Downtown Eastside photo contest participants hope to portray unique side of community

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      When Lillian Fletcher returns her camera to Hope in Shadows organizers this weekend, she hopes it will paint a unique picture of the Downtown Eastside.

      “I want to portray beauty, I want to portray the potential, I want to make people see beyond what’s immediately obvious,” she told the Straight.

      Fletcher was one of 200 recipients of single-use cameras Tuesday (June 1) as Pivot Legal Society launched their annual Hope in Shadows photography contest.

      The competition is intended to portray the Downtown Eastside through the eyes of low-income residents of the neighbourhood.

      Top photos in categories such as best landscape, best portrait and best community photo are chosen, and a selection of prize-winning images are featured in a calendar sold by homeless and low-income vendors around Vancouver.

      Portraying aspects of the neighbourhood that other Vancouver residents may not be familiar with is a key goal of the project, according to project coordinator Carolyn Wong.

      “Of course there are a lot of struggles that this community experiences, and there’s a lot of brokenness down here,” Wong told the Straight. “But there’s a lot of dignity, respect for one another, working together for social justice, and things like that.”

      Wong said the project was initiated in response to photographers visiting the community and perpetuating “a lot of negative stereotypes about the community.”

      “The contest is partly a response to that as well, that when people in the neighbourhood are photographing the community from their own perspective, they’re going to see things and know things perhaps in a different way,” she said.

      Russ Staniforth is hoping to use his knowledge of the Downtown Eastside to convey both the positive side of life in the low-income neighbourhood, and also the “reality of what people are going through down here.”

      The 51-year-old has lived in the Downtown Eastside off and on for the last 20 years, and said he wants to use portraits of community members to counter common perceptions of the neighbourhood.

      “A lot of people look at homeless people like a bunch of bums, but you know what, I’d say 90 percent of people down here are on disability”¦and they can’t work anymore,” he told the Straight. “So they’re basically stuck on what they get, which isn’t very much.”

      Staniforth, who said he deals with multiple health issues, is an artist who enjoys sculpting, painting and drawing.

      He plans to use his familiarity with the area and its residents to access places others might not be able to.

      Contest participants have until this Saturday to fill up their rolls of film and return the cameras.

      The top 40 images will be selected by a panel of judges out of 3,000 to 3,500 submitted photos, and contest winners will be chosen through a community vote.

      Prize-winning images are selected based on categories including artistic merit and the emotional impact of the photo.

      According to project director Paul Ryan, organizers also hope to be able to convey the story behind selected photos.

      “We listen to people’s stories when they bring in the photos, so we get an idea of what people feel”¦when they’re taking it,” he told the Straight.

      That's part of the motivation for Fletcher, who said she hopes to use the contest to speak to residents in the area.

      "I want to actually go around and talk to people," she said.

      The Hope in Shadows project, which is now in its ninth year, is also designed to generate benefits for vendors of the calendars.

      According to Ryan, calendar sales for low-income and homeless vendors, who keep 50 percent of each sale, have increased each year.

      Last year, the 16,000 calendars that were printed sold out, including over 13,000 sold by vendors on Vancouver streets.

      This year's contest winners will be announced in October.