Documenting Decades with Vancouver Street Photographer Louise Francis-Smith

Street photographer Louise Francis-Smith moved to Strathcona in 1980 and has had her “heart opened by and lens focused on” the buildings and people of old Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside ever since. She continues to be compelled by the dichotomy of beauty and poverty in these East Van neighbourhoods — a fact you can see for yourselves in her studio during the Eastside Culture Crawl, November 16-19 (1000 Parker St, Studio #108).

How did you get involved in the Eastside Culture Crawl? About 10 years ago after travelling across Rajasthan, I was longing to show others the colour, the wonder and astonishment of this extraordinary landscape. I was not prepared for hundreds of people pouring through my small studio, then my home. The experience was positive and at the same time overwhelming and left me with one hell of a migraine!

What is your hometown and what does it mean to you? Cashmere Hills, overlooking Christchurch and the Canterbury plains. [It] was rugged hill country — native bush and tui song. Each time I return, I walk the hills and follow the trails. It holds a special place in my heart.

What makes Strathcona feel like home? It is a strong and vibrant community filled with enormously creative people and those who volunteer, donate and work tirelessly behind the scenes. The corner stores, dog walkers and the rare, magical Chinese gardens left make it still a unique and special place to live.

Your neighbourhood haunt? Cottonwood Gardens and Pazzo Chow (Hi, Maya!).

How has image-focused social media affected you? I’m relatively new to it and watch it doesn’t steal my time…

Instagram. Do you love it or hate it? I enjoy Instagram. There are small communities of things I enjoy like animals, architecture, gardens, travel, photography. Facebook I find a little invasive.

With the advent of things like Instagram where everyone is a “photographer” or a “documentarian”, how do you stay relevant and/or stand apart? I stay present and focused on what moves me and don’t worry too much about what others may or may not be doing.

Your first memory? Two rather contrasting ones spring to mind: 1. Lining up in the big farm kitchen to have our worm medicine. It was a gross green and tasted horrible. 2. Kneeling down to smell the wild violets.

A missed moment that you wished you had documented? Without a doubt, the Christchurch 2011 earthquake. I was caught in it and had my camera but my experience and what I witnessed left me in shock. There were many who needed help and comforting, including myself.

A time you felt powerless? Can I tell you about my Strata?

A time you felt like you made a difference? Small things: Listening to distraught people on the street and buying hot drinks for people sitting in a patch of sun trying to get warm.

What drives you to physically document the world around you? Using the street as stage, life unfolds and I feel fully alive.

Are you an activist? No.

Are you a voyeur? No.

  • Selling Newspapers
  • Mop
  • Loks Market Produce
  • Ginger
  • Awake
  • Anger

Do you get invested in the people/communities that you photograph? Yes, I do a little. Living in Strathcona, I’ve listened to the sounds of gentrification for over 20 years and there are times one has to be vigilant. I live in and photograph two areas that hold history and that are in transition. A constant reminder that everything changes.

What is the general reaction that you get when photographing people? I used to get shooed away like a pigeon, but now I’m more accepted.

What keeps you up at night? Erosion of human rights, destruction of our planet and the vulnerability of the elderly and the poor.

What do you do to de-stress/unwind? Recently I discovered Joep Beving. I play his music and move. Surround myself in nature, walk or go into silence.

What kind of camera(s) do you use? Lumix and a Nikon.

What was your first camera? Kodak Instamatic with flash bulbs.

How has your process changed since you started taking photographs? It has evolved, deepened. The work has become a wide open inquiry, which I love.

The last unexpected/surprising source of inspiration that you encountered? I recently saw an exhibit of Ann Morris’ which led me to her home on Lummi Island. Her boats made out of items in nature collected from her walks were beautiful; pods, bones, feathers sinew, wings and twigs. She talked about them being symbols of our journey through nature and time, of life and death. I found her work inspiring and an exquisite reflection on death as a life affirming practise. I wanted to bring one home.

A place in the world that you haven’t been but would like to visit? The landscape of Namibia and the Himba Nomads.

Your favourite place in the world to visit? There are a few but what springs to mind is the Mojave Desert where I have visited many times photographing the owls, hawks, tortoises and ravens.

Favourite skyline? With the mountains as backdrop, Vancouver is pretty spectacular.

The photograph that made the biggest impact on you? There are two images that are imprinted on my brain from the horror of the Vietnam War.

Favourite thing about taking photographs? I feel fully present, engaged and alive when I’m photographing.

If you hadn’t become a photographer, what alternate career path would you have taken? My grandfather conducted music. I always thought that would be fabulous. If I was an instrument, the cello.

Something that you’d like to see change in Vancouver? Would love to see something a little more attractive and innovative than the cold glass towers. Also, housing for everyone.

Is there a community of photographers in Vancouver? I don’t know and I would not join if there was one.

Where do you see your own artistic practice in the next year? What about in 5 years? Deepening into wonder. I plan to cross the desert on a camel.

How do you hope to be remembered? That I listened and was kind.

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