Patricia Rose Johnson was the original heroine. She came stumbling out of a doper’s alley behind a Vancouver pawnshop, looking in her brazen, self-destructive beauty like a young Courtney Love. Johnson was “tweaking,” a street term for a symptom of cocaine psychosis, picking at the pavement for unused bits of rock cocaine.
Lincoln Clarkes is a portrait photographer who sees grace in the most unlikely places, in the living and in the dying. Wandering the city’s derelict Downtown Eastside, documenting its deteriorating but still gorgeous turn-of-the-century architecture, he had often run across the prostitutes, addicts and grifters who populate the old skid row neighborhood. He’d say hello, hand out change.
But on a July afternoon in 1997, Patricia Johnson stopped him in his tracks. Barely 20, she clung to a childlike innocence coarsened by drugs and bad choices. Clarkes gave her a cigarette and they talked about heroin and addiction. Then he asked to take her picture. She was flattered.
She took him to a room in the Evergreen Hotel, a vile flophouse where addicts shoot up in the hallways, and he waited while she and two friends primped like cheerleaders--fixing their hair, putting on lipstick, straightening their skirts and shorts. He posed them on the steps outside. A hoodlum cleaning his fingernails with a syringe cursed at them and told them to leave. They ignored him. Clarkes looked down into the Rolleiflex studio camera he held against his chest.
Click. Click. Click. Click.
That evening, as he developed prints in a tiny bathroom that doubles as a home-office darkroom, Clarkes was astonished by what he had captured--the women’s haunted look, their bruised but trusting gaze. They seemed to peer right through his camera. Of the four shots, there was one he couldn’t get out of his mind. “It changed my life,” he says. “Here were three heroin-sick women looking right into my eyes. I wept when I saw that photo.”
That picture was the beginning. It pulled Clarkes into a bewildering five-year project that documented the drug-addicted women of the Downtown Eastside. In all, he produced more then 400 black-and-white portraits of women so enthralled by heroin and rock cocaine that they endured daily doses of violence and life on streets where the AIDS transmission rate is among the highest in the industrialized world. The portraits became the subject of a 2001 television documentary and last year were published as a book.
Clarkes called the series “Heroines.” The word spoke not only to the women’s addictions but to their role as the principal characters in his unfolding narrative. The project brought Clarkes more notoriety than money, and at times played with his sanity. “I just took the most beautiful picture of a dying woman,” he would tell friends.
His images unsettled many people in a country that prides itself on its polite order and a tightly woven social safety net. Here, in the middle of one of Canada’s most beautiful cities, stood the nation’s poorest neighborhood and North America’s largest open-air drug market, according to health officials. But instead of thanking Clarkes for exposing the conditions, his critics refused to look. They accused the photographer of voyeurism and exploitation. The cesspool remained.
Over time, Johnson became a regular presence in Clarkes’ life. Blond and petite with a don’t-mess-with-me edge, she would abandon her revolving-door hustle for heroin and sex to talk to him about her world: She had broken her boyfriend’s heart, abandoning him and their two young children. She had embraced the drug instead of the family.
She also unwittingly bound Clarkes to the most horrific skein of murders in Canadian history. As Clarkes was documenting life in the Downtown Eastside, women he photographed began vanishing.
There’s not much farther a person can fall than the downtown eastside, a neighborhood where addicts inject heroin and puff on crack pipes in full view of police. “My first instinct was to blow the place up,” says Stevie Cameron, a Canadian crime writer researching a book there. “I once saw a young woman shooting heroin up her nostril.”
The neighborhood is like a nugget of rock cocaine--a concentrated dose of despair. In 1997, HIV transmission rates among Downtown Eastside addicts soared to 25%, the highest in the Western world, according to the British Columbia health office. The following year, the neighborhood recorded 416 overdose deaths--more than one a day--the nation’s highest rate. Particularly hard hit are Native Americans, known in Canadian parlance as “urban aboriginals.” Representing 3% of the city’s population, they account for more than half of its street prostitutes and have an AIDS rate that rivals sub-Saharan Africa, according to a recent study by a Vancouver-based AIDS research group.
On the Downtown Eastside, hepatitis rates are also epidemic, topping 90% among addicts. Each year, officials hand out as many as 3.5 million syringes, another national high. As a whole, the neighborhood ranks among the planet’s most self-destructive places.
It’s also a magnet for crime and violence, a 10-block area where 10,000 addicts scratch out an existence. Many prey on the elderly. Women addicts sometimes sell their bodies to men who rob and beat or kill them. They are young, dispossessed and dying outcasts from small towns all across Canada who, following one miscalculation after another, have found themselves tethered here. The female addicts who aren’t sex-trade workers often make their living as “middlers,” intermediaries between the drug dealers and buyers from outside the neighborhood, sidling up to passersby as they whisper, “I got rock. I got rock.”
Most share a tragic past: They were sexually abused as children. Years later, they self-medicate with heroin and rock cocaine. Josie, for instance, is an aboriginal woman who grew up on a farm, where her foster father raped her for more than a decade. When she refused his demands, she explained in the “Heroines” documentary, he would kill a favorite farm animal and threaten that she would be next. Sometimes he gave her money, which she hid in balls of yarn. Eventually she amassed more than a thousand dollars, which she refused to take with her when she finally moved on to another foster home. It was dirty money, she said.
So how did the neighborhood become a receptacle for the nation’s ills? John Lowman, a criminologist at Vancouver’s Simon Frasier University, says the city simply looked the other way. “The long-term policies flushed all the crime and addiction into the Downtown Eastside,” he says. “The idea was to contain and corral social problems in one area and bury our heads.”
Lincoln Clarkes has made a career out of taking people’s portraits. The angular, soft-spoken 45-year-old has captured the essence of such celebrities as Lucinda Williams, Deborah Harry and Oliver Stone. He’s shot elegant nudes and runway models in Paris, London and his native Toronto.
For the photographer, the gritty Downtown Eastside also seemed a strangely natural setting. Clarkes had always been drawn to women as subjects, and he had once tried heroin himself, so he knew the incredible rush.
He shot in black and white, using only available light. “I didn’t want to take the typical addict photograph--hair in their eyes, doing drugs in some disheveled hotel room.” Clarkes wanted to depict more than the women’s troubles; he wanted to show their radiance.
In his portraits, there are no pimps, dealers or johns, only the junkie-models. They stand in back alleys and vacant lots, along stinking sidewalks in front of beer bars and boarded-up buildings, always returning the viewer’s gaze. “Look at me,” they say. “I’m still here. I’m alive.”
Each Sunday afternoon, Clarkes ventured out with his camera and an assistant--often Kat Kosiancic, who kept a diary of their encounters. Handing out Band-Aids, peach juice, cigarettes, cash--and release forms for them to sign--the photographer treated his heroines with the same patience as he did the friends of his two grown daughters. He listened to their problems and waited out their tantrums or incoherent ramblings. Most often, however, he was amazed by their well-spoken savvy.
With each 12-exposure roll, Clarkes typically photographed three women, four frames each. He settled on stark locations within steps of where he found his subjects. “They didn’t have a lot of time. I didn’t either. I made the most of my moment.”
There is a portrait of a heroine whose abusive husband killed her only child. Her last link to the past is her dead daughter’s backpack, the one with a cartoon dog on the front. She stood in the alley, hugging the sack, looking resignedly at Clarkes.
Or the brunet who posed before the Dumpster waiting for the camera’s shutter. Suddenly, she stretched out her arms, “as if being frisked,” Clarkes recalls. “Or crucified. Or taking a swan dive into heroin.”
Or the woman in the baseball cap who was eight months pregnant. She didn’t know who the father was. She was sick and didn’t know where to go. Clarkes suggested a nearby women’s center. She closed her eyes. Her possessions lay in a plastic bag at her feet. She lowered her head and placed her hands on her belly, cradling her unborn child.
Or the one heroine so innocent looking that the johns pull over instantly when she stands on the corner. She sits cross-legged, preparing to inject herself. She stares at the needle with the calm intensity of an addict who knows she is about to get her drug.
One Mother’s Day, Clarkes took a group portrait of 14 addicts whose children lived with relatives or in foster care. He heard stories that devastated him: A young woman named Nicole who got her mother addicted to heroin. A mother named Bernadette who came across her estranged daughter in a downtown crack house.
The photos documented the arrival of each fresh-faced new prostitute and, as time passed, recorded their destruction: The brown and missing teeth, lips and thumbs burned by crack pipes, sores, yellowing skin, track marks, missing parts of fingers that signaled a pimp’s sadistic branding, flamingo-thin legs from a diet of Coke and potato chips. Clarkes sometimes ran into women he had photographed but could no longer recognize: “Sometimes all it took was a couple of months.”
Heroin psychosis caused the women to pick at their skin until it bled and scarred into purple-black soft craters into which they continued to inject drugs. Watching addicts shoot up, Kosiancic says, was like witnessing an accident--a repellent thing you just couldn’t turn away from. One day, Kosiancic noted in her diary, Clarkes suggested that one junkie go for a swim. “I can’t,” she responded, exposing her ravaged skin. “No one wants to see this.”
At times, the photographer hated the work, but he couldn’t stop. A girlfriend once snapped at him: “What do I have to do to make you spend time with me? Stick a needle in my arm?”
Clarkes found himself in a morally ambiguous situation. He felt compelled to give the women more than just a good portrait and friendly words, but he was at a loss. “I knew I couldn’t help them,” he says. “I couldn’t give them the attention they needed. I couldn’t be their shrink or their priest or their doctor. I couldn’t save them.”
The first showing of Clarkes’ work was at a Vancouver art gallery several years after his project began. As he continued to exhibit his pictures, he came under fire. Social service agencies who worked with addicts claimed the photos glamorized the hard-core lifestyle. They said Clarkes took advantage of drug-sick women, selling their images nationwide and revealing their plights to their children and others who might not understand their circumstances.
And why photograph only women? Some labeled his work pornography for the middle classes, circulating posters that called Clarkes a “voyeuristic pig.” When the portraits were carried on a Web site, downtowneastside.com, he received threats: “I thought I was going to be hung from the highest tree.”
Clarkes contends he made little money from the pictures and turned down other projects to focus on the addicts. He gave his models a portion of the profits, often $100 or more. He bought many women one-way bus and plane tickets out of town to escape the neighborhood and get help.
His fans praised him for presenting a sobering reality to the rest of the nation. Residents from Medicine Hat to Halifax now asked how such conditions could exist. Support also came from the heroines themselves. “For every one of those pictures, and there were hundreds of them, Lincoln put a few bucks in our hands,” says a slender woman named Chantel. “This was a relationship. It’s not exploitation, it’s an expose.”
As the project consumed him, Clarkes started hanging small portraits in a workroom. They eventually covered three walls, floor to ceiling. He attached green stickers to the photos of heroines who had died--from a stabbing during a $5 crack deal, from an overdose, from AIDS, Hepatitis A, B and C, and from bacterial endocarditis, a chronic condition caused by intravenous drug use.
Then women began to disappear. One day, Clarkes called Kosiancic. “I have some bad news,” he said. “Sheila is missing.”
Sheila Catherine Egan was last seen hitchhiking at 4 a.m. That same day, Clarkes happened to show another sex worker some portraits that included one of Egan. “Oh my God, that’s my best friend. She’s missing?” She began to cry.
On the night of March 23, 1997, in the same year Clarkes began his series, a bleeding prostitute from the Downtown Eastside had been found staggering along a rural road near a Port Coquitlam pig farm, 22 miles from Vancouver. She told the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that the owner had handcuffed and stabbed her with a brown-handled kitchen knife. The farmer, Robert William (Willie) Pickton, was a 47-year-old loner with a sixth-grade education. Pickton claimed self-defense and was never prosecuted.
His pig farm had long been a mysterious place. He often hosted wild parties at a makeshift bar there, known as “Piggy’s Palace.” Neighbors complained of late-night cockfights and the sound of dump trucks at 2 in the morning.
Sex-trade workers knew the farm as a refuge where they could get high and have a free shower. Pickton would befriend women he met on the Downtown Eastside, offering drugs and alcohol to lure them back to his farm.
In 1998, according to newspaper accounts, a woman told Vancouver police that she saw bags of bloodied clothing in a trailer there. Around the same time, a former Pickton employee reported a collection of purses and IDs at the farm.
When authorities inquired, Pickton said he often bought used autos and sold the parts for scrap. The belongings were from those vehicles, he said. Police never searched the property.
By September 1998, a total of 28 women had disappeared from the Downtown Eastside. While activists held marches and vigils, Vancouver police claimed their hands were tied. They weren’t even sure crimes were being committed, theorizing that the women may have drifted to other cities or simply returned to their hometowns. There were no clues, no bodies and no crime scene, they said. Critics countered that the police foot-dragging was just another way that sex-trade workers were being left to fend for themselves.
The TV show “America’s Most Wanted” featured the mystery of the disappearing women in 1999, and the ensuing public pressure forced officials to respond. The city of Vancouver offered a $100,000 reward for information. Police circulated a poster containing photos of 31 women. Police called the disappearances “unidentified accidents.”
That same year, a Vancouver police inspector, one of the nation’s leading specialists in serial criminal behavior, suggested publicly that one or two men might be responsible for all the missing women. He was promptly demoted.
By then, Clarkes’ monument to his heroines had become an emotional wailing wall. Each week, he added another green sticker to the gallery. More than a dozen families contacted him, many stung by guilt for having lost touch with a missing mother, sister or daughter. They wanted pictures, something to hold onto. One day, three sisters came looking for a lost cousin. Clarkes found shots of the young addict. The women sat on his couch, drinking tea, holding the photos and weeping. The photographer realized then that his portraits had become something more than mere art. They were now personal artifacts.
Throughout his project, Clarkes stayed close to his original “heroine,” Patricia Johnson. They became friends. Talking about her kids was the young heroine’s highest high without side effects. But he knew she was in trouble. Her father’s suicide had sent her into a tailspin. She had quit rehab and had been repeatedly arrested for breaking and entering.
The last time Clarkes heard from Johnson was a message she left on his home answering machine in February 2001. “Hey, it’s Tricia, Lincoln,” Johnson says in her sing-song voice. “Trying to get a hold of you, trying to find what’s up! I wish I had a number you can call me back at, but I don’t. So all I can do is keep trying.”
That same month, Johnson disappeared. She stopped cashing her welfare checks, stopped phoning her family and even dropped contact with her two children. Johnson’s mother, Marion Bryce, made a plea to reporters for information. “She was here on New Year’s Day and I told her, ‘Patty, you’re not even going to see 25 if you keep on--you’ll be missing like those women down there.’ ”
Bryce also contacted Clarkes, who gave her a photo of Patricia in shoulder-length hair, wearing a leather jacket, her lips puffy, burned by a crack pipe. Later, he brought her another portrait. Followed by a film crew, he was greeted by Bryce and her daughter Kathy.
“This is beautiful!” Bryce said of the photo. “It’s gorgeous.”
The women agreed Kathy looked more like her missing older sister every day.
“She would have been 25,” Kathy said.
“She is 25,” corrected her mother. “We don’t want to say she’s gone, not yet.”
Days later, after five years surviving the streets of the Downtown Eastside, Patricia Rose Johnson was listed as Missing Woman No. 44. They tallied her last known possessions as “a book (title not given), a comb, condoms, water, a spoon, cigarettes, a lighter, belt, watch, rings and a chain.”
Weeks after Johnson disappeared, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the nation’s federal law enforcement agency, joined the case and promptly assembled a team of investigators that would grow to 30 members. In reviewing Vancouver police files, the federal investigators noticed a pattern--and targeted Pickton.
On Feb. 5, 2002, they launched a massive search of his farm, where they encountered a sign warning the premises were protected by a “Pit Bull with AIDS.” Press reports claimed they uncovered an asthma inhaler and ID cards belonging to missing women. Searchers found body parts in a freezer, the reports said, and launched the most expensive serial-killer investigation in Canadian history--forcing Vancouver to remember the women it had chosen to forget. Police quickly arrested Pickton.
The remains of 15 missing women were unearthed on the farm, and authorities fear they may find the remains of as many as 60 women missing since 1984. This spring, 150 forensic experts were continuing to analyze DNA, fingernails and bone fragments. Some police officials have theorized Pickton dismembered his victims before feeding them to his hogs.
Authorities have asked for records from a rendering plant where Pickton had delivered pig entrails for more than 20 years. They have also considered unearthing a new subdivision of homes built on land once owned by Pickton.
Following the close of a lengthy preliminary hearing next month, Pickton could face trial as early as 2004. The number of Downtown Eastside women reported missing since his arrest has all but dropped to zero. He has been charged so far with first-degree murder of 15 women--five of whom, it turns out, had posed for Clarkes.
Angry relatives of the women point to a chilling statistic: In the time between the department’s first consideration of Pickton as a possible suspect and the day authorities swarmed his farm, more than a dozen women disappeared.
Vancouver’s new mayor, Larry Campbell, has called for a review of the police department’s handling of the case. While they won’t comment publicly, police have suggested that the veracity of the tips they received about Pickton was doubtful. They also cite jurisdictional problems, saying the pig farm lies outside city boundaries.
Al Arsenault, a veteran Vancouver police officer who has produced educational videos about the Downtown Eastside, knows there is blame to go around. “That’s a guilt I have to bear,” he said. “I walked a beat down there and saw woman after woman go missing. Why didn’t I say to myself, ‘Al, what’s going on here?’ ”
On a recent spring day, as Clarkes slows his battered Volvo on a Downtown Eastside street, he points to three women in high heels and clingy micro-dresses. “Look at all the heroines! They’re so Saturday night! For these girls, every day is Saturday night.”
He stops the car and walks along a tree-shaded street, past a discarded syringe and a serrated carving knife. The heroine Chantel runs into his arms. Immediately after Clarkes photographed her, she entered a methadone program and has since gained 15 pounds--up to 103. She’s clean, but is still on the streets.
Seeing her portraits, Chantel says, helped her recognize heroin as a false security blanket: “Heroin is empathetic. The role it plays is like your better half. It takes care of your issues so you can solve things in your head by saying, ‘I don’t have to deal with it. That’s my resolve.’ Until you need it again. When you’re sick and physically impaled, all your issues and all your troubles come right back again.”
Clarkes’ photos force people to look. Ed McCurdy has several heroines’ portraits hanging in his Downtown Eastside cafe. “Before Lincoln, these people were invisible,” he says. “Now customers notice the photos and say, ‘I’ve seen her.’ They view them as strong women. As survivors.”
McCurdy says he watched as a woman named Shannon, a former fashion model now in a wheelchair, stared at a portrait of a heroine standing defiantly in the street. She reached up and touched the photo. “That was me,” she said. Another addict named Nicole, with Karposi’s sarcoma sores and missing teeth, stood before a portrait of a young woman with blond hair. “What do you think?” McCurdy recalls asking, not knowing who the woman was. Nicole paused. “God, I was beautiful.”
Walking around the neighborhood, Clarkes watches a woman named Meagan sell a stolen bike for $7. He has taken Meagan’s portrait often. She has said she was driven here by the death of her infant son. Once stunning, she now stumbles about in a trance. Her favorite place to meet customers is in front of a funeral chapel. Clarkes once took a portrait of her there. Meagan has confessed that Clarkes is her only friend. What did it say about her, she asked, that her best friend was someone who didn’t even know her last name?
Later, Clarkes stops his car in an alley to chat with another heroine. “I’m broke,” she cries. “I’m so dope-sick.” She coughs in Clarkes’ face. He rolls up his window and drives off. There is no more to say.
On another day, Clarkes stands outside the pig farm watching earthmovers create mounds of dirt several stories high. Workers in white moon-suits use conveyor belts to sort through evidence collected from abandoned barns and a shabby single-wide trailer.
Outside a “mourning tent” erected near the farm, amid sweeping views of snowcapped mountains, are fuzzy snapshots of the dead women posted by their families and one of Clarkes’ elegant portraits of Johnson. It’s a photograph that speaks about obsession--a young woman’s fatal fixation with a drug, a photographer’s addiction to capturing her crumbling beauty, a predator’s sick need to take her life.
Among more than 200,000 pieces of DNA evidence uncovered at the farm, workers identified the remains of Johnson. Her photo, larger than the others, shows her in a thin-strap dress, her slender back turned to the camera. She looks like a young woman in the prime of life.
“I want to know everything,” says Elaine Allan, who once helped run a drop-in center for drug-addicted sex workers on the Downtown Eastside. “For me, no detail of what happened to those women is too trivial. They were my friends. They were dignified people. They didn’t deserve this.”
In April, Vancouver began a program to clean up the Downtown Eastside. Mayor Campbell, a former federal drug agent and onetime chief coroner for British Columbia, does not want to repeat the failure of the U.S. war on drugs, so he targets dealers instead of users. In Campbell’s eyes, it’s not a crime to be an addict or a prostitute. He plans to open North America’s first safe-injection site for heroin addicts, dismissing U.S. complaints that he will only attract more users. “We don’t need a hammer,” he says. “We don’t need an American model.”
Police sweeps in recent weeks have chased the dealers from grassless Pigeon Park, leaving the peeling old benches to the men who drink cleaning fluid from bottles hidden inside paper bags. But the deals still go down at the intersection where Johnson once scored her drugs. It’s the corner of Main and Hastings. Addicts call it Pain and Wastings.
If taking the portraits was an addiction, then this is the painful withdrawal. The camera and the damage done.
Clarkes’ home-office memorial to his heroines is gone. He dismantled it last fall, admitting that the project had finally exhausted him. But he does not apologize for the things his Rolleiflex saw. “I feel confident in these photos,” he says. “They’re very revealing--about me as well as the women. They are what I chose to see.”
When his book was published, he skipped the requisite author tour, irking his publisher. Instead, he went to Ireland for an emotional break.
The photographer still walks the streets of the Downtown Eastside, but now rarely with his camera.