Vancouver street youth photograph so-called ‘best place on earth’ for exhibit

A photograph shows a single dried rose on a white wall. The actual rose can be found in the Downtown Eastside bachelor suite Sarah West shares with her partner and father of her two children, who live with West’s parents.     

“[The rose] is just saying that our love is forever,” says White. “It's really hard to have relationships, especially when addiction, homelessness, and all these issues come up.”

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West, now 30, says she’s battled addiction since she was 19, and chose to photograph items around her apartment as part of a photo essay called “Undying Love.”

“That’s supposed to be my sanctuary, my nest, my safe zone,” she said. “Because once you step out your door, you never know what'll happen, especially living in Downtown East Side.”

Two of West’s photos will be on display as part of a new exhibit called Living in the Best Place on Earth. The photography show features photo essays from 14 street-involved youth in Vancouver and emerged from the ongoing At-Risk Youth Study, from the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use. 

Danya Fast, a co-lead investigator of the study, dreamed up the photography project in 2011 while she was working on her PhD in anthropology at UBC. “The focus was very broadly on sense of place, and then each individual developed their photo essay from there," she says.“Everybody did something so different.”

The photographs in the exhibit, which runs May 1 to 3, show a range of spaces. There’s a cityscape, a hospital bed and a chain-link fence, among others. 

While the name of the exhibit ironically riffs on an old tourism slogan for the province, Living in the Best Place on Earth, it’s also inspired by one of the exhibit’s photographers who died of an overdose about a year and a half ago, says Fast.

“[He] said, ‘Yeah, you know, Vancouver's the best place on earth. That's why we — why I — want to be here. Yes, I'm poor, and I'm dealing with homelessness and drug use, but I also want to be a part of this amazing city.’”

“There's a critique in there,” Fast says. “Is this the best place on earth? You know we're in the middle of an overdose crisis, and we have a lot of poverty and addiction, and a lot of stigma attached to those things… There's a questioning with that title, but also a genuine love of the city of Vancouver.”

Living in the Best Place on Earth runs May 1 to 3, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 434 Columbia St.
Admission is free.On May 2, 6 to 9 p.m., the exhibit hosts a discussion about current research at the At-Risk Youth Study (ARYS).


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