A Message in the Streets

‘The Downtown Eastside of Vancouver is the poorest postal code in Canada. Its streets are a transitional home for thousands. As a district renowned for police violence, drug addition and sex work, the Downtown Eastside maintains the highest HIV infection rate in North America, affecting 30 per cent of the local population, mainly women. The homeless population continues to grow, with an estimated 2000 homeless people, a population that has doubled since 2002. A disproportionate segment of the Downtown Eastside is indigenous. According to the Pivot Legal Society, 30 per cent of the residents are indigenous, a rate 10 times higher than the national average. Indigenous women experience horrific violence in the district; according to CBC Vancouver more than 60 women have disappeared from the neighborhood in the past decade’. 

 – The Dominion Paper, 2001. Found here: http://www.dominionpaper.ca/articles/909

My studio is in the Downtown Eastside (Hastings and Columbia), I walk by and through the squalor everyday. I witness what I could only describe as open air drug markets and mass congregations of homeless people along the steets. Despite the habitual routine of seeing it, I have not become accustomed to it. It still shocks me. And scares me too.

I wish I was the type of photographer, who could assertively hold my camera in the air and photograph what I saw. I wish I could approach the barely dressed women whom I assume are prostitutes and ask to take their portraits. I wish I could kneel down with the homeless man and ask him his story. But I can’t. I want to. I tell myself that I should. I should document this crazy place and it’s inhabitants. That the photographs would be important, that they would be a vivid depiction of where it all goes wrong; where the dirt is swept under the carpet. I tell myself that these people should tell their story, that they should be represented, not feared. But I still can’t do it.  No matter how much I try to encourage myself, I always here an inner voice telling me it’s exploitive. That the photographs won’t make it to a front page headline or an international platform. That the city knows that this problem exists and it will still exist after I release the shutter. Stopping to photograph a prostitute will only remind the woman that she’s a spectacle on the street, so much so that people want to stop and take her picture. How is that going to make her feel? Suppose she agrees to let me photograph her in exchange for a small fee, then essentially I’ll have bought her body in some respect.

The ethics here could be argued for days.

So instead of documenting the people. I initiated what I describe as a photographic performance. I created a sign reading ‘live your life in colour’ and had my model who was vibrantly dressed walk around the downtown eastside with this sign and pause to take shots. We had a lot of positive comments from passersby – mostly the homeless. Some comments a bit too much so, such as an older man who had the line ‘Hey I like your dress, can I talk you out of it?’ Along our route, we found an alley that had an abstract spillage of paint on the ground, perfectly fitting for our shoot. In the end, we left our sign in this alley (as a site-specific art installation if the cops ask) to see if anyone would pick it up and carry the message. The next morning it was gone.

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