Kootenay photographer Michael Donaldson (holding calendar) took the cover photo for Nelson: Poverty in Modern Times. He is joined here by Nelson United Church's Morgan Gould

Capturing poverty in the Kootenays

Michael Donaldson and Shelley Samerson are two of the photographers featured in the new calendar Nelson: Poverty in Modern Times.

Kootenay photographer Michael Donaldson has stage 4 cancer and can’t afford to live indoors, but when he was asked to take poverty-themed pictures for this year’s calendar project Nelson: Poverty in Modern Times, the 49-year-old threw himself heartily into the artistic endeavour. Two of his images were ultimately chosen, including “Home”, a shot of his backpack, which graces the cover.

“I was just trying to show sights homeless people see,” Donaldson told the Star. “For the backpack photo I was just showing my home. I can’t afford to live indoors so I have a hammock in there that I can set up anywhere.”

The second image, taken during the early morning hours, shows a group of youngsters in sleeping bags clustered in tamped down grass.

“That was right before Shambhala, all the French kids who came to town.”

Donaldson used to own a photo studio in Vancouver, and relished the opportunity to once again work with pictures. His hope is that the images he found will encourage people to adjust their thinking about the least fortunate among us.

“Most of these people come from broken homes and have been homeless most of their life. That leads to more drug and alcohol abuse because you just don’t want to feel the pain, so you numb yourself.”

Donaldson was a ward of the court until he turned 19, at which point the government turned him out on the streets without any support. He’s concerned this practice continues, with many new adults put in this situation every year.

The images were selected from 13 cameras that were distributed in early July. And though some of the pictures expose the bleak realities of locally impoverished people’s lives, there are also images of hope—a flower emerging from cracked cement, a double rainbow arcing over Nelson’s downtown core—and one of the most peaceful shots is by 26-year-old Shelley Samerson, who chose the Japanese garden in Cottonwood Falls Park as her subject.

“The gardens there are a peaceful place where everyone can have their own time and space, just relax and enjoy the view,” she said. “I want everyone to feel safe and loved.”

Samerson said she’s thrilled to be included in the calendar, which she called “awesome”.

The project was inspired by the Hope in Shadows calendar project from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, and was organized by a small group in the Nelson United Church, including Morgan Gould, who were looking to “engage with our community in more meaningful ways”.

“Lots of places in town are wrestling with the issue of poverty and homelessness but there are few places where those who actually are homeless or poor can have a platform to speak and give voice to their own experience,” said Gould.

Outreach worker Vanessa Alexander, one of the liaisons they worked with, helped connect the project members with people in the community. She said she was thrilled to be involved.

“It’s such an amazing thing to be able to give people a voice who are living in such difficult situations. I really think in Nelson there are so many more people impacted overwhelmingly by poverty than we realize, and this is a great way to raise awareness and hopefully inspire others to do more projects like this for the folks we work with who are really struggling.”

She said the images speak powerfully too her.

“This calendar is significant because it really demonstrates how hidden homelessness can be. It’s rare you see people sleeping in the open, if that’s their survival technique, but here you can see it. It gives a voice to those who are suffering and living difficult lives.”

Gould’s favourite image is of a man’s hand, holding a coffee mug, with the word “Silence” tattooed on it. Taken by an anonymous contributor, the caption reads: “Adjust your reality”.

“I’ve asked people what this photo means to them and it’s had as many interpretations as there are people. I like the ambiguity,” said Gould. He put his interpretation thusly: “When you find yourself marginalized, poor, without a voice, silence reigns.”

A launch, potluck and photo exhibition for the calendar will be held on Sunday, Oct. 4 at 5 p.m. at the Nelson United Church.

The photographers present will share their experiences with the community.

“We would love to see this project picked up. We want it to be annual,” said Gould. “We think it could be a substantial revenue-earner, and these moneys will go directly back into the community to address homelessness and poverty.”

The calendars will be on sale starting this week at various businesses in downtown Nelson.

“The thing we really have in common,” said Alexander, “is everyone needs to be validated. And this calendar validates everyone.”

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