British Columbia

Photography festival billboards taken down after complaints about 'horrible' pictures

The seven images by internationally renowned artist Steven Shearer were non-stylized depictions of people sleeping or resting and were posted along the Arbutus Greenway, a popular walking and cycling path on Vancouver's West Side.

People said images were 'terrible' and 'made them want to vomit,' Vancouver festival director says

Shearer's work on billboards along the Arbutus Greenway were taken down about 48 hours after they were put up, following several complaints from the public. (Steven Shearer, Untitled, 2020, courtesy of the artist. Photo by Dennis Ha.)

A series of billboards with images commissioned by Vancouver's Capture Photography Festival have been taken down after some people complained they were disturbing. 

The seven images by internationally renowned artist Steven Shearer showed people sleeping or resting and were posted along the Arbutus Greenway, a popular walking and cycling path on the city's West Side.

They were posted on Tuesday and taken down 48 hours later, ahead of the festival's opening on Friday. 

The festival's executive director, Emmy Lee Wall, says the incident has prompted important questions about the role of public art.

"How do we strike a balance between public concern and making critical contemporary work that pushes those boundaries for a large audience?" Wall said. 

The Capture Photography Festival says complaints about the exhibit started coming in as soon as the billboards were put up. (Steven Shearer, Untitled, 2020, courtesy of the artist. Photo by Dennis Ha.)

'Subversive and poignant commentary'

The images, part of an exhibit called Untitled, came from Shearer's personal archive.

The artist, who rarely exhibits in Vancouver, collects images found online, on eBay and in print. They are meant to draw from poses found in religious paintings and sculpture. 

According to the festival's description of the exhibit, "Shearer offers a subversive and poignant commentary on the ways in which so many banal moments of our lives in contemporary society are made accessible for public consumption." 

According to the Capture Photography Festival, the exhibit from which Shearer's photos were taken 'offers a subversive and poignant commentary on the ways in which so many banal moments of our lives in contemporary society are made accessible for public consumption.' (Steven Shearer, Untitled, 2020, courtesy of the artist. Photo by Dennis Ha.)

Wall says the complaints started coming in as soon as the exhibit went up, including a handful of strongly worded comments. 

"I genuinely think that some people were quite disturbed," she said. "They said that the images were horrible, they were terrible, that they made them want to vomit."

The festival did take time to respond to each individual complaint, Wall says, and she even called a few people to discuss the work. 

Photos of people in 'vulnerable state'

Taking the billboards down was ultimately the decision of Pattison Outdoor Advertising, Wall said.

The company has partnered with the festival on exhibiting images along the Arbutus Greenway for the past eight years and has been a tremendous supporter, she added. But the complaints were too much for Pattison to ignore. 

Wall suspects that people may have found the photographs disturbing because they weren't typical stylized images of smiling people. 

Steven Shearer is an internationally renowned artist whose work is in the National Gallery of Canada and who represented Canada at the 2011 Venice Biennale. (Steven Shearer, Untitled, 2020, courtesy of the artist. Photo by Dennis Ha.)

"I think kind of seeing people pictured in this really natural, vulnerable state where they weren't made up was problematic for people," she said. 

Despite the controversy, Wall says she would do it all again. 

"Steven's project has done exactly what it intended, which is to kind of start conversations about the divide between public and private space," she said. 

"So in a strange way, the billboards were incredibly effective, even though they were only up for 48 hours." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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