Interview with Lincoln Clarkes, December 1998

Originally published in Ellavon.

This August we published an online version of Lincoln Clarkes’ “Heroines” photo-gallery, consisting of the forty-one shots that had appeared in Vancouver’s Helen Pitt Gallery earlier in the summer. The Vancouver show, a subsequent gallery in Victoria, and the online publication of Lincoln’s photographs did not conclude his “Heroines” project. He is still collaborating with women on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on this remarkable series of portraits, which as of this writing number about 150.

On December 3, I interviewed Lincoln Clarkes by telephone. Some excerpts appear below.

— Bob Basil, December 7, 1998

Basil: You’ve continued with the series after your show. How come?

Lincoln Clarkes: I became absolutely addicted to photographing these women, whom I call heroines, and there were just so many of them, and they enjoyed being photographed so I just couldn’t stop. There were so many more women to photograph. As soon as one woman would die or enter detox, there would be half a dozen ready to fill her shoes. Many people have told me that my photos overwhelming and depressing. To me it would be even more depressing if these images weren’t produced. I am very enthusiastic when I go down to Hastings Street. There is a real collaboration between the heroines and myself. I tell them what I am doing and they get excited about it, this project, our body of work.

Basil: How do you approach them?

LC: I am always accompanied by an assistant, who is always a woman, so it is not just me saying, “Hey, I would like to photograph you.” The women might even assume we are a couple, so we are not so threatening. I tell them my deal — five dollars, five minutes, five photos — and I tell them my name, I tell them my assistant’s name, and then I ask them their name. I would say about 98% of the women I have approached have agreed to be photographed.

Basil: What kind of reputation do you have in the neighbourhood?

LC: They call me the picture guy. I walk down the street and the heroin dealers go, “Hey, Picture Guy, hey picture guy.” I just smile at them and say, “Hey, have you seen Cindy around?” They know me. I drive my truck or ride my bike through there all the time, say hello to everybody and ask people how they’re doing. It is a very sociable atmosphere down there.

Basil: It’s almost like an old-time neighbourhood — people out on the stoops, greeting their neighbours — only here the greetings are often followed by some sort of illicit commercial solicitation.

LC: That’s right. People don’t have cars in that neighbourhood, or homes really, or jobs, so everything is on the street, everybody is looking … for their ticket out of there, they are hoping that something will come along that will change their life. There’s the sound of ambulances, of people screaming, people crying. People being very friendly. They really don’t have anything down there … the clothes on their back, each other.

Basil: Some of the women in this second gallery of photographs look like they are starving to death.

LC: Every one of these gals is addicted to either heroin or cocaine, in a full blown capacity. The diet that these women eat is like cheesies and Pepsi, just the worst diet you could possibly imagine. They really are wilting away, malnourished. Sometimes they might buy a ninety-nine-cent slice of pizza or some twinkies.

*****

Basil: What would it take for you to *complete* the “Heroines” series? Is this something you are going to be involved in for the rest of your creative life?

LC: That’s a good question. I really don’t know. I am entering a whole new phase right now. I am going into hospitals to photograph them there and then going inside to other interiors. I am still devoted to documenting their lives, their environs…

Basil: There is a cumulative effect to your series of photographs. Your original show, for example, seems to me more astonishing and revealing now than it did when it was originally shown. It is like you are in front of a chorus that is getting larger, whose polyphony becomes more complex and bewildering.

LC: I originally thought that I was going to stop photographing after a dozen — “It will be a nice little series,” I thought. And then once I did a dozen, I said, “Well maybe I can stop at thirty, or fifty.” Once I got fifty done I was fully entrenched. And now it’s a hundred and fifty. There are so many women around there … I just have to photograph these women … their photos are so perfect, so beautiful, strong, heartwrenching, darling. I have photographed famous people, talented pop stars — *achievers* — for magazines, for the last fifteen years. Lately … doing this … these women … these women are salt of the earth gals … they really deserve great photographs. I just can’t put my camera down right now.

Basil: What comes through in your photographs is a terrific sense of liveliness and brains and attentiveness in these women, despite their addictions and their poor health.

LC: There isn’t a lot of fuss made about themselves when they give me permission to photograph them. Sure they fix their hair a little bit; but none of them have any makeup on, and of course there isn’t a makeup artist involved. The heroines are modest about their beauty. I suppose they know they are beautiful; I *tell* them; but there is something so deeply damaged in most of these women, their self-esteem is so low that they are just kicking themselves around the block.

*****

Basil: In this second series of photographs, there is one picture that always makes me blink, of that tall woman with the pronounced scar in between her eyes and tattoos covering her shoulders and collarbones. “This is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in a photograph,” I find myself saying. She and others in your photographs convey a commanding presence that I find endearing and poignant.

LC: I want these photographs to linger, to haunt people. That’s the only way these women are going to get what they deserve … if people are heartfelt about their condition.

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