Digital photography exhibit aims to tell stories of people lost to overdoses
'Weathered' campaign runs on 5 screens in Yonge-Dundas Square until Sept. 6
A pair of black running shoes with orange laces, a worn out stuffed bunny, a pair of sunglasses and a well-used skateboard — these items serve as a reminder of the life of Jason Kee, a 27-year-old man who died of an opioid drug overdose in Mississauga in May 2016.
His younger sister, Megan Kee, says she doesn't want him to be remembered for how he died. Instead, she wants him to be remembered for how he lived.
"He was passionate, he was talented, he was caring, he was funny, he was intelligent, he was wise beyond his years. And that's the memory that I want people to have of him, to remember that he lived in honesty, integrity and kindness and that the last thing he did does not define his life," Kee said.
The photograph of his belongings is one of 36 that are part of Weathered, a digital photography exhibit and fundraising campaign currently featured on five large screens in Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto. Videos on the screens will run until Sept. 6.
Kee, director and founder of Twentytwenty Arts, a non-profit organization that produces art-focused campaigns for charitable organizations, is one of the organizers. She says the campaign is close to her heart.
Four of the screens share 10-second videos of people who have lost their lives to overdoses, while a fifth displays statistics and all 36 photographs submitted for the campaign.
Kee worked with Toronto-based photographer Jessica Okonski to produce the exhibit. It aims to raise general awareness about overdose deaths, to tell stories about people who have died of overdoses and their families, and to raise funds for Street Health's overdose prevention site at Dundas Street East and Sherbourne Street.
Street Health lost provincial funding for the site in March 2019 and will run out of private funding by March 2021.
Families who have lost loved ones to overdoses were asked to submit photographs of their shoes and mementos, as well as written stories and statements about them. Kee said the campaign shares the stories behind the statistics.
"Our hope is to humanize the overdose crisis and to share the stories of people who are behind it," Kee said.
"I hope that the project makes people think twice about the misconceptions they might have about addictions and who suffers from substance use and that it might just change people's perceptions around what those people look like and just remember that they are people," she added.
'Their lives matter'
"They are friends, family members, parents, siblings and children and their lives matter."
So far, more than $6,600 has been raised for Street Health. The goal is $10,000.
Kee said overdose prevention sites save lives. They reduce the number of fatal overdoses in the communities in which they operate, reduce the cost of health care services and connect people who use drugs with health and social services, she added.
She said Street Health had more than 3,000 client visits and reversed more than 50 overdoses from January 2019 to August 2020.
A total of 3,823 Canadians died from overdoses in 2019. Kee said they were not just numbers.
The campaign was organized to overlap with Overdose Awareness Day on Monday. It runs on Instagram, @twentytwentyarts, and the Twentytwenty Arts website.
Deaths are preventable, says medical officer of health
Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city's medical officer of health, has said that Toronto is experiencing two public health crises, the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid poisoning crisis.
"It's with a heavy heart that I recognize that we continue to see so many loved ones in our community die from these preventable deaths," she said on Overdose Awareness Day on Monday.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on people who use drugs, their family members and friends, and the service providers who work so hard to support them each and every day. My team and I remain strongly committed to working with others to improve our collective response to this crisis."
In July, Toronto had 27 suspected opioid overdose-related deaths attended by paramedics. The city says that's the highest number of fatalities recorded in a month since it began collecting such data.
Toronto Public Health said the number is an increase from the 25 deaths recorded in both April and May. The deaths in July happened largely in the city's downtown core.