IMAGING THE INVISIBLE, NAMING SUFFERING
Lincoln Clarkes, Photography, and the
Women of Downtown Eastside Vancouver
By Paul Ugor
Published by Simon Fraser University,
West Coast Line 53, 2007.
. . .Within a five-year period, beginning in 1996, Lincoln Clarkes shot four hundred different photographs of women with drug addictions in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The project began when Clarkes took a picture of his long-time friend, Leah, “shootingup” against the backdrop of a Calvin Klein billboard starring Kate Moss in the autumn of that year.¹ Soon after, Clarkes began taking photographs of many of the neighborhood’s women; when asked why he concentrated only on women, he responded: “I approach it like Titanic going down: women and children first. I don’t have enough life boats.”(Smith 18) In 1998, Clarkes organized a solo exhibition at the Helen Pitt Gallery with about forty different pictures he had taken of the women, which he tagged Photographs. In 1999, he held another exhibition, this time with a hundred of the photographs, which he retagged Heroines. These photographs were later to become a publication by Anvil Press of the same title in 2002.² The Heroines photo project has now won a number of awards both locally and internationally. But as Clarkes went about photographing his heroin-addicted models, they were also missing in very strange circumstances. Today, about sixtynine (maybe more) women are suspected missing from that neighborhood, five of whom were actually photographed by Clarkes.³ Taken together, the Heroines project is what a Los Angeles Times staff writer described as “photographs that speak about obsession—a young woman’s fatal fixation with drugs, a photographer’s addiction to capturing her crumbling beauty, and a predator’s sick need to take her life.”(Glionna 08) Debates about the exploitation of the female subjects of Clarkes’ photos centre around the women’s consent to their images being taken, the amount paid to them, their awareness of the extent of the circulation of the images, and the general social value of the project. If they do understand the terms of their consent, as some of the women insist, then questions still arise about who owns the images thereafter. Who controls what they are used for and how far the images go? Though it may seem quite infantalizing to imagine naivety on the part of these women, critics argue that we may never foreclose possibilities of exploitation with subjects living in such dire circumstances at the very margins of society. For instance, Clarkes offers his clients just five-dollars, cigarettes, biscuits, and other incidentals for a pose. Although in the short run this may have offered much-needed sustenance to the women from the Downtown Eastside, it obviously would have been an unthinkably ridiculous offer to any average model in the fashion/ modeling circuits anywhere in the world. But beyond this straightforward critique of Clarkes’ pictures, there are other troubling social issues that the Heroines project inflects. For instance, institutionally, authorities represent the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and its inhabitants as a social space where crime, addiction, and poverty are “constructed as choices; as the results of personal will, rather than as faults in the social system.” (Warner- Marien xiv) It is this kind of institutional rhetoric about the Downtown Eastside, a rhetoric that ignores the foundational historical and social dynamics that underlie the lives of Clarkes’ subjects that Heroines challenges and re-clarifies. Caroline Knowles and Paul Sweetman argue that “visual data connect and refract, capturing the specificity of social processes and phenomena, and thereby illustrating the general in the particular while also offering a particular means of illuminating and exploring the relationship between the two.” (13) The images in Clarkes’ photos may only narrativize isolated cases of individual struggles, but in reality they also unmask the crass indifference and very deep institutional decay that have long been taken for granted in the Canadian social imaginary. So it is precisely in embodying the untold and intangible aspects of the lives of the women of the Downtown Eastside that the photographs of Lincoln Clarkes become a tool for a new social engagement. The Heroines project becomes what Howard Becker calls “photographs as evidence” (193)—of social injustice in a social reform campaign. Visual representations such as Clarkes’ transmute from innocuous entertainment pieces to lethal political weapons wielded for a social debate or argument. Thus, pictures begin to serve as quotations legitimizing arguments and social positions. In this social agenda of visual representation, images shed their creative essence to assume a utilitarian value, invoking and re-inscribing certain discarded and forgotten social problems onto the public map. In fact, photographs in this new discursive framework begin to function as testimonials of cultural experiences of struggle, pain, sorrow, and deprivation. The human body and the scars it bears, especially as taken up by photographs, convert to new kinds of writing: a tableau vivant of un-witnessed experiences in social history. But in the case of the Heroines photo-essay, it is an inscription that bears testimony to the inequity in power relations between the women of Downtown Eastside Vancouver and the larger Canadian society. By capturing the bodies of his subjects, Clarkes unravels for us a novel kind of literature through which we can read the struggles of these often overlooked women who live at the very periphery of our society, and whose lives do not count, especially in the larger scheme of things that matter to the state and its tiny class of privileged citizens in this so-called moment of “late capitalism.” Through Clarkes’ pictures, he “names” the suffering of the women of the Downtown Eastside for a complacent public and an indifferent state. As a form of popular urban art expression, Heroines refers us to the “concerns, experiences and struggles” of common people. (Barber 1997) Radically innovative, Heroines “names,” in graphic details, the day to day struggles, pain, troubles, challenges, and risks of the women of the Downtown Eastside. It catalogues their struggle against institutional/government torture (see picture 14 in the collection of photos published by Anvil Press); an abandoned and unhealthy environment (Pictures 8, 9 & 35); against the harshness of nature such as weather and climate (Picture 38); illhealth (Pictures 42 & 49); emotional pain (Picture 81); loneliness, solitude, and abandonment (Picture 26); subsistence (Picture 95) and above all drugs (Pictures 4 & 23). Clarkes argues he is “documenting [the women’s] spirit, their strength, their agony” (Smith 18). But he does this precisely through a stark and uncomplicated art devoid of the refinedness that is usually associated with genteel cultural forms, which the elite class is used to consuming. Expectedly, Clarkes turns his camera gaze to the women’s bodies as the site of that discourse in order to show how the larger forces of society play out their influences on defenseless individual body polities. As visual testimonies, or evidence of endured pain and torture, the women’s bodies name their suffering eloquently. The pictures tell of bodily harm such as facial wounds (Picture104), broken arms (Picture59), fractured feet (Picture 49), frail bodies (Picture 82), diseased skin (Picture 99), and so forth. In their realness, not in terms of exactitude, but in terms of their rawness, Clarkes’ pictures spill raw truth to viewers of a national public unwilling to deal with the realities of its mistakes and administrative blunders. Through these images, Vancouver is, according to one reviewer “discovering its entire body politic, the unacknowledged parts of its anatomy— vulgar and dangerous—that polite discussion always avoids.” (Koepke 01) The portraiture of the seedy environment of the Downtown Eastside is also another form of “naming suffering” for the purposes of social justice and reform. Nurturing and maintaining a decent and safe living environment for every citizen of every nation is one of the most elementary responsibilities of constituted authorities the world over. Clarkes’ pictures of a dingy habitation for the women of the Downtown Eastside shed a significant sidelight on how government abdicates its responsibility to the very people it has sworn to serve and protect. By depicting the women’s environment, Clarkes redefines that social space; from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as a site of moral decay and social insecurity to a sphere of social struggle; from a threatening social space deserving institutional surveillance to a place worthy and deserving of government attention, care, and public sympathy. Space as a narrative object, then, is redefined, re-imaged, reconfigured, and hence made apparent as in need of rehabilitation. The environment against which Clarkes cast his subjects is a narrative of untold and endured hardship of a class of people haunted by the sins and crimes of a bygone history. The pictures are visual narratives of the ongoing, sometimes seemingly permanent victimhood of the women. The landscape tells of an apathetic government, indifferent public, prolonged environmental health threats, and a vulnerable social safety net. With regards to the accusations levelled against Clarkes’ project as a glamourization of drug addiction, I propose to attempt a defense—which is not to suggest that there are no merits to such criticisms, but that there is a flip side to the argument, which has seldom been broached. The history of photography as an art, for instance, points to the fact that traditionally, photographs, and in particular glamourous public portraiture such as modeling, have been the exclusive privilege of the aristocratic class. As a professional photographer practicing in Paris and London, Lincoln Clarkes has shot prominent models and other media celebrities, who may themselves have been addicted to drugs (not unlike the women of the Downtown Eastside). The picture of Leah shooting against the Kate Moss billboard, for instance, is a subtle commentary on the paradoxical and ironic realities surrounding glamour, drug addiction, and prostitution. Many models are known to abuse drugs, maintain a plethora of sexual relationships, and even cause disturbances or spectacles in public. The many gossip columns of glossy celebrity magazines and TV shows in North America attest to this fact.4 But because such social misconduct radiates from supposedly respectable upper-class quarters, these women are seldom derided in the same manner that the lives of the Downtown Eastside women are. When the misconducts of these upperclass celebrities are given any attention, they are often construed as the usual fare that accompanies success in the field of culture in North America. It appears to me then that Clarkes’ apparent fault is to have made those from the very lowest wrung of the social strata taste that which is exclusively reserved only for an elite class. According to John Glionna, “Clarkes wanted to depict more than the women’s troubles; he wanted to show their radiance,” (03) So is Clarkes’ crime as an artist to have emitted “radiance” from supposedly “dark quarters”? By paying attention to the physical bodies of the Downtown Eastside women and the deplorable environment around them, Clarkes provides us with alternative angles and binoculars from which to see and comprehend how power relations are textualized on the bodies and geographical space of these marginalized women. The dents we see in the physical bodies and social spaces of the pictures point to distortions in the larger scheme of things in a society that prides itself, and indeed is praised from outside, for social welfarism and social equity. According to Glionna, “[Clarkes’] images unsettled many people in a country that prides itself on its polite order and a tightly woven social safety net.” (02) The pictures are a new form of calligraphy inscribing a version of a nation’s sordid social history largely unknown to the world and unacknowledged by constituted authorities. As a form of popular culture, Clarkes’ pictures are poignant social records of the experience of ordinary people amongst us, and the myriad of social forces that shape their difficult social existence. . . .
- This photograph first appeared at the Saints and Sinners 50/50 Benefit Show on Hastings Street and was handtitled Leah on Heroin.
- They were also hosted on a web gallery, downtowneastside.com. This website, initiated and funded by geologist Bob Basil (one of Clarkes’ patrons), was later to be dismantled because of mounting public controversy.
- See http://www.missingpeople.net
- A number of cases come to mind here. The sensationall erotic public showings of Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, the now late Anna Nicole, and a host of other countless “Hollywood baddies” are all public displays which are conceptualized very differently by the North American public than those of the women of the Downtown Eastside.