Chantal Heijnen

Photographer & Educator
      
Uncle Gil
Location: New York
Nationality: Dutch
Biography: Chantal Heijnen (1976, The Netherlands) is a portrait and documentary photographer based in New York City. In 2000 she received a BA in Social Work, and worked for 10 years as a refugee counsellor in The Netherlands. In 2008 she graduated with... read on
Public Story
Uncle Gil
Credits: chantal heijnen
Date of Work: 04/27/06 - Ongoing
Updated: 05/02/19
Location: The Bronx, NY

This ongoing documentary series is about a most remarkable man living in the Bronx. Gilbert (67) 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 said: “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 NYC. 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.”
In 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 to his house for as long as needed. Eventually we stayed with him and his other roommates for 5 years.

We shared rent, meals and our experiences of living in NYC. 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 2 decades now and we have become each other’s family. And it continues - we still see Gil every Sunday, especially after he was diagnosed with lung cancer and his lung emphysema worsened. Knowing that life is impermanent we all appreciate every moment of our friendship.

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