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Photography project empowers marginalized women

By Henrieta Paukov

“This photo is really interesting,” says artist Anne O’Callaghan as she points to the laptop monitor. “That’s where I sleep,” responds Mia,* the woman who took the photo. The small group around the laptop leans in closer to examine the photo and learn more about Mia’s life.

Social worker Carly Kalish stands outside All Saints, Sherbourne Street, where she runs a drop-in program for women who work in the sex trade.

Mia uses drugs and works in the sex trade. She took the picture with a disposable camera that was given to her as part of the Exposure Project, a program of All Saints, Sherbourne St., that teaches photography to marginalized women in the Regent Park and Moss Park areas of Toronto. Participants were picked from among those who attend All Saints’ Friday morning drop-in program, which reaches out to women who work in the sex trade.

“I dreamed up the idea for the Exposure Project one day,” says Carly Kalish, the social worker who coordinates the Friday morning drop-in. “I thought, how cool would it be to educate and empower sex workers through the art of photography while educating the community about what their lives look like. Because people walk by and don’t even acknowledge them. They are completely invisible.”

She asked 10 women to participate, focusing on “the most marginalized, the most vulnerable,” women who would not normally have an opportunity to participate in this type of program. “The response has been magnificent,” she says. “They gave me hugs when I invited them to be part of this. These are people who will swear at you when you walk by them on the street. They are just so excited to be a part of it.”

The women received disposable cameras and a photography lesson from Ms. O’Callaghan, and they were encouraged to take pictures of their lives on the street. When they brought the cameras back, Ms. Kalish had the rolls developed. “Today, we are having our second session to look at the first set of pictures and to talk about light and contrast and the meaning behind the pictures,” she says. “We are going to go through the film to see where we want to improve, where we want to take more pictures, and so on.”

In April, the photographs will be displayed at Holy Trinity, Trinity Square, in Toronto, with descriptions written by the photographers “about what the picture means to them, what All Saints means to them, possibly a picture of themselves and their story,” says Ms. Kalish. On the last night of the week-long exhibit, April 19, the Exposure Project will hold a fundraising event where guests will have an opportunity to buy the photographs, with a portion of the proceeds going back to the photographers, “so they can not only learn from it but also see how valuable their work is and what it’s worth to someone else.” Perhaps most importantly, the women will be encouraged to invite family and friends to see their work.

The women taking part in the Exposure Project and the other women who use the Friday morning drop-in are not used to having people pay positive attention to their lives. Most of them use drugs and do sex work in order to survive. “It’s a cycle of using drugs, needing money to get those drugs and doing sex work to get the money, and then feeling so awful about doing the sex work that you use drugs,” explains Ms. Kalish. “It’s completely cyclical.”

The drop-in is a place where they can get non-judgmental support. It offers a full breakfast, presentations by guest speakers, activities such as arts and crafts, and individual counseling and advocacy. “They ask for support on anything from leaving a violent domestic situation, to stopping or limiting their drug use, to getting harm-reduction supplies,” says Ms. Kalish.

She is helping one client get in contact with her children, who have all been adopted by other families. “We actually got in contact with one of her kids and the family made her a whole book of pictures and stories,” says Ms. Kalish. “It seems like such a small gesture, but it made her so happy to know that her son is in a home where he is happy and safe, and doing so well. That’s a huge feat for somebody in her circumstances.”

The drop-in celebrated its one-year anniversary in December and is seeing more than 40 women each Friday morning. “The women have taken a big responsibility and actually own the group,” says drop-in staff member Alisha Shakes. “In August we were closed and they said: ‘We wanted you guys there, we missed the Friday group.’ And we are getting women from all walks of life. It’s supposed to be for women in the sex trade and women who use drugs, but we have women who come in just because they heard that it’s such a good community.”

*The photographer’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

Tickets for the Exposure Project’s fundraising event on April 19 are available for $30 at