CanLit Rewind: Heroines, photography by Lincoln Clarkes

October 27, 2015

Lincoln Clarkes is a photographer celebrated around the world for his various series of work, from celebrity portraits to psychedelic shots of the Burning Man Festival. However, it is probably his Heroines series for which he has become most renowned. Clarkes first exhibited this series of photographs taken of addicted women who live in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 1998. While the images provided a glimpse into the world of drug dependency, prostitution, and poverty that these women inhabit, they also, more importantly, represent the pride, dignity, and beauty of his subjects.

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This year marks forty years of supporting and celebrating some of Canada's finest literary presses for our parent organization, the Literary Press Group of Canada. To help celebrate, for the entire month of October All Lit Up will be highlighting books from our publishers that either helped launch a new voice in CanLit or made an impact at the press it was published with. Go on a CanLit Rewind with us to rediscover some backlist gems!

 

Lincoln Clarkes is a photographer celebrated around the world for his various series of work, from celebrity portraits to psychedelic shots of the Burning Man Festival. However, it is probably his Heroines series for which he has become most renowned. Clarkes first exhibited this series of photographs taken of addicted women who live in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 1998. While the images provided a glimpse into the world of drug dependency, prostitution, and poverty that these women inhabit, they also, more importantly, represent the pride, dignity, and beauty of his subjects.

Anvil Press collected the over 400 photographs that made up the Heroines series and published it as a collection with a foreword by Barbara Hodgson in 2002. The book was reviewed and received attention around the world, winning the 2003 City of Vancouver Book Award, and Peace Arch Entertainment produced a one-hour documentary film, 'Heroines: A Photographic Obsession', for BRAVO! and Women's Television Network. Publisher Brian Kaufman looks back at publishing this important collection.

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Heroines, Lincoln Clarkes’ photographic documentary of the addicted and marginalized women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, garnered national and international media attention when it came out, and it still is; both Vice and Huffington Post have run stories on the photos in the past couple of years. Part of Anvil's mandate is to focus on social issues and marginalized people that are often ignored by the larger media. This was certainly a case in point.

When the stories of missing women from the Downtown Eastside began to surface, Lincoln was one of the only artists documenting the plight of the women in the neighbourhood whose socio-economic situation put their lives in danger. Of the project, Clarke has said, "I’m forcing people to look at these women… to look into their eyes, to really see them: a woman, a child that’s grown up.” The series “humanizes the statistics." I believe, in hindsight, Lincoln's Heroines Project will stand as an essential document about a very dark period in Vancouver's recent history.

When the book came out, Anvil had published other important books that focused on the Downtown Eastside, such as The Door is Open, but this particular book and its images really struck a chord that rippled to a wide audience; the book, the women, and the place were noticed. The London Observer in the United Kingdom said the photographs portrayed  “beauty in a beastly place,” and LA Times magazine claimed they were “images [that] unsettled many people in a country that prides itself on its polite order and tightly woven social safety net.”

Heroines and its publication was part of an evolution of defining Anvil's mandate. Anvil is known for publishing books that examine darker, sometimes uncomfortable aspects of our culture via fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and drama, often in an urban context. Heroines became a landmark title for Anvil, setting a tone for numerous books that followed, such as A Room in the City, Gabor Gasztonyi's photo essay on five SROs (single-room occupancy) hotels in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and Signs of the Times, poetry by Bud Osborn and prints by Strathcona artist Richard Tetrault.

 

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Given its subject matter, I'm not sure that Heroines will sit in the CanLit canon in the same way as other titles. Its focus is really the photos, and the accompanying essays really address the urgent issues of addiction, violence against women, and a lack of social and affordable housing in a city that claims to be one of the most liveable cities in the world. So while Heroines may not be what most would consider typical "Canadian Literature" it is an essential book for the canon of Canadian books that focus on urgent social issues in our own back yard. Since the issues raised in the book continue today, Heroines is just as relevant as it was when originally published.

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We're in the home stretch of our CanLit Rewind series; get caught up here.

 


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