PHOTO ESSAY: Vancouver Photojournalist Shoots Insite for the New York Times

A poignant reminder of the vulnerability of our community and the progressive initiative set up to support us.

Credit: Ed Ou for the New York Times

Ed Ou’s photography reveals, in the shadow of beauty, a community struggling to survive the infirmity and isolation of addiction on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside


If you click one link all day, let it be to this arresting photo essay by Vancouver-born photo-journalist Ed Ou about the Downtown Eastside safe injection site, Insite, on the New York Times website. [Ups to @cameronreed for pointing us to it.]


Accompanying a feature story about the facility and the Vancouver health authority’s approach to mitigating HIV and other by-products of addiction, Ou’s photographs bring a highly political issue down to the human level: a face straining from the sting of a needle; skin slack and yellow from malnutrition; sidewalks crowded with the anguished and disenfranchised.


Ed Ou photographs woman shooting up at Vancouver's Insite safe injection site

“It was a pretty hard story to do, being about drugs and drug users,” writes the photographer, who usually works abroad shooting the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union. “It challenged my view of this ideal of home.”

Ou’s images of his former home portray a very different Vancouver from the one reflected by a recent glossy report calling our city the “4th Happiest Place in the World.” A Vancouver forgotten by international media after the Olympics spotlight faded. One overshadowed by the remarkable beauty from the floor-to-ceiling windows of ritzy Gastown condo developments.


Ed Ou photographs homelessness outside Vancouver's Insite safe injection site


Shooting from inside the Insite facility as well as out on the sidewalk and in several single room occupancy (SRO) hotels, Ou was able to capture highly intimate moments of the people who access the services of the safe injection site—pre-, mid- and post-hit. It is humbling to see, and important. A poignant reminder of the vulnerability of our community and of a progressive initiative set up to support us.


Writes Ou of the Insite program and how he chose his subjects:

Vancouver has a program called Insite, which addresses what is one of the largest AIDS epidemics in North America by providing clean needles and a safe place for people to use intravenous drugs. There is a room with 12 booths. Nurses help you find a vein and use needles properly and hygienically. They help you filter your drugs so you don’t overdose.

It’s an intensely liberal program. They say they’re giving health care to the homeless people who normally would never get it, or people on the margins who wouldn’t have access to it. That’s the thing about Canada: health care is a universal right for everyone.

I had to set the context in which there was a need for such a radical program. And in order to set the context, I needed to come in contact with drug addicts and people who were very down and out with life—who were addicted, who had problems like AIDS, who were very marginalized people.

As a photographer, I’m pretty uncomfortable with drug stories. I think drug stories are almost exploitative in a way. But a story about a safe injection site could add to the discussion of how to treat drug users. …


Ed Ou photographs people shooting up at Vancouver's Insite safe injection site


The feature story for which the photos were shot is worth a read too—especially interesting when considering the intended audience. For Americans, who still lack universal health coverage, the Insite approach (and the author’s angle) might seem startlingly counterintuitive: taking care of the people who are sick raises the health and happiness of the entire community:

By offering clean needles and aggressively testing and treating those who may be infected with H.I.V., Vancouver is offering proof that an idea that was once controversial actually works: Widespread treatment, while expensive, protects not just individuals but the whole community.


Ed Ou photographs woman doing makeup at Vancouver's Insite safe injection site


But Americans aren’t the only ones for whom the logic of such a progressive—nay, human—strategy to addressing a problem faced by almost every community in North America isn’t apparent:


The Conservative-led government that came to power in 2006 has sued to shut [Insite]. Local courts have refused to close it, accepting the city’s argument that an addict’s need for opiates is like a diabetic’s for insulin and that a citizen’s right to health—recognized in Canada’s version of the Bill of Rights—outweighs narcotics law.


The federal government is appealing the BC Supreme Court’s ruling in May 2011 before the Supreme Court of Canada. It has lost two previous appeals on the matter already.


“The courts have now ruled twice in favour of Insite,” said Mark Townsend, executive director of Portland Hotel Society, which operates Vancouver’s Insite facility, in a CBC interview that garnered almost 800 online comments. “Last time, they thought the feds were so out of line they made them pay all the costs.


“We wish [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper would stop wasting court time and the taxpayers’ money and start helping to solve the drug problem in our community.”


Ed Ou photographs homelessness outsite Vancouver's Insite safe injection site


Represented by Reportage by Getty Images, Ed Ou is currently shooting for the New York Times in Egypt.