Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood, one of the poorest areas in all of Canada, is notorious for its homeless population, many of whom are mentally ill, addicted to hard drugs, or both. It's a bleak place that I associate especially with the suffering of women, perhaps because of Lincoln Clarkes’s devastatingly beautiful photo series, Heroines, which documented the lives of the area's female heroin addicts. So when I learned that photographer Matthew Desouza spent some time documenting the daily affairs of Diablo, a 32-year-old meth addict and dealer, I was eager to see the neighborhood from a man’s perspective. I called up Matt to talk about cigarettes as currency, the wildness of the McDonald’s on East Hastings Street, and the vivid photographs he shot while hanging out with Diablo and his pals.
VICE: How did your friendship with Diablo start?
Matt Desouza: I was hanging out in the Hastings area, trying to figure out how I could get involved in a story down there. I stopped by this McDonald’s that’s on the outside corner of the area. I was sitting there minding my own business, and in walks Diablo. He pointed to the chair across from me that was empty and he’s like, “Hey, do you mind if I sit there?” so I’m like, “Buddy, I’m going to be done in like three minutes.” He’s like, “Alright,” and he sits down anyway. One of the first things he said to me is, “Do you need any jib?” I’m like, “Jib, what the hell’s that?” He’s like, “Crystal.”
I said, “No, bro. That’s not for me.” And then he asked me if I wanted to see [the crystal meth]. I’m sitting there, so I said, “Sure, I guess,” and he pulls it out. That was one of the first photographs I took.
He went on about how he’s a dealer in the area, he buys and he sells, and I asked him what he was doing for the rest of the day. He’s like, “Oh, I’m waiting here for my buddy, I’m buying some, I’m selling some; I got a couple errands to run.” So I said, “Yo, do you mind if I follow you around and take pictures of you?” And he’s like, “No, that’s cool.”
So, Diablo and his pals were cool with you photographing them?
I don’t want to say Diablo was showing off, but he was totally down with it. Everywhere I’d go with him, he’d introduce me. He’d say, “This is my buddy Matt, he’s a photographer, he’s cool.” One kid smoking a cigarette thought I was an undercover cop, and Diablo’s like, “No, he’s cool, he’s cool.”
This girl came into McDonald’s, and Diablo’s two buddies were in the background. I think she was asking if she could get some crystal off him. For one reason or another, he didn’t sell it to her, but he’s like, “Oh, here, you can have a cigarette.” The photograph is of him passing her a cigarette. He called her by her first name so I’m assuming he knew her.
How much time did you spend with Diablo?
The first day, I think I spent four or five hours hanging out with him. I’ve gone back three or four times now. The McDonald’s there, it’s a 24-hour McDonald’s. It’s his home. So, while we were hanging out, I took his portrait up against the wall. He had just traded a cigarette for an extra pair of glasses, the ones hanging around his neck from the big chain he has going on [laughs].
Cigarettes are currency down there. People would come up to him and ask for a cigarette and he’d say, “I want your sweater.” One cigarette gets you a sweater.
On the Hastings strip there’s a whole bunch of people who set up and sell random junk. Later on, Diablo took the bag, laid out all the T-shirts, all the clothes, all the shoes, and he started selling everything. So for two cigarettes he got that whole bag of shit he was selling.
Were people paying him in cigarettes or money?
Quarters, a T-shirt—basically anything.
What do you know about the McDonald’s where Diablo spends his time?
Diablo’s like, “This is my McDonald’s, I run it.” He hangs out there, he sells there, he buys there, he does his drugs there. Him and his boys are doing drugs inside, right around the corner. The employees come out to clean tables, and they don’t even bat an eyelash. It was pretty wild in there, I gotta say.
Whenever he’s selling, he tells people to meet him there. If I need to find him, I go right down to that McDonald’s and nine out of ten times he’s there. I saw him sell his crystal in there a handful of times. Sometimes he sleeps there. He showers in the sink in the washroom.
When I was in there, there were a couple of addicts hanging out in there. One guy smoked a full cigarette, threw it on the ground, and then stepped on it. I was like, “Oh my God, we’re going to get in trouble here,” but no. No one came around. There were people eating McDonald’s meals a couple spots over. No one said anything. They run the McDonald’s.
Is the McDonald’s where Diablo lives?
He doesn’t have another home. The photograph of stairs, that’s from what he calls blood alley. That’s his home. He calls it blood alley because it used to be an alleyway with a whole bunch of butcher shops in it and all the blood would run into the alley. That’s his spot, right underneath the set of stairs. You see the two cracks in the cement? He usually gets cardboard and puts it down, and that’s his house.
What did you learn about Diablo by hanging with him?
Aside from his addiction, he’s actually a pretty smart dude. He’s fluent in French and Spanish and he’s from Montreal. If he wasn’t an addict he’d be a solid guy. He started speaking fluent Spanish and French for me.
Did he talk to you about how he got started with meth?
I don’t think I really touched on how he got into the drugs. He just said he wanted a change of scene from Montreal so he hopped on a bus and came out to Vancouver. I think he’s been here for a few months, I don’t think it’s been a full year yet.
What does he think about East Hastings so far?
He loves it. Something he said to me was, “Most people that come down here, they think this is a garbage area. To me, this is home.”
What are you taking away from your time with Diablo and his pals?
As messed up as some of these addicts are, they’re genuine people. It’s a shame that they’re addicts, but at the same time they’re nice, they’re friendly, they’ll talk to you. They’re sometimes coherent. Diablo took me in, he allowed me to photograph him, it’s shit you don’t see every day. I live by the beach in Vancouver, where everything is nice. On East Hastings, it’s like Skid Row.
Follow Kristy Hoffman on Twitter.