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Ed Ou, NYTimes Photo Essay: A ‘Safe’ Drug Injection Site in Vancouver, Insite series 5 of 5

A ‘Safe’ Drug Injection Site in Vancouver, Insite series 5 of 5
by Ed Ou, February 7, 2011

I grew up in Vancouver and left when I was finished high school, so I had never worked as a photographer there before. It was disorienting working there, because it felt like my professional world and this ideal that I had of home — which had been pretty much untouched — had collided.

It was easy to work there because I knew the lay of the land. I got to eliminate all other variables but photography. I knew when the sun set. I knew when the sun rose. I knew what streets to park on, what buses to take. It made me realize that 90 percent of photography is dealing with crazy bureaucracy. It was refreshing to do a story where none of that was an issue.

That said, it was a pretty hard story to do, being about drugs and drug users. It challenged my view of this ideal of home.

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. If people in the U.S. discuss it, if people in Europe or around the world discuss it — based on these photos — that could create change. So I felt my photos would help people ask important questions that could help this marginalized community. That’s why it was worth a story worth doing.

I spent quite a lot of time with Lawrence, one of the people I photographed. Being Canadian and being from Vancouver, we have a very common experience, even though he’s twice my age.

At first, he was a subject. I thought of him as a junkie, a drug addict. But we found something that we needed in each other. I needed a story out of him and he needed a friend. When I left, he told me that I was basically the only friend that he’d had in many years.

I think he’s going to go back to rehab. He’s been saying that since I met him. This is the line I’m not sure I crossed. I think I’m going to probably try to go with him. I don’t know how that would work out. I mean, I’m in Cairo right now. I talked to him yesterday. This is new to me, staying around a story and following people like this. We’ll see what happens.

When I was young, I volunteered at a soup kitchen in the same area. So I was aware that this was an issue. But when I was in Vancouver, Insite never existed. It seemed like every solution — any way to approach it — was like a Band-Aid.

Working abroad, you always compartmentalize. Whatever happens abroad stays abroad. It was hard for me to compartmentalize this story. It was almost too close to home. It felt like there was no safe place in my thoughts anymore, because Vancouver has always been a safe place and I kind of tainted it with work.

Drug Use In Vancouver
Ed Ou/The New York Times
John Ly and his girlfriend Melissa live on the streets.

[As the article in Science Times notes, Canada’s current Conservative-led government has sued to shut Insite. Local courts have refused to do so, accepting Vancouver’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.]

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