This Is East Van captures and creates community

When two friends put out a call for a community-photography project, they couldn’t have predicted how big it would become

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      The sun sets over the sea of primary-coloured canvas that makes up Tent City. Footie buffs hold an impromptu game of soccer on the Drive during World Cup celebrations. The early-evening light turns the Strathcona water-spray park into shadows and hazy rainbows. Laundry flutters in the wind amid trellis fences and electrical wires off Nanaimo Street. Sweaty scenesters crowd the stage at the Astoria. A binner rummages through two shopping carts full of finds in front of the Cobalt. Kids turn Salisbury Park into a toboggan hill after a snowstorm.

      Welcome to East Van. All of those images are culled from a new community-photography project that aims to go some way in defining a grittily gleaming neighbourhood—from the inside. ’Hood residents and film-industry workers Erin Sinclair and Jason Uglanica have just published a new photo book called This Is East Van, the culmination of a year of work for the two friends. It was a DIY project that began small and grew bigger than they could have imagined.

      “It started out really innocent—we both love taking photos,” explains Sinclair, sitting with Uglanica at the Waldorf over a glass of wine just before the book’s big launch party. At first, she and Uglanica envisioned a small book depicting the back alleys of East Van, but that eventually led them to put out an open call for people to send in five shots that showed what the neighbourhood meant to them. Credit the power of Facebook, the wealth of artistic talent in the community, or just plain word of mouth: “It was growing and growing and growing, and it came to a point when I said, ”˜We have to do this, there’s no turning back,’” Sinclair explains.

      “Soon there was just this onslaught of photos coming in,” Uglanica says. “It no longer was about us anymore and became about us being able to deliver something they [the contributors] could be proud of.”

      Choosing the pictures that best captured this diverse neighbourhood was the hardest thing the pair had to do. At the height of the insanity, hundreds of images literally papered the walls of Uglanica’s Strathcona home. After long days working film shoots, the friends would meet over wine into the wee hours, surveying their choices and trying to narrow them down to the final 188 shots that would end up in their self-funded, 176-page softcover book.

      “We wanted to do it justice,” Uglanica adds. “We’d do a pass every night and we’d finally have to give a yes or a no and not explain why.”

      “The two of us could debate it forever, otherwise,” Sinclair says.

      Amid the submissions, taken with everything from old-school Nikons to brand-new iPhones, there were more than a few surprises. Sinclair expected to receive dozens of pictures of Ken Lum’s iconic Monument to East Vancouver but didn’t get one; on the other hand, there were sometimes two or three submissions a day that captured the chainlink pedestrian overpass in Strathcona that crosses the railroad tracks. There were also a lot of shots of the seamier side of East Van life, an aspect the duo tried to balance with other images.

      “We had some really negative content, but we had to decide how much we wanted of that. We wanted to show the sides of it that you don’t often see,” Sinclair says.

      And then there were the absolute surprises in the masses of images. Uglanica relates the story of a group of friends who half-jokingly made a submission shot during a night of debauchery: we’re talking public urination and giving the finger to a passing Camaro. As Uglanica puts it, “These were not for your mom to see”. But in the middle of the stack was an image that turned out to be one of the most striking in the book—a group of people silhouetted, in the night, against a riotous, hallucinatory wall of glowing Luminares lanterns.

      The pair are loath to pick favourites, of course, but paging through the book they find other gems that capture the neighbourhood in all its eccentricity. There’s the quirky, self-explanatory portrait My Mother Visits WaaZuBee for the First Time, or the cover image, Andy K. Bond’s shot of a seagull in flight above the Hotel Balmoral, an encapsulation of transcendence over historic grit.

      The book is being sold for $35 by vendors including Mintage (1714 Commercial Drive), the Waldorf Hotel (1489 East Hastings Street), and Barefoot Contessa (3715 Main Street). (For a full list, visit the This Is East Van website.) Proceeds will go to a charity the contributors all voted on, Reel Youth, a group that helps young people produce and distribute digital media.

      It’s not meant as a moneymaker; in fact, one wonders why the duo didn’t just do a web art project, posting the photo gallery online instead of taking on the logistics and expenses of a book. It turns out, the two friends had a very thought-out reason.

      “In this day and age we wanted something tangible,” Sinclair explains, with Uglanica adding you can’t spend time looking at and appreciating photos online the way you can with a book.

      The project has been exhausting for the duo, but so rewarding that they already want to do future editions of This Is East Van. And, ironically, while they set out to capture a community in photographs, they’ve also ended up creating one.

      Looking around the Waldorf and seeing the artists and their friends begin to arrive, Sinclair couldn’t be happier. “There’ll be people here tonight that will only get to know each other because of our book. We’ve built this little community of artists.”




      May 13, 2011 at 11:44am

      Its cool and all but I never understand why people say these are projects "create community in the DTES"? They never do, just cause its about that neighbourhood doesnt mean people from the community are somehow better off for it. Hope in Shadows creates community, it involves actual community members. A book, graffiti mural or a party at W2 dont mean anything to the poverty stricken in the DTES.


      May 13, 2011 at 12:49pm

      Uh, this project isn't about the DTES, but the whole of the east side. The article doesn't even mention the DTES.

      el canadiano

      Jun 1, 2011 at 11:43pm

      It's a book for white people who moved to east van as adults, not necessarily a book about east van. as someone who actually is from east van, the book is good, there's some iconic images but, it's more east van seen through a hipster lens. it doesn't quite capture what east van is about but there is real heart to it.