Reflecting on the Camera Handout
As the Hope in Shadows project coordinator my job is to organize logistics for the camera handout and do community outreach and engagement. I don’t do this alone. I have the help of my colleagues, pivot interns and more than 40 volunteers.
It’s now my fourth year working with the project and the camera handout is always a memorable and monumental event.
We distribute 200 official contest cameras. The majority of them are retrieved at a local art gallery where hopeful photographers begin gathering a couple hours before the contest starts. As more and more people arrive and wait for the doors to open they are served coffee and meet with volunteers to begin the sign-up process.
You see a lot of line-ups in the Downtown Eastside. People stand in long lines for food, shelter and clothing. In this particular line-up I overhear and join in on boisterous conversations and receive lots of hugs, smiles and well wishes. But I also sense that some people are fidgety and wonder if there is a way around making people stand in line, or to shorten the wait time. I bring this to our team meeting later in the day and we decide to do a needs’ assessment at the camera return to see how people receive the line up and if it poses any barriers.
When the gallery doors finally open the first group of photographers excitedly crowd in to the space. Paul, Hope in Shadows’ project director, addresses all of us. He speaks about how this contest is for the Downtown Eastside community to express its creativity and talent. “Go out there and show the rest of Vancouver the positive aspects of your community.”
Then he tells everyone about the different contest categories. He announces the award for best portrait, established last year in memory of Julie Rogers, and people shout out cheers. The memory of Julie, who had multiple winning portraits over many contest years, is very much alive and contest participants will tell you that she is a role model and that they dedicate the contest to her.
The first group of participants now sign for their cameras and are invited to return to a photography workshop later in the afternoon. The second group is invited in to do the same.
Besides the main camera handout we also distribute cameras at different organizations in the Downtown Eastside. The purpose in meeting with people at different spots in the neighborhood is to make the contest accessible. So for example, we host camera handouts at women serving organizations such as the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and WISH. In working with the groups some questions arise. What is the gender ratio of contest participants and do women in the community have equal access? These are fair questions and at Pivot’s campaign team meeting we decide to assess this issue and include it in the needs’ assessment.
I enjoy facilitating these small handouts. The more intimate settings are conducive to meeting people and there is time to talk about photography, to look at different photographic images and get creative ideas flowing. Many participants share their ideas and have a strong sense of what they plan to photograph. Others are less sure but interested in giving it a try. Sometimes people have pressing concerns which override the photo contest. They’re facing an eviction notice or have a serious health issue. I can see from their body language that their circumstances are difficult and I know the photo contest won’t change this, but it may provide a welcome diversion and outlet for creative expression.
The photo contest focuses on the strengths of this community – beauty, respect for one another, dignity. But this isn’t to deny that it is set against hardship. Both exist here.
When a reporter from the Georgia Straight asked me to respond to a statement made by a contestant who planned to document the hardship I bumbled out an answer. Later I thought about what I wished I’d said. I encourage this photographer to represent the community from his perspective. In the Hope in Shadows exhibition there are always some photographs that show hardship and struggle. They portray this in an authentic, creative and/or symbolic way. If it is a photo that shows the struggle of an individual it is done so respectfully and with the subject’s permission.
A professional photographer named Chris Cameron is one of this year’s judges and has helped with the camera handout for three years now. In an email to me before I went to distribute cameras at Oppenheimer Park he wrote, “… remind them [participants] that to hold the camera still is easy while you exhale deeply and that seeing really does come from your heart.”
You can see photos of the camera handout on flickr. Thank you Greg Masuda for documenting the handout and a big shout out to all the volunteers who helped out on the day.