Vancouver. "Beautiful British Columbia," or so our license plate says, has it all. The home of mountains, the gateway to the Pacific and the soon to be host of the 2010 Olympic games. Vancouver was recently voted the World's most livable City. High praise indeed considering Vancouver's downtown eastside (the crux of which is located at the intersection of Main street and Hastings street) is also known by locals as "Pain and Wastings". The eastside is the proverbial thorn in the side of most Vancouver politicians. City officials should be the first to tell you that little if anything has been done to help the world's most livable city's eastside residents, whether the area residents actually have a residential address or not. Some organizations and private groups however are in fact prepared to help.
A few years ago while walking through Vancouver's central library I read a call for contributors for a weekly newspaper called The Street. The Street was a paper produced by volunteers and sold around Vancouver by the people whom the paper was created to help - the homeless. In addition to writers and illustrators the paper required photographers. I contacted the editor and he convinced me to provide a him with a CD of images. Within a few weeks The Street was running some of my photos. My job here was done, or so I thought.
Full with a sense of self importance and armed with a vehicle to display my work, I started to stray away from the point of the publication. I thought that the poverty stricken eastside should only be portrayed as a raw urban ghetto, which was a misinterpretation of the what the editors wanted. Soon, I noticed that my photos weren't finding their way to the pages each week. I also noticed that the few photos that did make the cut were photos of beautiful subject matter, or photographs that presented their subjects in a positive light. It was around this time that I decided to put the gritty and often bleak black and white photos on the shelf and focus instead on colour. Although it may seem a bit hackneyed and derivative I set out to find the beauty of the downtown eastside.
The eastside contains most of Vancouver's precious little, older architecture. In an effort to gentrify the surrounding area and perhaps taking a page out Castro's book, many of the buildings have been painted bright happy colours. This neighborhood provides an oasis from the glass monstrosities that dot the Vancouver skyline. Finding interesting things to shoot isn't hard, but being concerned about some of the area drug dealers and drug addicts can be.
I was recently asked how the people in the neighborhood reacted to my
presence and I must say that over the last few years I've encountered almost no problems. People have been more than happy to tell a story or offer advice as to where one should shoot. As I started to become more familiar with residents I though that perhaps I should stray from photographing people. I thought that always photographing people was becoming somewhat exploitative, and that instead I should focus on abstract photography. For lack of a better term, I set out to make painterly prints. I decided to approach this without the help of a digital camera, sticking instead with film and staying away from Photoshop.
This year some of my photos were used by a photographic society in Dublin, Ireland. Many of the shots I had used in The Street newspaper were displayed by this Irish photo group. The name of their show was "The Urban Experience". I was pleased that they would choose to use my colourful shots in a show dedicated to sober realism. Maybe there was a place for my work and perhaps urban photography doesn't always have to be harsh and miserable.
I like when people comment on my photos as being happy, colourful if not a bit gaudy. I like it even more when people ask where I took the photos. A famous Vancouver photographer once said to me that you should shoot your own backyard. Why go off traveling all over the place when you've got beautiful subject matter on every street corner? On every street corner. Truer words have never been spoken.
Byron Barrett was born in Birmingham, England and raised in Vancouver's Westend. A self taught photographer, he chooses to leave much of his work untouched and presented as it was originally produced.
Byron's work has appeared in such diverse publications as Petersen's PHOTOgraphic magzine, Toronto's Kiss Machine and Vancouver's own Ripe Magazine. His photos often focus on confinement, and much of his work examines how our environment subtly coerces us into fixed patterns of behaviour.