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News

The Downtown Eastside Seen 'From Our Eyes'

Values, community and strength found in annual Hope in Shadows photo contest.

By Carlos Tello 3 Jun 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Carlos Tello is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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Garvin Snider's never missed a Hope in Shadows photo contest over the years. Photo by Carlos Tello.

In April last year, after spending some time on the streets, Chris Alaggia found a place to live at the Empress Hotel in the Downtown Eastside. Now, more than a year after finding his new home, he says the Empress didn't only give him a roof to live under, but also a neighbourhood to be part of.

On Saturday, Alaggia found a way that may help him show everyone in the city his own perspective about his community. He enroled in the Hope in Shadows photography contest, where 200 single-use cameras are handed out to DTES residents so they can take photos that reflect the life and feel of the neighbourhood.

The contest gives locals like him a chance to "show our view" of the Downtown Eastside and let others "see it from our eyes," Alaggia said.

Saturday was this year's contest launch date. For the kickoff, Pivot Legal Society organized a block party outside their offices that included live music, food, a photography tips booth, and a photo workshop with Vancouver-based photographer Mark Montgomery.

The scheduled time for the party was 9:30 a.m., but people started gathering a half hour before. More than a camera handout, the event looked like a big community gathering. Some sat down and enjoyed the concert, others gathered in circles to chat, and others waited in line to retrieve the cameras.

Participants in the Hope in Shadows contest have three days to take the up to 26 pictures on the camera roll. Then, a panel of professional photographers and artists and members of the DTES choose 36 winning pictures in a variety of categories that include, among others, best portrait, best urban landscape, best colour photo, and best black-and-white photo. The winners of the contest get cash prizes that range from $40 to $500.

Even if their photographs don't win a prize, participants get two copies of each of their photos.

El cariño

Every year, participants are given a theme to focus on. This year's is "What we value about our Downtown Eastside community."

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Chris Alaggia on what he values about his community. Photo by Carlos Tello.

Garvin Snider moved to the Downtown Eastside 10 years ago. Despite the cold, he walked around during the camera handout in shorts and a short sleeve t-shirt, greeting everyone in his way. He's not new to the contest, participating in every edition with a total of five award-winning pictures over the years.

The contest "helps change the stereotypes that are prevalent outside the community," he said. "It [also] helps [us] to view ourselves from a different perspective," Snider said.

For Carolyn Wong, the project co-ordinator for the last five years, Hope in Shadows has been a way to learn firsthand about the importance of the sense of community for residents. Last week, during a special handout for members of the Latin American community of the DTES, Wong asked the participants what they value about their neighbourhood. She got an answer that resonated in her mind: they valued el cariño. 

There's no English word for cariño. In Spanish, it's used to describe filial affection; the kind of love a mother feels for her child.

"That's an aspect of the community that someone might not necessarily think of immediately when they think about the Downtown Eastside," she said.

Art, business, community

The winning photos will comprise next year's Hope in Shadows calendar. When it comes out in October, vendors from the DTES community purchase it for $10 and then resell it for twice the prize. The $10 profit is theirs to keep.

For Snider, the calendar is an integral part of the project. He is proud to have been featured twice in previous editions.

"[Through Hope in Shadows], I'm able to tell people that I'm not only I'm a published photographer, but I'm a successful businessperson," he said.

He claims that last year there were 235 vendors trained and they managed to sell 15,300 calendars. Just five years ago, he recalls, there were 25 vendors out selling.

Sarah Nattrass is a psychology student specializing in community bonding. This year, she volunteered for the first time to help during the block party and was stationed at the photography tips booth.

With a big smile on her face, she handed out tip sheets and greeted participants throughout the morning. For Nattrass, interested in photography herself, the event was an opportunity to combine two of her passions.

Before the end of the day, she was already thinking about how to expand it across the country.

"I would love to find a way to kind of continue [with] projects like this throughout the year," she said. "I think it's really important for people to be able to share parts of their lives, to celebrate [their] community."  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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