Heroines Revisited: Photographs by Lincoln Clarkes

In late 2005, I relocated for the first time from my home province of Alberta. Where these photos were taken, notoriously reported as the “poorest postal code in Canada”, is just a few blocks from my first temporary apartment on Seymour Street, in the financial district of downtown Vancouver. A police presence was always close by, but I was oblivious as a tourist to what was going on a short walk away, or even down the hall from my unit. The neighbourhood then, approximately four to seven years since the photos were taken, was not that different from what is shown. Clothing styles, outer state of landmark buildings, street signage and posters here and there give a superficial sense of the era. To the present day, a few buildings that served as supporting characters for each image are no longer SROs (single room occupancy hotels) because they’ve been torn down for gentrification. In the sadness of our social media times, sometimes cluelessly bereft of cultural and historical sensitivities, you may likely find these same streets as the backdrops behind selfies or modern-day photo shoots in a soulless attempt to be “edgy”. 

I’ve now lived here for 17 years and have walked through many of the streets cited for various photos, on my way to a cafe, poetry reading, concert, or some other activity that involves a short stay. The postal code is still the poorest, and with the brutal combination of the opioid crisis, housing crisis, rise in racism, and virus pandemic, the area has sadly grown worse. It remains a tight community bonded by decades of struggle. The marginalized women of the DTES (downtown eastside of Vancouver) should still be considered heroines; every day is an oppressive battle and they have no other way to exist than on the front lines. Unfortunately, their unsolved kidnappings and deaths do not make headlines as they should.

“As I moved through this photo essay book, I paused for a few minutes with each woman, in deep consideration, something few of us do when walking outside near anyone in real life.”

Heroines Revisited is divided into two parts. The first part of the book is a pictorial of many women, mostly sex workers between the years 1998 and 2001 in the DTES. All were willing participants who wanted to be photographed, wanted to be “known” whilst remaining anonymous. Black and white photos help portray each woman as a brilliant badass reminiscent of 70s punk era photography. It pre-dated the trial of the convicted serial killer, Robert Pickton. Some of the pictures in Heroines were used as posters to help identify some of the murdered and missing. The second and “revisited” part is a collection of essays reflecting on the controversy of “Heroines” first published twenty years ago, at times amidst a more attitudinally puritanical Vancouver. 

As I moved through this photo essay book, I paused for a few minutes with each woman, in deep consideration, something few of us do when walking outside near anyone in real life. The first thing I did was stare back into her eyes if she happened to make eye contact with the camera. It was like a jarring power move, her open, intimate invitation as if she was personally daring me to delve deeper into the unreachable hell she was so accustomed to. I scanned her expression to determine the range of emotions she could be feeling in the moment, wondering what weighed heaviest on her mind while interacting with the photographer and assistant at the time. Some were caught in a rare moment of peace, others, upheaval. It’s hard to know how each person expresses inner turmoil. Women have been taught to suppress emotions, smile pretty for the camera, and present something palatable for polite company. However in each photo, whatever the circumstance may have been, the woman owned that page, sometimes two pages. The photoshoot may have taken a few minutes, but in that time, her story, her life, unfiltered, non-airbrushed, filled a frame completely with her essence. In part, that is the magic of good photography, but mostly I believe, the magic of a captivating subject. You don’t need to look closely to find beauty in their authenticity; it leaps off the page, throttles and threatens you to always remember. Where did they all go, if they are no longer breathing in this savage world?

For the people that loved her, whether she is missing, deceased, or transformed, these pages are a sensitive keepsake. As half the women photographed may be closely connected to, or are murdered and missing indigenous women, these pictures may be the sole glimpse into a family member or friend’s troubled time. How can the surroundings be so dire, yet every woman in that instance is utterly stunning? They are in terribly vulnerable places, yet invoke the persona of tough-as-nails heroine: Your sister riding a 10 speed, smoking a cigarette, clad in page boy at and a crop top. Your former high school friend at St. Paul’s hospital, perched in a confident, yogi pose upon her bed. The woman who’d become your mother, about to inject, focused on her syringe, but 13 pages later, impeccably put together, she is confidently staring right back at you. A tender Mother’s Day sisterhood collective. Perhaps their arrival at that destination in life was a shock. Maybe it was expected. It isn’t profound sadness or pain that I see in each frame, but the significance of these women in our society. They likely had no idea that their images in the finished product would comprise a collection of artful history. The pictures make us hunger for more details of each person’s personal history, but there are no crumbs to spare.

My recommendation for working through this photo essay book is to use a humanistic lens and sit with a few women each day, meditating on who they might have been. A bit of comforting laughter in some cases while the photos were being taken. Five minutes of ease. Five minutes of loving remembrance for a deserving stranger. I hope you can appreciate the loveliness of spirit in them as I did. I’ll admit that on a personal level, I did search for a girl I once went to school with who became a sex worker. She died in 2005, the year I moved west. I did see traces of her face on one page, but I’ll never know for certain. The accompanying essays are important in analyzing the initial controversy (including accusations of sensationalistic voyeurism, questions regarding consent), but I would place emphasis on staring back into the eyes of each model. Some may have realized their own beauty, worthiness, and they wanted you to know it, too.

Lincoln Clarkes is an award-winning photographer who was originally a painter before refocusing his efforts on fashion and portraiture while living in London and Paris. Portraits include Debbie Harry, Helmut Newton, Noam Chomsky, Patti Smith, Vivienne Westwood, Michael Moore, and Oliver Stone. Clarkes’ photographic works have been presented in numerous solo and group exhibitions at galleries and museums in Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, and Toronto. Several film and television documentaries and scholarly essays have explored his practice. Lincoln’s photographs have been featured in Vice, LA Times, The Guardian, The Observer, Saturday Night, and Cosmopolitan UK. He currently operates between Vancouver, Toronto, Detroit and London.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Anvil Press; 2 edition (Sept. 1 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 272 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1772140716
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1772140712

Mala Rai is a poet, drummer, psychology student, and technical writing hired gun on the West Coast. Her most recent poems have appeared in Eclectica Magazine, High Shelf Press, and Anti-Heroin Chic. You can follow her on Instagram @malaraipoetry