Heroines Essay


Lincoln Clarkes, Photography, and the
Women of Downtown Eastside Vancouver

By Paul Ugor

Published by Simon Fraser University,
West Coast Line 53, 2007.

. . .

Within a five-year period, beginning in 1996, Lincoln
Clarkes shot four hundred different photographs of
women with drug addictions in Vancouver’s Downtown
Eastside. The project began when Clarkes took
a picture of his long-time friend, Leah, “shootingup”
against the backdrop of a Calvin Klein billboard
starring Kate Moss in the autumn of that year.¹
Soon after, Clarkes began taking photographs of
many of the neighborhood’s women; when asked
why he concentrated only on women, he responded:
“I approach it like Titanic going down: women and
children first. I don’t have enough life boats.”(Smith
18) In 1998, Clarkes organized a solo exhibition at
the Helen Pitt Gallery with about forty different pictures
he had taken of the women, which he tagged
Photographs. In 1999, he held another exhibition,
this time with a hundred of the photographs, which
he retagged Heroines. These photographs were later
to become a publication by Anvil Press of the same
title in 2002.² The Heroines photo project has now
won a number of awards both locally and internationally.
But as Clarkes went about photographing
his heroin-addicted models, they were also missing
in very strange circumstances. Today, about sixtynine
(maybe more) women are suspected missing
from that neighborhood, five of whom were actually
photographed by Clarkes.³ Taken together, the
Heroines project is what a Los Angeles Times staff
writer described as “photographs that speak about
obsession—a young woman’s fatal fixation with
drugs, a photographer’s addiction to capturing her
crumbling beauty, and a predator’s sick need to take
her life.”(Glionna 08)
Debates about the exploitation of the female
subjects of Clarkes’ photos centre around the women’s
consent to their images being taken, the amount paid
to them, their awareness of the extent of the circulation
of the images, and the general social value of
the project. If they do understand the terms of their
consent, as some of the women insist, then questions
still arise about who owns the images thereafter.
Who controls what they are used for and how far the
images go? Though it may seem quite infantalizing
to imagine naivety on the part of these women, critics
argue that we may never foreclose possibilities of
exploitation with subjects living in such dire circumstances
at the very margins of society. For instance,
Clarkes offers his clients just five-dollars, cigarettes,
biscuits, and other incidentals for a pose. Although
in the short run this may have offered much-needed
sustenance to the women from the Downtown Eastside,
it obviously would have been an unthinkably
ridiculous offer to any average model in the fashion/
modeling circuits anywhere in the world.
But beyond this straightforward critique of
Clarkes’ pictures, there are other troubling social
issues that the Heroines project inflects. For instance,
institutionally, authorities represent the Downtown
Eastside of Vancouver and its inhabitants as a social
space where crime, addiction, and poverty are “constructed
as choices; as the results of personal will,
rather than as faults in the social system.” (Warner-
Marien xiv) It is this kind of institutional rhetoric
about the Downtown Eastside, a rhetoric that ignores
the foundational historical and social dynamics that
underlie the lives of Clarkes’ subjects that Heroines
challenges and re-clarifies. Caroline Knowles and
Paul Sweetman argue that “visual data connect and
refract, capturing the specificity of social processes
and phenomena, and thereby illustrating the general
in the particular while also offering a particular
means of illuminating and exploring the relationship
between the two.” (13) The images in Clarkes’ photos
may only narrativize isolated cases of individual
struggles, but in reality they also unmask the crass
indifference and very deep institutional decay that
have long been taken for granted in the Canadian
social imaginary.
So it is precisely in embodying the untold and
intangible aspects of the lives of the women of the
Downtown Eastside that the photographs of Lincoln
Clarkes become a tool for a new social engagement.
The Heroines project becomes what Howard Becker
calls “photographs as evidence” (193)—of social
injustice in a social reform campaign. Visual representations
such as Clarkes’ transmute from innocuous
entertainment pieces to lethal political weapons
wielded for a social debate or argument. Thus, pictures
begin to serve as quotations legitimizing arguments
and social positions. In this social agenda of
visual representation, images shed their creative
essence to assume a utilitarian value, invoking and
re-inscribing certain discarded and forgotten social
problems onto the public map. In fact, photographs
in this new discursive framework begin to function
as testimonials of cultural experiences of struggle,
pain, sorrow, and deprivation.
The human body and the scars it bears, especially
as taken up by photographs, convert to new
kinds of writing: a tableau vivant of un-witnessed
experiences in social history. But in the case of the
Heroines photo-essay, it is an inscription that bears
testimony to the inequity in power relations between
the women of Downtown Eastside Vancouver and the
larger Canadian society. By capturing the bodies of
his subjects, Clarkes unravels for us a novel kind of
literature through which we can read the struggles
of these often overlooked women who live at the
very periphery of our society, and whose lives do not
count, especially in the larger scheme of things that
matter to the state and its tiny class of privileged
citizens in this so-called moment of “late capitalism.”
Through Clarkes’ pictures, he “names” the suffering
of the women of the Downtown Eastside for a complacent
public and an indifferent state. As a form of
popular urban art expression, Heroines refers us to
the “concerns, experiences and struggles” of common
people. (Barber 1997) Radically innovative, Heroines
“names,” in graphic details, the day to day struggles,
pain, troubles, challenges, and risks of the women of
the Downtown Eastside. It catalogues their struggle
against institutional/government torture (see
picture 14 in the collection of photos published by
Anvil Press); an abandoned and unhealthy environment
(Pictures 8, 9 & 35); against the harshness of
nature such as weather and climate (Picture 38); illhealth
(Pictures 42 & 49); emotional pain (Picture
81); loneliness, solitude, and abandonment (Picture
26); subsistence (Picture 95) and above all drugs (Pictures
4 & 23). Clarkes argues he is “documenting [the
women’s] spirit, their strength, their agony” (Smith
18). But he does this precisely through a stark and
uncomplicated art devoid of the refinedness that is
usually associated with genteel cultural forms, which
the elite class is used to consuming.
Expectedly, Clarkes turns his camera gaze to
the women’s bodies as the site of that discourse in
order to show how the larger forces of society play
out their influences on defenseless individual body
polities. As visual testimonies, or evidence of endured
pain and torture, the women’s bodies name their suffering
eloquently. The pictures tell of bodily harm
such as facial wounds (Picture104), broken arms
(Picture59), fractured feet (Picture 49), frail bodies
(Picture 82), diseased skin (Picture 99), and so forth.
In their realness, not in terms of exactitude, but in
terms of their rawness, Clarkes’ pictures spill raw
truth to viewers of a national public unwilling to
deal with the realities of its mistakes and administrative
blunders. Through these images, Vancouver
is, according to one reviewer “discovering its entire
body politic, the unacknowledged parts of its anatomy—
vulgar and dangerous—that polite discussion
always avoids.” (Koepke 01)
The portraiture of the seedy environment of the
Downtown Eastside is also another form of “naming
suffering” for the purposes of social justice and
reform. Nurturing and maintaining a decent and
safe living environment for every citizen of every
nation is one of the most elementary responsibilities
of constituted authorities the world over. Clarkes’
pictures of a dingy habitation for the women of the
Downtown Eastside shed a significant sidelight on
how government abdicates its responsibility to the
very people it has sworn to serve and protect. By
depicting the women’s environment, Clarkes redefines
that social space; from Vancouver’s Downtown
Eastside as a site of moral decay and social insecurity
to a sphere of social struggle; from a threatening
social space deserving institutional surveillance to
a place worthy and deserving of government attention,
care, and public sympathy. Space as a narrative
object, then, is redefined, re-imaged, reconfigured,
and hence made apparent as in need of rehabilitation.
The environment against which Clarkes cast
his subjects is a narrative of untold and endured
hardship of a class of people haunted by the sins and
crimes of a bygone history. The pictures are visual
narratives of the ongoing, sometimes seemingly
permanent victimhood of the women. The landscape
tells of an apathetic government, indifferent public,
prolonged environmental health threats, and a vulnerable
social safety net.
With regards to the accusations levelled against
Clarkes’ project as a glamourization of drug addiction,
I propose to attempt a defense—which is not to
suggest that there are no merits to such criticisms,
but that there is a flip side to the argument, which
has seldom been broached. The history of photography
as an art, for instance, points to the fact that
traditionally, photographs, and in particular glamourous
public portraiture such as modeling, have
been the exclusive privilege of the aristocratic class.
As a professional photographer practicing in Paris
and London, Lincoln Clarkes has shot prominent
models and other media celebrities, who may themselves
have been addicted to drugs (not unlike the
women of the Downtown Eastside). The picture of
Leah shooting against the Kate Moss billboard, for
instance, is a subtle commentary on the paradoxical
and ironic realities surrounding glamour, drug addiction,
and prostitution. Many models are known to
abuse drugs, maintain a plethora of sexual relationships,
and even cause disturbances or spectacles in
public. The many gossip columns of glossy celebrity
magazines and TV shows in North America attest to
this fact.4 But because such social misconduct radiates
from supposedly respectable upper-class quarters,
these women are seldom derided in the same
manner that the lives of the Downtown Eastside
women are. When the misconducts of these upperclass
celebrities are given any attention, they are
often construed as the usual fare that accompanies
success in the field of culture in North America. It
appears to me then that Clarkes’ apparent fault is to
have made those from the very lowest wrung of the
social strata taste that which is exclusively reserved
only for an elite class. According to John Glionna,
“Clarkes wanted to depict more than the women’s
troubles; he wanted to show their radiance,” (03) So
is Clarkes’ crime as an artist to have emitted “radiance”
from supposedly “dark quarters”?
By paying attention to the physical bodies of
the Downtown Eastside women and the deplorable
environment around them, Clarkes provides us with
alternative angles and binoculars from which to see
and comprehend how power relations are textualized
on the bodies and geographical space of these
marginalized women. The dents we see in the physical
bodies and social spaces of the pictures point to
distortions in the larger scheme of things in a society
that prides itself, and indeed is praised from outside,
for social welfarism and social equity. According to
Glionna, “[Clarkes’] images unsettled many people
in a country that prides itself on its polite order and
a tightly woven social safety net.” (02) The pictures
are a new form of calligraphy inscribing a version of a
nation’s sordid social history largely unknown to the
world and unacknowledged by constituted authorities.
As a form of popular culture, Clarkes’ pictures are
poignant social records of the experience of ordinary
people amongst us, and the myriad of social forces
that shape their difficult social existence.
. . .


  1. This photograph first appeared at the Saints and Sinners 50/50 Benefit Show on Hastings Street and was handtitled Leah on Heroin.
  2. They were also hosted on a web gallery, downtowneastside.com. This website, initiated and funded by geologist Bob Basil (one of Clarkes’ patrons), was later to be dismantled because of mounting public controversy.
  3. See http://www.missingpeople.net
  4. A number of cases come to mind here. The sensationall erotic public showings of Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, the now late Anna Nicole, and a host of other countless “Hollywood baddies” are all public displays which are conceptualized very differently by the North American public than those of the women of the Downtown Eastside.


I acknowledge the contributions of Amber Dean, Keith Solomon, and Lielie Cheng to the formation of some of the ideas in this review. Their inputs in the English 679 graduate seminar with Professor Daphne Read in the fall of 2004 at the University of Alberta were useful in the construction of an earlier version of this essay. I also thank Dr. Pauline Wakeham for reading and suggesting new approaches to my arguments.

Works Cited

Barber, Karin. Readings in African Popular Culture.
Bloomington/Indianapolis: James Currey, 1997.
Becker, Howard (Ed). Exploring Society Photographically.
Evanston, Illinois: Mary and Leigh
Block Gallery, Northwestern Uniersity, 1981.
Clarkes, Lincoln. Heroines. Vancouver, Canada: Anvil Press, 2002.
Glionna, John. “Light and Darkness in Canada.”
Los Angeles Times. June 1, 2003. Online: http://www.latimes.com.
Hodgson, Barbara. “Forward.” Heroines. Vancouver, Canada: 2002.
Koepke, Melora. “Corpus Delicti.” Vancouver Eastside
Missing Women: not forgotten. March 8th, 2004. Online: http://www.missingpeople.net
Knowles, Caroline and Paul Sweetman. “Introduction.”
Picturing the Social Landscape: Visual Methods and the Sociological Imagination.
Caroline Knowles and Paul Sweetman. London& New York: Routledge, 2004.
Smith, Janet. “ Education or Exploitation.” Georgia Straight. March 1-8, 2001.
Warner Marien, Mary. Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History, 1839–1900.
Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1997.