In 1997, Toronto photographer Lincoln Clarkes began shooting for his stunning, albeit shocking photo series of over 300 female heroin addicts in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. A year later, when the Heroines series was first published and exhibited, public reaction was split: praised as humanizing a forgotten sector of society, but also condemned as exploitative and voyeuristic. However there’s no doubt that international media attention of the work raised awareness of these at-risk women, some of whom had gone missing (the remains of at least five were later found on serial killer Robert Pikton’s farm), and played an important role in helping a community that had, until then, been largely ignored by the city and law enforcement.
And while Lincoln’s work is currently part of a street photography show at the Museum of Vancouver, and the launch for his new book Cyclists approaches on November 21, we wanted to look back on the amazing, albeit heavy series that first got us into his work. Lincoln sent us a sampling from hundreds of his Heroines photos, and we discussed what it was like shooting these women and how there’s still a lot of work to be done in that area.
VICE: How did the series begin?
Lincoln Clarkes: Leah, a solid friend who died in 1999 of a heroin overdose, introduced me to that addicted subculture. We frequently ran into each other for near a decade, she was usually engulfed in bizarre, surreal situations. But it all started the summer morning of meeting Patricia Johnson, who eventually went missing, and her two girlfriends. When photographing the trio, it became a Film Noir episode of drama. The portrait of them strung out on the steps of the Evergreen Hotel on Columbia St. brought me to my knees and made friends cry. I willingly slid into the new obsession of documenting at that point, in the vein of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, portraying social injustice and calling attention to the plight of addicted women. Within a few months the whole country was welling up with tears, and the police finally noticed.
Was it difficult to gain access to these women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside?
Everybody is suspicious in the heroin/crack ghetto, but it’s also a friendly place. When walking into those streets and alleys you're really walking into their living room, dining room, and bedroom. During this series a female assistant usually accompanied me, someone the Heroines would find amusing and a joy to meet, and who really cared about their situation, giving them apples, applying band-aids, lighting their cigarettes, etc. We would always try to make them laugh, or they would tell us some sordid sad story. Getting the skinny of what was going down in the 'hood or with them, they opened-up like butterflies to us and became very generous. We made a point of giving every one of them a picture of themselves, and promised that we would not divulge their identity, unless they died.
If you could take us back to that time, what was it like shooting them, one by one?
The loneliness of the women was heartbreaking, they were dropping dead left and right and never knowing if they would make it to tomorrow. Many of their friends were going missing by the week. I think they really welcomed the attention and enjoyed participating in a photo project; the image being perhaps the only thread of their existence. Most of them lost everything that came before; they had nothing left to lose except their lives. Each woman had private tales that I tried to tell silently in the language of a photograph. It was an introduction to the people uptown that didn’t want to see or know these women. For the first time they were looking into their eyes.
How many do you recall were heroin users and how many were using crack cocaine?
The women that were just using heroin seemed to be a lot less messed up. As long as they had money, they would manage their habit as a self-medicated alternative to deal with their crippling emotional handicaps. The heroin gals were mostly introverted loners who would just maintain a solo existence and stay in the shadows, compared to the crack head girls who were completely uncontrollable, unreliable, and unhealthy. Crack cocaine makes its subjects psychotic headcases that are frequently delusional, loud, and constantly lacking in good judgment; you can see that clearly in the behavior of Toronto’s mayor. And then there’s the cross-addict, which is a heroin and crack mash up; look out for that combo. I was always suggesting ‘use not abuse’ to them, or to do the cold turkey method of withdrawal. Or perhaps go the pothead route for a while. Magic mushrooms? You couldn’t give them away down there.
Were many of them friends or strangers?
All the women were strangers when I first asked to portrait them but they were also literally my neighbors that I saw every day. I wasn’t parachuting into the situation. Walking a block with a First Nations woman, she would say hello to half a dozen cousins. The sense of camaraderie and family between First Nations people is so amazingly tight; they all shared similar histories, and a certain sense of humor. Life is so tragic for so many that they really enjoy a good laugh amongst the tears. All the women were in the same boat and the men were always bad news: johns, cops, jocks, dealers, pimps, and killers, all out to get them. So they do stick together in a lot of ways, sharing what they have. If one woman had a room, it would often be a sleepover with five on a bed. Some of the worst violence was women having catfights over a $10 rock of cocaine; then the next day you would see them sharing a cigarette wearing their wounds proudly.
You’ve said that what these women needed was unconditional love. What else were they missing?
Most of these women had such a miserable abusive past or childhood; a happy history is what they don’t have. They are caught up in low self-esteem, unable to let it go and move on. They need serious therapy: lessons on managing their life regarding health and nourishment, a place to call home, an education and employment would help immensely. When these women rolled into town they didn’t have the advantages that the locals have: the connections to get them settled into decent circumstances. They didn’t have the social skills to fit into the right scene of relative comfort and normality. They are not contenders in the big picture of their generation in Vancouver. So what they need is what the privileged have, just to be able to fit in and participate with respect andequality.
What kind of stories did you hear while shooting this series? I understand there is a documentary, too.
One story out of the hundreds of sad tales involved a woman who had just arrived in town on a Greyhound bus from living in rural British Columbia; her daughter had died in a car accident because her husband was a drunk brute and driving on a mountain road. She lost her job at the local bakery and subsequently her home. All she had left from her previous life was her daughter’s lunch box. Asking what had happened to her husband, she replied he’d been killed; I asked how, she said “mysteriously” as she smiled… Each addicted woman has a story of such misery and humiliation; they are willing to share if you just give them friendship and the opportunity to do so.
At what point did you decide to move to Toronto? Would you ever want to portray Toronto’s dark side similarly?
I left Toronto for Vancouver as a teenager in the mid 1970s. Bit of a stranger here now; British Columbia and England are both a big part of my life. I’m not interested in photographing the dark side of Toronto because it pales in comparison to the Wild West. And besides, my photographic practice nowadays is a world away from those images.
Has the situation changed much? Are the users in the Downtown Eastside getting any help?
If only…Insite was founded in 2003 and provides safe injection sites for addicts as well as medical staff for addiction treatment, mental health, housing, and many other related issues. They're saving lives. But for the women who are sucking latex with full-blown addiction, things have not changed. It’s just as wicked and even more tragic as ever, with well over a billion dollars being spent on “the poverty industry” since 2001 by federal, provincial, and municipal governments, which largely benefits “consultants.” The area still feels cruelly wounded under a veneer of aid. The population of hopeless homelessness seems to have doubled since the 1980s and 90s. It’s really the most soulful area of town sadly, with what’s left of the historical buildings slowly being gentrified by upstart people that are making a positive change of the landscape and attitude. Only the locals call it the Downtown Eastside the rest of the world calls it Vancouver.
Are you still in touch with any of the heroines today?
Yes, I do receive the odd email from time to time. They like to reminisce and are quite proud to be still kicking and to have survived the Robert Pickton murder spree. Since the mortality rate was off the chart in those days, I never knew who made it out alive. Their daughters get in touch more often because most of the women have died. As I recall, many of them had children and 15 years later some want to know about their mothers. They barely knew them, so they want to know all that there is to remember.
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