Colin Boyd Shafer is a talented photographer with a strong interest in cultural diversity. By combining his photography skills with this interest, Colin came up with Cosmopolis Toronto – a project that showcases Toronto’s diversity through portraiture.
The goal of the project is to photograph 190 people who now live in Toronto but were born in different countries around the world. So far, 174 countries have been covered.
Colin, who is originally from Kitchener, Waterloo, recently returned to Canada after five years of living abroad. He was working with Burmese refugees in Malaysia before moving to London to do a master’s degree on an ethnic group called the Rohingya in Western Myanmar.
During his time in London, Colin started to think a lot about how and why people move. Toronto felt like the perfect place to look for answers since the city is a top destination for immigrants. He decided that the story of diversity in Toronto can be told better through pictures and is currently focused on photographing immigrants and sharing their stories with the world.
Colin started taking pictures in September last year and raised money for the Cosmopolis project with the help of crowdfunding site Indiegogo.
“I pitched the idea on the internet and luckily, people believed in me and my photography enough to want to see this happen,” Colin said.
Cosmopolis Toronto’s first exhibition this year was a big success and ran from January 15 to February 22 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.
Those who want to be a part of the project are requested to fill out an online application and answer a few questions about why they left their country of birth and what Toronto means to them. However, only one person from each country is allowed to participate.
The participants are photographed in a place where they feel most at home in the city. They are also asked to hold something close to their heart that connects them to the country they’re from—a photograph of a loved or an old book for instance.
When the project started, Colin said he had to reach out to people via social media to find out if they were interested in participating but now, people are learning about his project and are contacting him directly.
The project is nearing its end but Colin still has to find people from places like Liechtenstein, Marshall Islands, Maldives, Nauru, Kiribati and Solomon Islands.
Although he has travelled extensively, Colin says that each time he listens to a participant talk about where they’re from, it makes him want to visit that country:
“A lot people are passionate about their culture. Almost every person I’ve photographed has told me that I need to visit their country. I think I’ll need to win the lottery before I can do that but the one thing I believe is that this project shows you that you don’t need to travel around the world to experience new cultures.”
“You can meet people in your own city (Toronto) and learn amazing things that are maybe more valuable than if you get on a plane, go backpacking or act as a tourist. Sometimes you’re just shuffled off into touristy things without getting a real local experience,” Colin said.
Along with the photographs come powerful stories of survival and identity. Some of the participants left their countries because they didn’t feel safe or welcome there. Colin feels that while the project is a fun experience, it is also emotional.
“While being photographed, people are asked to hold something that connects them to their past. I remember photographing Wendii who was born in the Netherlands. She was holding a picture of her and her sister taking violin lessons. Her sister died of cancer and the fact that she chose to hold that picture is beautiful, yet so powerful. You’re listening to someone you’ve just met and they’re telling you their most personal things that they probably don’t talk a lot about. That’s intense,” explained Colin.
Colin wants the photographs to eventually be published in a book and hopes that the website could one day be used in an educational setting.
He believes that the Cosmopolis Toronto website can help students learn more about people and culture and is looking at ways to connect it to school curriculum. The site also has a Google map that can be used to navigate around to get geographical information of different countries.
Colin is planning more exhibitions and maybe even a new project once he finishes this one.
For those who are intrigued by the project, Cosmpolis Toronto will have an exhibition from June 12 to 26 at the Moniker Gallery featuring a selection of works by Colin Boyd Shafer and curated by Vanessa Tamburro. Details can be found here.