Walking into Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with a camera can be a dangerous thing – dangerous not so much for the operator, but for those caught in the way of the refracting mechanical eye. It only takes a short lesson in film to realize how powerful of a medium photography is. The ability to freeze a moment and attribute context is both a blessing and a curse.
In Saturday’s Vancouver Sun, there were two powerful images alongside two articles about Dr. Bill MacEwan and his progressive approach towards mental health and addictive disorders.
The accompanying images are of a 27-year-old woman, Jennifer Cohen, giving a gracious smile and holding her white and brown cat. The titles are: “We’re so miserable,” and “Five and a Half Year Fight to Kick Crack.” No doubt these headlines made the images more appealing. It could, however, just have easily been a story about cats.
There was a level of dissonance between the article and the photos. Cohen and her addiction were the hook. The article was about MacEwan.
I don’t mean to pick on the Sun. I liked the article and think that any reporting about new ideas is good news. That being said, from a photographer’s point of view, appropriating pain and not connecting the dots between subjects allows for distorted content. I cannot help but wonder how Jennifer Cohen feels having her pictures above the headlines. Maybe she agreed to it, I do not know.
There is a type of sensationalism that follows most stories about the DTES like a ball and chain. It frames lives into simple binaries of addiction and mental illness as opposed to systemic issues like poverty and housing. Photographers do the same. The DTES does not happen in a vacuum and neither does a snapshot. For every 1000 words a photo tells, there are a 1000 more it disguises.
Pivot’s Hope in Shadows has attempted to address this issue by giving out disposable cameras once a year to DTES residents and running a photography competition. As one DTES resident told me, the point is to see the DTES “the way we see it.”
I once photographed someone being aggressively arrested by the Vancouver Police. A man in the crowd called me a vulture and an ambulance chaser. When I felt him nudge me from behind I stood up and responded:
“If the police are kicking the crap out of this guy and no one takes a photo what chance does he have!”
I caught a quick glimpse of shock in the man’s eyes as I returned to my kneeling position to snap more photos. The man stayed behind me.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I replied, “you were just looking out for this guy too.”