. (Chantal Heijnen) John lived with Gil and Wayne for many years. Before he died, he suffered 11 strokes. Gil was fascinated by John's positive view on life. "It looked like the sad part of his brain died during all these strokes," Gil used to say. John was a good man. (Chantal Heijnen) Gil loves an occasional shot of Hennessy while listening to soul music. The Stylistics is one of his favorite bands. (Chantal Heijnen) Before Uncle Gil got sick he used to cook grits, fried fish and biscuits on Sunday mornings. (Chantal Heijnen) Wayne sees his partner Shanda every weekend. Wayne and Shanda often spoil Gil by sharing their well-spiced Jamaican food. (Chantal Heijnen) All of Wayne's children love their Uncle Gil. This is Aajah, Wayne's youngest daughter, who often visits her dad on the weekend. (Chantal Heijnen) Tammy is Gilbert's youngest sister. Almost daily, he shares how blessed he feels by having loving family members. Tammy helps him with visits to the doctor. (Chantal Heijnen) Gil loves the warm New York summers. He is proud of his furniture, which still looks brand new, even though it was bought in the 1980s. (Chantal Heijnen) Before he got sick, I would often see Gil in the hallway ironing while watching TV. Sometimes he’d comment out loud on what he was seeing. Especially while watching TV trials led by Judge Judy. (Chantal Heijnen) Every evening Gil put his ironed outfit on the couch for the next working day. (Chantal Heijnen) Dondre is Wayne's son, who's been living with Uncle Gil since 2015. (Chantal Heijnen) View of University Avenue in The Bronx. (Chantal Heijnen) For many years Gil has been suffering from emphysema, which makes it hard to breath. Four years ago he was also diagnosed with lung cancer. Currently, it is very challenging for him to walk and be outside. Climbing stairs has almost become impossible. Even taking a shower is a big project. Fortunately, Gil is handling his disease with kind equanimity. He is totally fine not leaving the house for a couple of weeks. (Chantal Heijnen) Uncle Gil in his living room. (Chantal Heijnen)
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