Samantha Boss-Chevelday will never look at the Downtown Eastside the same way after taking a small photography course run by the Union Gospel Mission.
She’s come a long way since her first weeks of class when she hid behind peers and took photos quietly while absorbing the curriculum. The course was a seven- week journey Union Gospel staff and volunteers filmed and turned into the first documentary of the mission’s history.
Five participants in this year’s Photo 101 course tell their stories in the film titled, Reflected Light: Exploring Photo 101 on the Downtown Eastside.
The film chronicles the unpredictability of the creative process while participants examine their relationship with the neighbourhood, often better known for its homelessness, poverty and crime than sense of community. The public will be able to view the film Oct. 15 during Homeless Action Week at SFU Woodward’s, 149 West Hastings St.
Before the course, Boss-Chevelday walked the Downtown Eastside without a second glance at the architecture or notice of mundane objects around the city.
“For me, I see something totally different within that,” she says referring to stop signs. “It could symbolize a lot of different things instead of the word stop. . . It gave a whole new perspective on what’s out there.”
She described one memorable excursion out of five the class took during the program. Having lived in Gastown, she unexpectedly felt like a “tourist” in her community after rediscovering the winding red brick sidewalks, the lights and steam clock through a lens.
Besides the photography skills she developed, Boss-Chevelday hinted on “buried skills” she gained, such as the confidence and self-awareness the program taught her after going through a rough patch in her personal life.
Classmate Cory Lemieux echoed similar sentiments of being more attuned to his environment. Having studied people’s faces for portraits, he noticed their expressions change with the change in season. The course also provided lighter moments for Lemieux, who laughed thinking back to their reactions when they saw their developed photos the next week.
Stories like Boss-Chevelday’s are not new to instructor Andrew Taran who’s seen students come and go for the past three years. He mentions student Liam Leishman who returns to the program every year.
“It’s the thing that keeps [Leishman] sober. One of the things that helps him to be on track.”
Leishman’s artistic career is far from the life he lived as an alcoholic for 40 years. As a child, he thought his desire to be an artist was far-fetched, but the accessibility of Photo 101 ignited Leishman’s artistic passion. He points to a camera case strapped to his belt to show his determination to excel as an artist.
“Before I would wake up [and] get drunk, go to work, come home, pass out,” says Leishman, a graduate of Union Gospel’s drug and alcohol recovery program. “When you get sober and you take the alcohol out of your life, then there’s pretty much nothing. There’s a big hole in your life.
But when you fill it with something like this, if it’s something that you’re passionate about, it is the most beautiful thing in the world… Why would I want to drink now? Never. I would not want to throw this away.”
The idea for the film was born out of suggestions from some community members last year after Union Gospel held walking tours around the Downtown Eastside to introduce its history, architecture and landmarks. J. Stewart, manager of community engagement for the mission, says members wanted to tell their own stories instead.
The screening is part of Union Gospel’s goals to highlight issues around homelessness during Homeless Action Week. The documentary will be available online Nov. 22.