“You're no more an angel than me” - A Room in the City
ast week, Anvil Press launched one of their most important books to date: A Room in the City. This collection of black & white photographs taken by Gabor Gasztonyi over five years in Canada's poorest neighbourhood – Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES) – is not your average coffee table book. With images of emaciated men shooting heroin, and sombre women bartering goods on the sidewalk, these photos are a shock to the sensibilities, but as DTES physician Gabor Maté points out in his foreward to Room, the purpose of this project is not to “invoke pity or gloom”, but rather to understand how we are all implicated in the suffering of each other.
If we are to follow the Gabor's' insinuations in their words and photos, then we are ALL people of the DTES – through the way we are transfixed by these images (in the book or on the street) but also through the ways we try to ignore the distresses of others. We are like 'them', when we start to recognize the different ways that all human beings “narcotize ourselves when the truth becomes to painful to bear or to witness.”
For many of the reader's of A Room in the City, it is not drugs with which we narcotize, but rather normalities like 9-5 jobs, and condos and nice furniture on which to put a copy of this book. Or so it is implied when Mate says, “desperate to escape the shade, we frolic in artificial light buoyed, as the addict, by artificially induced states of mind.”
We look at 'them' on the street, but rarely do we ever see them. Maybe it is because we don't want to inconvenience our otherwise pleasant lives with negative thoughts. Who wants to push paper all day thinking about that man with the needle in his arm? But then again, who want to push a needle into their arm all day and sit around thinking about nothing at all?
A Room in the City is a remarkable collection that, when coupled with the insights from Maté and the other tidbits of personal poetry and journal entries that Gasztonyi injects into the pages, initiates a great deal of personal reflection. There is little joy between the covers of this book, but that doesn't mean it is not worth owning.
I had a friend from out of town visit last week, and on her first night in Vancouver, she followed her GPS through Hastings and was terrified by the scene made more surreal by a body under a white sheet that was rolled out of an SRO while she waited for the traffic light to change. A couple days later, she saw my copy of Gasztonyi's book on my coffee table where I'd left it, and so she picked it up and started to read it. At first she was frightened, and then she had questions, but by the end of it she felt that she understood the situation much better and she was no longer scared. Now that's a powerful book!