Five years ago, fresh out of University, I started my career on the communications team at Union Gospel Mission, a nonprofit urban relief organization in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Sadly, chances are, you have a place like the DTES in your city.
The neighbourhood is infamous. For all the wrong reasons. Some commuters lock their car doors as they hurry through. And where Main Street meets Hastings Street some people call Pain and Waste-ings.
Everyday you see atrocities on the sidewalk or the evidence left behind.
But there are children here. There is community here. There is camaraderie here. There is hope here. And I saw this everyday. Sometimes a shadow. Sometimes a glimmer. Other times like a blinding burst of light.
Every time I walked around the nieghbourhhood with my camera, a conversation would start. Occasionally I would hear, “I’m gonna shove that camera up your ass!” Thankfully that never happened. But more often than that, people would say, “I used to be into photography” or “I’ve always wanted to learn how to take pictures.“ And show a genuine curiosity.
One day I couldn’t take it anymore, enough talk. Kevin Clark, a local commercial photographer, wanted to volunteer and I had an idea that kept making a regular appearance in my notebook: a photography workshop. So we started PHOTO 101.
For the last three years, we’ve spent a few weeks at the end of the summer, when the weather’s just right, teaching some basics of photography to a group of men and women struggling with poverty or working through drug and alcohol addictions at UGM. On Tuesday nights, we walk through the roughest neighbourhood in Vancouver with HOLGAS around our necks, rolls of film in our pockets and one goal – to capture beauty.
To see a recovering addict visit a place where they once used drugs, as a clean and sober photographer in search of beauty is beyond remarkable. It’s a miracle. Then we developed the first rolls of film.
We were shocked. The images were stunning. We knew it would be fun and we thought it would be a nice thing to do but we were astounded when we realized we were working with true artists.
To see the students share their photograph, their work of art, with other neighbours, some homeless, some affluent, some local politicians, has tangibly displayed the true power of art and photography to me.
But sometimes it was hard. And it’s easy to think you can’t make a difference. Your ideas suck and you’re wasting your time. You will rarely see the impact you have made in the moment. It may take weeks. Months. Even years.
I almost gave up dozens of times. There were many obstacles, roadblocks, setbacks and disappointments. Like a bad country song. When we first started we had no cameras and no budget. But we had the time to pick up the phone and call our neighbours. One business donated the ten cameras to get us started and another incredible local business has processed and scanned every roll of film free of charge.
PHOTO 101 has taught me so much about photography, humanity and myself.
I’ve since moved on from my job at UGM but my heart is still in the neighbourhood. I’ll always be a part of PHOTO 101 and, when the weather’s just right, I’m excited to grab a HOLGA and go for a walk with an amazing group of artists.
“It’s as true today as it ever was, he who seeks beauty will find it.” – Bill Cunningham, one of my heroes
The images you see below were the final selections for our 2011 and 2010 art show, Uncovering Vision, as part of the Eastside Culture Crawl (we selected one image per photographer).
Leah you were a gift to us at UGM and to our friends here on the DTES. Photo 101 will leave a legacy of creativity, transformation and healing for many of those who participated. How fortunate is the world to have you in it!
wow, I had no idea photo 101 existed. I have lived (almost) my entire life in the suburbs of vancouver and I am so inspired by this creative outreach! thanks for challenging my sideline attitude.
I’m just as inspired now as when you first told me about it. Seriously, so awesome! Thanks so much for sharing here Leah. I hope this inspires others as well! You rock…