An innovative art project is offering street-involved women a chance to document the realities of life on Toronto streets while sharing their stories through photography.
Though the Exposure Project, a dozen former and current sex-trade workers were issued cameras and given access to photography training. The women were asked to use the cameras to capture and share images that show their daily reality.
Some images are stark, but others reflect beauty in unlikely places.
Carly Kalish is with the All Saints Church-Community Centre, which is co-ordinating the project.
“We picked photography because it is sort of an accessible form of art,” she told CBC News. “We wanted them to give us a lens into their world, to show us their world through their eyes.”
One photo, taken by Judy (participants did not what their last names used) shows man pan-handling while sitting on a sidewalk with a sign that says “willing to work.”
The window behind him reflects what he sees: cars passing on a busy street as he sits unnoticed in the window.
Judy, the woman captured that image, spent years living on the street.
"Society seems to forget that at any given point in time they can be where we are," she said. "People drive by on the streetcar and they see homeless individuals on the street and what they don't realize is that some of these homeless individuals are better educated than they are. There are doctors, lawyers, you wouldn't believe it, and I've met them all."
Speaking about the project on Metro Morning, she talked about one friend who lived on the streets in Toronto after working as an air-traffic controller in his native India.
“Now he sleeps under a bridge,” she said. “It’s an easy step to go from a three-bedroom townhouse to the street.”
For Tara, the project gave her control over how her story is told.
"I was sexually trafficked at 12 and had my first child at 17,” she told CBC News. “I have gone through a lot in my life and I am still striving to move on. I'm wanting people to look at me and realize that drug addiction, sex work, abuse comes in many shapes, forms, sizes and appearances."
Janet is learning a skill she never thought possible by taking part in the program.
"I've been a sex-trade worker, I've been a drug addict and now I'm recovering."
"We're learning a lot about photography. And being 55 years old you can always learn — you can still learn."
The pictures will be auctioned an event at St. James Cathedral Centre on Friday. All funds raised will be directed to programming at All Saints Church-Community Centre, which operates a drop-in centre for homeless and street-involved individuals.
The struggles on Toronto's streets remain. But now, these women have a way to document them and re-frame those realities.