On May 31, art created by street-involved women will be auctioned off to fund programs that support them.
Eleven women received eight weeks of professional photography training and disposable cameras to document their lives. The result is the Exposure Project, the brainchild of All Saints Church Community Centre program manager Carly Kalish.
“I love the idea of art as a medium for creative expression,” Kalish says. “Photography is a very accessible art form — anyone can take a picture.”
She says she envisioned the Exposure Project as a therapeutic way for women to tell their stories, educate the community, and as a way for clients to contribute to the agency.
The proceeds raised by the auction will go back to programs run by All Saints, like a drop-in for women in street-based sex work and PROS, a new initiative that supports survivors of domestic human trafficking.
The real success of the program is marked by the enthusiasm of the participants, Kalish says. It has engaged some of the more reserved women and brought them out of their shells. Some who had previously just sat in the drop-in are now excited to share their photos, she says.
About a third of the women involved in the Exposure Project are queer-identified, Kalish says. Judy H, who did not want to reveal her full name, is one such participant who is set on educating younger generations on how difficult street lifestyles can be. She wants to challenge people to be less judgmental.
“I want society to take a look at this and look at the individuals in the pictures as if they were their sons, daughters, husbands and wives. Under different circumstances, that could be them,” she says.
Like many street-involved people, Judy has a college degree and a family but struggled with addictions, something she explores in her photographs.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” she says. “It’s showed me that I am stronger than I was.”
She’s concerned that young people glamourize selling drugs but says the stress of that lifestyle led her to start using drugs, lose a lot of weight, and complicated her romantic relationships. It’s a difficult lifestyle that poses serious challenges for gays and lesbians, who are susceptible to violence, homophobia and coercion, she says.
Queer youth are overrepresented in Toronto’s street youth population, according to a 2007 Youth Pathways Project study. It found that 26 percent of male street youth and 36 percent of female street youth identified as non-heterosexual.
The study also found that queer street youth experience more discrimination, physical and sexual victimization, mental health problems, substance use and thoughts about, and attempts at, suicide than heterosexual street youth.
“In this day and age, you still hear ‘She’s a lesbo’ or ‘He’s a queer.’ Mainstream society is more accepting, but street society tends to be a little bit harder,” Judy says.
One of her favourite photographs is called Love and Hate. It describes the complicated relationship people who use drugs have with their addictions.
“The Exposure Project just gives us a way of getting rid of some of that guilt and helping show women who come after me that they’re worth something,” she says.
Love and Hate, and many other photographs, will be exhibited and auctioned at St James Cathedral Centre on Fri, May 31. To buy a ticket or make a donation, visit exposureproject.blossomr.com.