Life on Vancouver's mean streets

A French photographer captures the human drama in Vancouver's notorious downtown eastside The images document the area's despair and violence, but show hope, too, Daniel Girard reports



June 18, 2005

VANCOUVER—It has long been one of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods, a place where despair stalks the residents and misery flourishes in the garbage-strewn alleyways.

Vancouver's downtown eastside is hardly considered a typical destination for tourists.

But for French photographer Marc Josse, a mistake finding his hotel landed him there. Within minutes, he'd been propositioned by prostitutes and offered drugs by a clutch of dealers. The next day, he encountered a woman set to jump to her death from a bridge.

Josse, 26, is in the midst of a three-week exhibition of his work, produced over 16 months of living on the same streets as the sick, the addicted and the impoverished.

"I was amazed because we don't have anything like this at home," Josse said as he prepared for the exhibit in the basement of Alliance Française Vancouver, the language and cultural institute. "We have drug problems but nothing like this; it's an open-air market.

"It was very surprising to me to see people down there dying."

Eastside Stories: A Year in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is a series of black and white photos of the people and places in one of the country's most infamous urban landscapes.

The project began unexpectedly after Josse arrived from Paris last year to do some professional photography, including fashion shoots. Rather than taking him to the YMCA where he was booked, the taxi driver who picked Josse up at the airport mistakenly took him to the eastside instead.

The next day, Josse was out walking off jet lag when he saw a woman poised to jump from a bridge. He managed to talk her down.

Over lunch, he learned she was a prostitute with a drug addiction who had just been raped and beaten by a customer.



`We have drug problems but nothing like this; it's an open-air market'

Marc Josse, French photographer


Josse took a picture of the woman — Miranda — as she ate a plate of chicken, her face clearly showing the scars of her addiction. It became the first of his series.

The collection features other haunting images — a man smoking crack, another passed out on a park bench, a hunched, old woman dragging a garbage bag down a filthy alley — from a place best-known as home to the alleged victims in Canada's worst serial murder case.

But the photo exhibition also offers hope — young children play, their laughter seeming to echo from the photo; two men, their possessions in shopping carts, smile proudly; a shirtless man in a wheelchair chews on a cigar as he smiles and waves in a photo suited to a family album.

Alongside many of the photos are life stories, written in the words of the subject.

"People don't expect anything from these people," Josse said. "They may look scarred on the outside, but inside they still can be caring and loving human beings.

"But they are suffering and dying from indifference," he said. "Most people just want to forget about them, forget the fact that they even exist."

Josse, who lived in an apartment in the heart of the downtown eastside, got the support of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), a group advocating on behalf of addicts. Members introduced him to people around the neighbourhood and helped gather the stories of those who were photographed — but not paid — for their participation.

VANDU secretary Greg Liang, 37, said it was an important project for his organization.

"It's a way of showing that down here we're not just a bunch of junkies ripping off people and doing dope all the time," said Liang, who has been addicted to cocaine and heroin for the past 20 years. "We aren't disposable, we're real people.

"There are some real sad stories about why people ended up down here," Liang said, referring to children born of addicted mothers who grew up to become drug users themselves and others who ended up there after fleeing sexual and physical abuse.

Josse knows one photo exhibit won't fundamentally shift long entrenched attitudes. But he hopes when people see images like the one of crack addict Dean, 37, and read that he has an undergraduate degree in forestry but "can't remember how to love or care for myself," or the one of Spanky, a man who looks to be in his 50s and has been clean for a year since the picture was taken, they'll realize the lives lived — and lost — matter.

"I want to build a bridge between the people of Vancouver and those who live in the downtown eastside," Josse said. "I want to shine some light on the darkness."

Additional articles by Daniel Girard

Hunt on for serial killer - June 18, 2005



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