A Look Inside Illegal Vancouver Grow-Ops from the 1990s

Vancouver Photographer Victor John Penner was invited to document freshly busted illegal grow-ops during the late 90s and early 2000s. His project "Not Safe to Occupy" is a revealing and candid series exploring a mostly unknown and illicit world.

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Dec 18 2013, 5:15pm

Sometime between 1996 and 1997, photographer Victor John Penner did a pro-bono shoot for Jim Skipp, a graphic designer friend in Vancouver, that included photographing a police chopper and some officers. A few years later one of those cops asked him to photograph some grow houses as they were being busted, so they could submit pics for some sort of “crime fighting award." For Victor it sounded like an awesome opportunity to gain a veritable backstage pass to what was then a mostly unexplored and shady underground scene. His response was a resounding "fuck yeah!" The project became the series “Not Safe to Occupy,” named after the warning the cops would tack to the door of grow houses after every bust. We recently asked Victor about this haunting, candid series.

VICE: Can you give us some context on what things were like in Vancouver back when you shot these?
Victor: I think that, back then, the citizens of Vancouver were blissfully ignorant about what was going on in every neighborhood as far as grow houses went, but in general, pot has been such a part of the fabric of the city that they stopped paying attention to its casual use. 

At the time that I shot this, there was definitely organized crime running the show. But, they were much more low profile than the explosion of very public gang violence that happened here in 2009 when there were 20 killed and 40 wounded in the first three months of the year, while the street price of BC Bud hit $3,000 USD and up, per pound. 

What was the process like for taking these photos?
I would get a call to meet them early in the morning at a random place for coffee, never the same place twice in a row. They would have a list of the grow-ops that they were going to bust that day and they would give me the location of where they were going to search for the first one. They would roll out in various marked and unmarked vehicles and I would go in my own, usually in a different direction than they did. Everyone would get out of the vehicles at the meeting place which was usually just down the block, but out of sight of the grow house. Here they would put on armor, check their weapons, and co-ordinate what each person’s task and position would be. I always hung back and I never took any pictures, as a matter of fact I never photographed any of the squad, which was a direct order. 

As they got into position around the location I stayed in my vehicle but in sight of them. They would go to the door, pound, ID themselves, yell, "we have a warrant!" and bash the door off the hinges with a battering ram in about ten seconds! I would usually hang for a minute while they were doing this, then exit my vehicle with my camera bag and wait on the front lawn. When they had cleared the house they would call me in and I would photograph the grow rooms as found with plants, lights, power etc. After doing that, they would pull down any lightproof, black out materials on the windows and BC Hydro would kill power to the house. I would continue shooting around the grow rooms while they were seizing the plants and equipment and when I had enough I would go photograph the rest of the house which was usually incredible. 

When they had finished busting the grow, they would screw the door back on and post a notice on it that says "Not Safe to Occupy", which is what I have called this body of work. 

I shot this whole series handheld with my 35mm Nikons on color negative, available light.

What was it like working with the Vancouver PD?
I had met this cop who asked me to come out to take pics the first time and after that went okay, I asked to go out again and again and it grew from there. The other guys on the squad were a little uneasy with me being there at first but eventually they chilled out and pretty much ignored me. I shot fairly regularly when I wasn't out of town on commercial gigs and then eventually it was starting to look all the same so I moved on to other things. In 2002, this squad was going to do their 1000th Grow House bust and asked me to come and take pics again. I guess that they were way more comfortable with me because almost all of them started giving me "creative direction" until I told them to "point the fucking guns and I'll take the photos!" a couple of months later they gave me a plaque with that engraved on it.

Who said cops don’t have a sense of humor. What was it like in the actual grows?
The very first grow that I went in with this squad was a quaint little bungalow in a nice family neighborhood, but inside it was a full on factory. It was amazing! I have been sober for many years but, personal choices aside, the sheer criminal ingenuity was impressive, and visually it was more than I expected. As a matter of fact, less than twenty minutes into it I said, "This should be a book!" They stopped pulling out plants, stared at me and asked, "What the fuck are you talking about?!" I guess they didn't feel as visually stimulated as me.

Did you ever feel unsafe?
I didn't ever feel unsafe because there was hardly ever anyone in the grow houses when they were busted. The police always raided them on either a Wednesday or Thursday and the people running these places would usually "take the day off”. If there were someone there they would be cuffed and taken outside. Sometimes there were pitbulls but they were usually more into wanting to play than biting you. 

I was creeped out sometimes just because the places were so fucking moldy with lots of crazy exposed wiring and rotten walls and floors. I was also a little nervous that I might get "made." I grew up in East Van where "snitches get stitches" and I certainly didn't want anyone thinking I was a narc. This is actually the reason that I haven't shown the work before now, I figured that enough time has passed that most of the places I photographed are forgotten about. I had the first public showing of this work as "Not Safe to Occupy" at Gallery 295 during the Capture Photography Festival in October and it will be at The Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art in February 2014.  So far I haven't been shot, so fingers crossed for the future.

In your experience, how did the law enforcement feel about these places and the war on marijuana in general?
In my opinion—and I never discussed this with them—it was just a job. I think that they could be on their game and roll in hot six times or more in a day, once a week, and after a year or so rotate out of the squad when they were bored. I don't think that any of them thought they were making a dent or impact on the "war" because they told me that there were an estimated 10,000 grow houses in the Greater Vancouver Area at that time, and the yield was $1,000,000 per house a year. They were busting around 300 grows a year, so it’s not hard to see it isn't doing much. I really believe that in the future my photos will be looked at like we do now at pictures of alcohol prohibition from the 1920s and 30s. We'll laugh that it was illegal and maybe in 40 years when it’s all "Big Marijuana" there will be a Discovery channel show about illegal grows like they do with "Moonshiners" now.

That would be great. There's a sort of haunted feeling to some of these photos, like they were almost normal living spaces suddenly abandoned, I’m thinking specifically about some of the bedrooms and that half-prepared sandwich.
Only a few of the houses were really "lived" in, most of the them had caretakers that might sleep there but they all put up appearances of living there by decorating the front room, or all of the upstairs so that it looked occupied. Hiding in plain sight is the best way to put it and it’s one of the main things that I found so fascinating in each house, because it was usually so shitty looking but it fooled almost everyone in the neighborhood. I loved the bedrooms also and they make up the biggest series in the show. 

I felt like a voyeur because I wasn't invited by the owners and I want the viewers to feel like they are inside the grow houses by themselves, where they shouldn't be. They do feel "haunted and abandoned." Some viewers at my exhibition kept asking how the police let me in there, and they didn't believe me when I told them that the house was full of a dozen or so police while I was photographing.

The sandwich is hands-down the photo that gets the strongest reaction from viewers. Someone was making it when they smashed the door down and it was the first thing I saw when I came in. If anything symbolizes how basic and not glamorous a grow house is, it would be this house-brand pastrami with mayo 'n mustard on white, "gangsta" sandwich. 

Did working on this project affect your view on marijuana prohibition?
You can see how it would be easy to go "breaking bad" and have a farm in your house, but if you are not growing it for your own consumption, I wouldn't forget to put body armor on your shopping list. 

As I said, I'm sober, so it’s not part of my life anymore but I don't judge. This work is about how I see this, the hiding in plain sight, the subterfuge under your nose, I like this part a lot. I can't see how prohibition is in any way working and I do think that the money is too tempting for the government not to want their taste. It will be legalized, eventually, and then some graphic designer will use this vibe to market some organic pot just like they do with Sleeman, Baccardi and Canadian Club. 

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner

Victor John Penner