Hope in Shadows is a community photography project for low-income residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Since 2003, the Hope in Shadows photographers have had their work published in a calendar. The project has gone on to inspire similar project in other cities, such as Café Art’s My London calendar.
This year, local street paper Megaphone took over publishing the calendar. In this guest column Jessica Hannon describes the launch of the 2015 special edition, which was a time for joy – and sadness as she found out on stage that Alkina, pictured below in a photo from the calendar, had just passed away. It was a sobering reminder that the people that this project celebrates too frequently die too soon.
Guest column by Jessica Hannon, Operations Manager for Megaphone
This year’s calendar is the first under the Megaphone banner, and the first time we’ve ever paused to reflect. The calendar is a Special Edition – a retrospective looking back at 12 years of the project’s beautiful photos. The launch was a joyful day – a chance to celebrate the community that exists here in the Downtown Eastside; the strength, the beauty, the immense talent. But this time, it felt heavy, too.
It was a reminder of the importance of telling each other that we matter, that we have something to contribute, that we can feel proud. A reminder that much of the strength and beauty in communities impacted by poverty is borne of hardship. That low-income residents of the Downtown Eastside are joyful, are talented, are resilient, all in the face of struggle.
This reminder came hard when, in the middle of the award ceremony, while announcing the photo featured in July of the 2016 calendar ‘Alkina at the Pow-wow’ by Steven Mayes, we received some heart-breaking news.
As a friend commemorated Steven, who passed away a year ago, and talked about how proud Steven was for being featured in Hope in Shadows, a volunteer came onstage to tell me that she had just received news that Alkina (who also went by Sharon) Johnston, featured in the photo, had also passed away very recently.
Getting that news on stage, I felt like the bottom of my stomach had dropped out. You could hear chairs scrape and people shifting in their seats in the silence that followed as I searched for words.
Alkina, and the many like her whose lives are unjustly cut short by poverty, deserves to be celebrated for the bright spirit she was.
I last spoke with Alkina only a few weeks ago. When we talked then she told me that she was always camera shy, but that this photo of her made her feel strong, and beautiful. “At the time I was pretty mixed up, I was heavy into drugs and [the photo] led to me doing a lot of thinking. People say oh, what a beautiful picture, and I didn’t see myself as that,” she said.
In front of the Jerry Whitehead mural where she posed, she felt proud of her Cree culture, a culture she was disconnected from as a youth growing up in foster care in Manitoba.
I can’t say I knew Alkina well – the beautiful portrait of her was taken in 2009, and I only met her this summer. But her spirit had an impact on me – her kindness and generosity was infectious.
When we told Alkina that her photo had made it into this special calendar, she skipped down the halls of her building with the winning photograph in hand, laughing and singing as she gleefully told everyone she passed that she was going to be in the Hope in Shadows calendar.
Alkina said she hoped people who see the photo “don’t stereotype people,” and see that “we’re all trying to attain something, we want to raise our kids the best we can, we want to be at peace with one another.”
Hearing the news of Alkina’s passing filled me with sorrow, and with anger. Anger that the beauty and the strength of this community comes with such a sense of fragility. That a celebration of so many beautiful photos of vibrant, complex, talented people must also count the lives that have ended too soon. That the systemic impacts of injustice, racism, colonization, and trauma play out this way.
But I know too that these stories deserve to be told. That we all deserve to be seen, and to be offered the opportunity to find connection, to find opportunity, to find meaning. That we want to be at peace with one another.
And that Alkina, and the many like her whose lives are unjustly cut short by poverty, deserves to be celebrated for the bright spirit she was.
I am honoured to share this piece of living history with you. It is a history of individuals, of the community they create, and of a spirit of resilience and resistance.
In the 2016 Hope in Shadows calendar, you’ll see favourite photos from years past, as well as never-before-published images from the archives. I want to offer my sincere congratulations to Jennifer Brown, whose photo graces this year’s cover, and to all the winning photographers. We are proud to celebrate the community that exists here in the Downtown Eastside, and to amplify the vital stories of people experiencing poverty through words and photos.
More than 70 trained vendors have already hit the streets with the new calendar, changing stereotypes about poverty and changing their lives in the process. You can use Megaphone’s Vendor Finder App to find a vendor and buy a calendar and magazine. Help us honour these stories.
Thank you for all of your support for this project. Thank you for extending compassion and a hand up to those who need it.