VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Macabre portraits haunt nation
One photographer recorded Vancouver's drug addicts and prostitutes. Then many of his subjects became victims of Canada's worst serial killer
Christopher Reed in Los Angeles
Sunday June 8, 2003
When photographer Lincoln Clarkes began taking portraits of heroin-addicted women in a Vancouver drug ghetto, he realised many risked an untimely end. He did not know he was recording the last days of the victims of Canada's worst serial murders.
Five of the women he hoped to have helped with his poignant portraits of femininity amid squalor are among scores still missing. He expects many more to be named as police examine DNA evidence. 'I just don't want to think about the final number,' he told The Observer.
Pig farmer Robert 'Willie' Pickton, 53, has pleaded not guilty to 15 murders, but is suspected in up to 65 cases of women who vanished from Vancouver's downtown eastside, known as Low Track. It is one of North America's worst areas for poverty, drugs, prostitution, Aids and crime.
Pickton was arrested last year and his committal hearing resumes on 30 June after a recess, while police continue excavating the grounds of his 10-acre farm. He allegedly lured the women to the farm, 22 miles east of Vancouver's shiny skyscrapers and its seedy 10-block Low Track neighbourhood. He is alleged to have entertained them in a building he called Piggy's Palace and then killed them. Reports persist that he ground up the bodies and fed the remains to his pigs.
Clarkes, 45, once a fashion photographer in London and Paris, lives three blocks from Low Track. One summer day in 1997 he caught sight of Patricia Johnson, then a 20-year-old mother of two children she had abandoned, and a heroin addict and prostitute. They talked and Clarkes took her picture with two female friends.
When he saw the prints, he wept. He was to spend Sunday afternoons for the next five years photographing what, in a new book of the portraits of beauty in a beastly place, he called Heroines.
In 1997, a Low Track prostitute told police she had been handcuffed and stabbed by Pickton, but he claimed self-defence and was never charged. A year later, police heard that bloody clothing, identity cards and handbags were seen at the farm. But officers were unconcerned by vanishing addicts - even while the numbers increased each month.
Clarkes first heard of a missing woman in 1998, when he showed to her best friend a portrait of Sheila Egan, 19, who had disappeared a fortnight earlier.
'She grabbed it and clasped it to herself, and burst into tears,' he recalled. 'She said she knew Sheila was dead because she hadn't called. That's when I realised something was happening, but I didn't know what.'
Egan never reached her twentieth birthday. With Johnson, she is among the 15 named in the murder charges.
Johnson became Clarkes' friend and left him a phone message days before vanishing in 2001. Although addicted to heroin, Egan seemed to Clarkes 'so fresh and young, she should have still been in school. But she was also a bit of a fashion plate and a party girl who didn't know when to stop partying, I guess.'
Another Clarkes heroine was Julie Young, 31, last seen in October 1998. She was 'heroin sick' when Clarkes first saw her. 'She was hurting badly for a fix, but she still managed to pose.' The women loved the portraits because, he said, 'here was someone with a genuine interest in them, not for sex or drugs, but for art and photography'.
'I wanted to put these pictures in the face of a public who didn't care to see them, and I also wanted to embarrass the city.' His crusade was only too successful; his new book has caused an outcry and is embarrassing all Canada, which prides itself on a drugs policy superior to that of its US neighbour.
As he produced the book and an exhibition, Clarkes was vilified as an exploiter and a voyeur, denounced by social workers for 'glamorising' addicts and by feminists for picking on women. Others praised his work and Vancouver's mayor recently initiated a programme to clean up Low Track.
Clarkes insists that he has made little money from the project and he passed on a lot as gifts to the women. But the experience did change his life. Relatives of missing women still contact him for the portraits, which have become for them not photographic art about modern urban ills, but simple mementos of lost loved ones.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
Updated: April 11, 2006