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Light and Darkness in Canada

Photographer Lincoln Clarkes Found Beauty in Vancouver's Female Drug Addicts. He Didn't Know He Was Also Documenting Murder.

June 01, 2003|John M. Glionna | John M. Glionna is The Times' San Francisco bureau chief.

Patricia Rose Johnson was the original heroine. She came stumbling out of a doper's alley behind a Vancouver pawnshop, looking in her brazen, self-destructive beauty like a young Courtney Love. Johnson was "tweaking," a street term for a symptom of cocaine psychosis, picking at the pavement for unused bits of rock cocaine.

Lincoln Clarkes is a portrait photographer who sees grace in the most unlikely places, in the living and in the dying. Wandering the city's derelict Downtown Eastside, documenting its deteriorating but still gorgeous turn-of-the-century architecture, he had often run across the prostitutes, addicts and grifters who populate the old skid row neighborhood. He'd say hello, hand out change.

But on a July afternoon in 1997, Patricia Johnson stopped him in his tracks. Barely 20, she clung to a childlike innocence coarsened by drugs and bad choices. Clarkes gave her a cigarette and they talked about heroin and addiction. Then he asked to take her picture. She was flattered.

She took him to a room in the Evergreen Hotel, a vile flophouse where addicts shoot up in the hallways, and he waited while she and two friends primped like cheerleaders--fixing their hair, putting on lipstick, straightening their skirts and shorts. He posed them on the steps outside. A hoodlum cleaning his fingernails with a syringe cursed at them and told them to leave. They ignored him. Clarkes looked down into the Rolleiflex studio camera he held against his chest.

Click. Click. Click. Click.

That evening, as he developed prints in a tiny bathroom that doubles as a home-office darkroom, Clarkes was astonished by what he had captured--the women's haunted look, their bruised but trusting gaze. They seemed to peer right through his camera. Of the four shots, there was one he couldn't get out of his mind. "It changed my life," he says. "Here were three heroin-sick women looking right into my eyes. I wept when I saw that photo."

That picture was the beginning. It pulled Clarkes into a bewildering five-year project that documented the drug-addicted women of the Downtown Eastside. In all, he produced more then 400 black-and-white portraits of women so enthralled by heroin and rock cocaine that they endured daily doses of violence and life on streets where the AIDS transmission rate is among the highest in the industrialized world. The portraits became the subject of a 2001 television documentary and last year were published as a book.

Clarkes called the series "Heroines." The word spoke not only to the women's addictions but to their role as the principal characters in his unfolding narrative. The project brought Clarkes more notoriety than money, and at times played with his sanity. "I just took the most beautiful picture of a dying woman," he would tell friends.

His images unsettled many people in a country that prides itself on its polite order and a tightly woven social safety net. Here, in the middle of one of Canada's most beautiful cities, stood the nation's poorest neighborhood and North America's largest open-air drug market, according to health officials. But instead of thanking Clarkes for exposing the conditions, his critics refused to look. They accused the photographer of voyeurism and exploitation. The cesspool remained.

Over time, Johnson became a regular presence in Clarkes' life. Blond and petite with a don't-mess-with-me edge, she would abandon her revolving-door hustle for heroin and sex to talk to him about her world: She had broken her boyfriend's heart, abandoning him and their two young children. She had embraced the drug instead of the family.

She also unwittingly bound Clarkes to the most horrific skein of murders in Canadian history. As Clarkes was documenting life in the Downtown Eastside, women he photographed began vanishing.

There's not much farther a person can fall than the downtown eastside, a neighborhood where addicts inject heroin and puff on crack pipes in full view of police. "My first instinct was to blow the place up," says Stevie Cameron, a Canadian crime writer researching a book there. "I once saw a young woman shooting heroin up her nostril."

The neighborhood is like a nugget of rock cocaine--a concentrated dose of despair. In 1997, HIV transmission rates among Downtown Eastside addicts soared to 25%, the highest in the Western world, according to the British Columbia health office. The following year, the neighborhood recorded 416 overdose deaths--more than one a day--the nation's highest rate. Particularly hard hit are Native Americans, known in Canadian parlance as "urban aboriginals." Representing 3% of the city's population, they account for more than half of its street prostitutes and have an AIDS rate that rivals sub-Saharan Africa, according to a recent study by a Vancouver-based AIDS research group.

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