Reflections of Hope

👤Monty Bassett 🕔Oct 04, 2011

William Charlie carries his Canon Sure Shot everywhere with him. He isn’t exactly a seasoned photographer—he first picked up a camera just over two years ago—but can claim to be an award-winning one who’s exhibited at the Smithers Art Gallery.

“I took two this morning—two deers I seen this morning,” Charlie says, pulling the small point-and-shoot from the breast pocket where it lives inside his coat. Charlie, originally from Fort Babine, is just one of dozens of Positive Living North West (PLN) patrons that participate in the annual camera project, now in its third year. He won two years in a row for Best Landscape—last year for an image taken under the bridge in his hometown—and once for Best Overall.

Charlie is among 31 patrons who submitted photographs—shot on disposable cameras and returned to PLN’s drop-in centre—for this year’s camera project. The organization releases its third annual Reflections of Hope calendar this month.

At the moment, the community is busy choosing the winners, and 39 black-and-white finalists stare back at me from a four-by-eight piece of plywood: smiling, laughing faces from different cultural backgrounds—glimpses into the lives of community members who are often marginalized or overlooked. The result is a collage that more accurately reflects Smithers’ diversity.

“Oh, there’s no shortage of smiles,” says PLN on-site manager Melanie Monds, who hears participants talk about the competition all year long. “It’s something to look forward to, and even a sense of accomplishment. You get to call yourself an artist and see yourself in the gallery.”

The project was inspired by Pivot Legal Society’s ‘Hope in Shadows.’ The organization, which uses the law to address poverty and social exclusion, hands out 200 disposable cameras each year to residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The result is a photo competition, calendar, and the rare opportunity to see life from the perspective of the Lower Mainland’s most marginalized individuals.

The program was initiated in Smithers by Smithers Community Services Association in 2005, but only lasted one year. It was resurrected by PLN in 2009. Reflections of Hope is believed to be the only project of its kind outside the Lower Mainland.
Looking at community

“It’s a chance for people to engage in art, and people of lower income don’t necessarily have the opportunity to do so,” Melanie says. “It was also a chance to look at community.”

Melanie remembers the first time cameras came back and the quality of images that were developed: “It didn’t surprise me, but it made me realize—I can’t explain. It was awesome. It took me a long time to go through them,” she says with a grin. Through the exercise, she says she learned a lot about the people she interacts with through work. “I learned how much Lisa’s dogs mean to her because the whole roll of film was her dogs! I learned who likes people, who likes cars.”

This June, PLN handed out 47 cameras to its drop-in patrons, receiving 31 back a few weeks later—the most ever returned in the project’s three-year history. Also a testament to the program’s growing popularity is the increase in people pictures, in response to a request from PLN harm-reduction support worker Steve Monds.
“A lot of people commented on more people in the pictures and I said, yes, that’s totally a sign that they trust us,” Steve says. “It’s the third year and we’re overwhelmed with people pictures, because they trust us.”

The task of narrowing nearly 800 images down to 40 has been taken on the past couple years by Smithers-based photographer Virginia Pohl. She emphasizes the importance of choosing positive images that create empowerment rather than reinforcing stereotypes.

“For one thing, women need to be represented in a positive way, and symbolic messages or underlying meanings have to be looked for and weeded out if there’s anything even remotely discriminatory or negative,” she says.

Cards and calendars
The 40 finalist photos are tacked to plywood and taken to the Bulkley Valley Farmers’ Market, where the community votes for Best Portrait, Best Landscape, Best Artistic Expression and Best Overall. This year, when Steve arrived at the market at 8 a.m., competitor Leonard Joseph was already there, offering him a big thumbs-up.

“I think one of the things we look forward to is the cameras,” participant Laura Alex says, sitting in the PLN drop-in centre. Also exciting, she admits, is the healthy competition that comes with the project. “The other thing is finding out who’s going to win. ‘Who’s going to take the best picture this year?’ is what we all say.”

The four winners and eight other finalist photos are gathered into a calendar for sale in the community. In the fall, PLN will hold a gala lunch where awards will be presented to winners.

“It was all the participants that put the calendar together—100 percent,” says Melanie, who went on holidays last year and returned to discover the competitors had already chosen the calendar placements.

Started by a seed grant from the Bulkley Valley Community Arts Council, the project earns just enough to fund itself from calendar and greeting card sales. Wetzin’Kwa Community Forest and Bulkley Valley Credit Union fund the photo printing costs, which are discounted by Pharmasave, to exhibit the finalists at the Smithers Art Gallery. The canvases are mounted on wooden frames made by Steve and local carpenter Rob Goodine.

“It’s too much fun, eh, to try and sell enough calendars and cards so we can do it again,” Steve says.

By the end of September, the 2012 calendars will be printed and available at Mountain Eagle Books and local craft fairs leading up to the holidays. A set of four greeting cards is $10 and calendars are $15, but there is an option to contribute more, with the extra going toward reducing calendar costs for lower income people, allowing participants to purchase them for friends and family.

“How do I know we’ve succeeded? I know because it was the participants who were the first to see the show at the gallery. They all walked over once they were given directions,” Melanie says. “That’s how I measure success. In little things like that.”

2011 Reflections of Hope photography competition winners:

Best Overall: Robert Nicolas, of totem-pole carving at Northwest Community College
Best Landscape: Sylvestor Morris
Best Portrait: Barry Shanoss
Best Artistic Expression: Mary Beaubien