Gabor Gasztonyi on The Downtown Eastside

In recent years, deaths from drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed in British Columbia, particularly because street drugs are being cut with fentanyl. The pandemic has increased substance use substantially and more dangerously, as many people are taking their drugs, particularly opioids, alone at home, where no-one can help if they run into trouble. In New Westminster, a city of 68,000, there have been 31 deaths in the last year. City Government is rushing to get a site set up where people can take their drugs under supervision and drugs can be tested.

With that in mind, Susan Millar interviewed New Westminster's multi-award-winning photographer and documentarian, Gabor Gasztonyi, who has spent many years photographing people in Vancouver's notorious downtown east side; people who have been caught in a desperate cycle of addiction. He has a particularly intimate insight into their difficult lives and why it is that it is almost impossible for them to extract themselves from their situations.

Gabor has produced a book called, A Room in the City, which is a photographic essay of the lives of these people. More recently, he produced an internationally acclaimed documentary called, No Way Out, which gives a close-up, stark and honest look of two middle-aged couples caught in the desperate downward cycle of their substance use disorders. He speaks about getting to know these people: how they live; how they go about their lives; where they come from; what seems to drive them into the awful cycle of drug dependence; and how all this has affected him as a photographer and as an empathetic friend.

In this conversation, Gabor talks about creating relationships with these people, the hotels where they lived – many of which are now being taken over by the government – the rhythm of their lives, the strong spiritual connection that many have with something greater than themselves, the structure of the illicit drug trade and a whole lot more. Although in the last few years he has not spent as much time in the Downtown Eastside, particularly in the last year because of Covid, he says that it seems the population is less now, and that people are more angry and erratic in their behaviour – likely because of the arrival of fentanyl on the scene.

With substance use disorders increasing during the pandemic, it is instructive to learn about where the downward cycle of drug use can take people and their need for our compassion and care.

By: Susan Millar

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