Hope in Shadows: Bryce Doersam talks to Peter Thompson

Have you ever wondered about the men and women who sell calendars around Vancouver as winter rolls around? Hope in Shadows is a photography competition for residents of the Downtown Eastside. The top pictures are featured within the print calendar that you then see being sold starting in October of each year. If you’ve never heard of the project, or are curious to learn more, read Bryce’s interview with Peter, a vendor and photo contributor to Hope in Shadows. -MB

I’m standing with Peter Thompson on his usual corner at Robson and Howe. The radio at his feet can barely be heard above the din of holiday shoppers funneling down Robson towards Granville, bloated bags bouncing at their sides. He’s a soft-spoken man, friendly and smiling, and every few minutes someone recognizes him and slows down to say hi. Sitting beside the radio, his backpack is full of issues of Megaphone – a not-for-profit magazine sold by low-income Vancouver residents – but the big seller this time of year is Hope in Shadows, the calendar he’s holding up to each new burst of pedestrians crossing Howe Street.

Peter Thompson

“I’ve been doing this for about six or seven years now.” He tells me. “It works out pretty good, especially close to Christmas. Most people buy them for gifts.”

Hope in Shadows was launched in 2003 by the Pivot Legal Society, an advocacy organization based in the DTES that works to alleviate poverty and social exclusion. Single-use film cameras are handed out every year to Eastside residents, who document their friends, families and neighbourhoods. Subjects aren’t prescribed, and this year run the gamut from a Haida artist carving a totem pole to a downtown cityscape. The resulting photos are judged, and after the top forty are shown publicly, twelve are chosen for the calendar. Vendors are trained and licensed, and make $10 profit for every $20 calendar sold. It’s a similar model to Megaphone, where issues are bought for 75 cents and sold for a recommended donation of $2.

Peter didn’t make it into the top forty this year, but his photo was featured on the cover of 2011’s Hope in Shadows. He’s eager to share it, and brings out a small magazine – Megaphone’s literary edition – in which it was also printed, next a story he wrote about his childhood in Boston Bar, growing up without electricity or indoor plumbing. The photo shows his young nephew holding a handwritten sign saying “I can make a difference” in front of a brightly coloured community centre mural. “They sell big prints,” he tells me, “One’s in the [TD] bank here in somebody’s office, and one’s hanging in Surrey Courthouse.”

After leaving Boston Bar and going to school in Kamloops, Peter came to Vancouver in the mid-seventies looking for work. He’d trained as a carpenter and eventually found a steady job, kept busy by the many subdivisions popping up in Richmond. After twenty-five years, fifteen of which were spent with the same employer, he was injured on the job. “I broke my leg in five places. Got pins up and down my leg. I couldn’t go back.”

He struggled for a while, had bouts with alcoholism and homelessness, but eventually recovered. One day, while walking through the DTES, he came across a long lineup of people outside a building. He asked what they were waiting for, and was told this was where they were giving out cameras for the Hope in Shadows photo contest. He thought it sounded interesting, and was told there were cash prizes, so he decided to join in. He took his first photos that year, and has been selling and submitting ever since.

He’s had to make some adjustments over the years, like moving from his original location at Commercial and Broadway when the new Canada Line took foot-traffic away, and later on, changing his look.

“I had this big leather jacket, my hair was long and greasy. I saw this lady just walking in circles on the corner. I could tell she wanted to ask about the calendar, but was afraid to come up. I just smiled at her and she finally came up.”

It’s clear he enjoys the work, despite the occasional slow days and bad weather, and thrives on the social aspects of it. He has regulars now as far away as Texas who will come to him every December to get their new calendar, as well as the usual host of downtown workers and residents who have gotten to know him over his years here.

There’s an incredibly long way to go in regards to addressing the core causes of homelessness and poverty in Vancouver, but talking to Peter, it’s not hard to see how projects like Hope in Shadows and Megaphone can at least make a big difference in some individuals’ lives by offering a relatively stable source of income, and combating the social exclusion that often accompanies poverty.

Bryce Doersam is an aspiring journalist and research assistant for the Terry Project Podcast.

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