Photography Ethics on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside


I’m working on a cool photography project for Vancouver’s Lookout Shelters with Buschlen Mowatt Gallery and Joshua Dunford and have been thinking a lot about the ethics of photography on Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

The paragraph below is a first draft at some thoughts that I may include in the project. Looking for perspectives and feedback on photography in difficult situations such as the one in my neighborhood.


What people need to understand about Downtown Eastside is that there is a long and sordid history to this part of Vancouver. When you make a photographic history of the place, you cannot lose sight of this fact, you need to be aware and you must be respectful of it. Jeff Wall’s oeuvre is preeminent in describing Downtown Eastside. His contributions have established themselves as key components of Vancouver’s contemporary, critical art lineage but by extension, have emphasized the dilapidation of the place.


There are only three ways of capturing the essential characteristics of Downtown Eastside on film. You can ask permission from residents explicitly, refrain from photographing them at all, or you can encourage their engagement implicitly, by way of the establishment of an affiliation that is both personable and considerate. Ultimately, the latter approach makes for a comfortable and mutually respectful atmosphere that will appropriately translate into photographs. When a resident refuses to be photographed however, the only ethical thing to do is to act in accordance with their wishes. People have stories to tell and they have histories that we want to see, but these will only be recounted when thoughtfulness and caring is shown them. When you want to document Downtown Eastside, all I say is – respect the area when you are there. Voyeuristic surveillance is not acceptable. I am not interested in that.

5 thoughts on “Photography Ethics on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside”

  1. Interesting quote and article kk. Thanks. I enjoy street photography but constantly struggle with my own ethical boundaries of invading people’s space and lives. Even if it is legal to photograph individuals on the street I still find I feel an inner struggle with it. Definitely photographing in the DTES is uncomfortable for me as I realize that the majority of the people living there have already been exploited so much in their lives. I personally feel a responsibility not to exploit their lives further. That being said there have been many photographers who have assisted people in that area with their photography. It’s a fine line I’m not sure how to walk.

  2. I’m a pretty big advocate of the DTES, or rather I should say the mechanisms that allow for such a drastic decline in the wellbeing of neighbourhoods- but I’m not sure I get this article. Why does it need it’s own code of ethics? I mean, would the same apply to people in the financial district? Also I don’t really see Jeff Wall as being someone who shows the area as dilapidated, maybe’s he’s thinking of Arden, I don’t know. Some of the people don’t mid getting their picture taken and some people do, it’s the same anywhere. I rarely take photos of people down here but if they are apart of the landscape that is hardly exploitive. I suppose the closest you’d get is something like Lincoln Clarke’s Heroines.

    It also begs the question, what about the Pivot Legal Hope in the Shadows photo project. I mean where does exploitation begin and end? Say I’m on Welfare, does that make it ok to photograph people who are also on welfare? Did the expressionists exploit the women they painted because they were prostitutes? (not that all of them were) I’m sorry but I’ve had people yell at me just for having a camera down there. I’ve had people come up to me and say that “this is their alley” and I usually respond that it’s also mine. There is a lot of hostility because, well let’s face it, a lot of the time they are doing something illegal.

    Where does exploitation become exposure? The area has rocketed into our collective conscience precisely because of images that shock or remind us.

  3. Yeah, I agree with Sean, especially his last statement: “The area has rocketed into our collective conscience precisely because of images that shock or remind us.”

    As a photographer, I know you’re only getting a part of the story when you photograph just the willing.

  4. Right on Sean! I can’t say I really “get” this article. So the people in the DTES are somehow entitled to a unique code of ethics that people in other city neighbourhoods are not? This is absurd.

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