The Genteel
February 25, 2021


Five x Five: Cosmopolis Toronto

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Images from the stories of the subjects from North Korea, Egypt and Germany. Photographs courtesy of Cosmopolis Toronto.

Some say Toronto is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. One of them, it seems, is the creator of Cosmopolis Toronto. Being both the project's founder and photographer, Colin Boyd Shafer aims to capture all the nuances of Toronto - ensuring his camera lens focuses on the multiple ethnicities and cultures present. His work has been globally recognised and celebrated, leading to numerous prizes and awards, the most recent being the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival's Photography Competition in London. The Genteel sat down with Colin Boyd Shafer for this week's five x five to find out more about the project and how it all started. 

1. Toronto's multiculturalism is widely celebrated. What new perspective were you hoping to bring forth with Cosmopolis Toronto?

Colin Boyd Shafer, founder of Cosmopolis Toronto
Colin Boyd Shafer, founder of Cosmopolis Toronto.

Through this project you start seeing the diversity within the diversity, and get to know the individuals that make up this sweeping term. The people photographed do not fit into some sort of a categorical box. We are more complicated than our country of birth, ethnicity, gender or religion - and this project highlights this beautiful complexity.

Many people have had difficulties here in Toronto, and I want this truth to shine through. I think Toronto is the perfect city to try and find the whole world… and it just so happens that this is also the part of the world I am from!

2. In most of your portraits your subjects are not smiling. Why is that?

Ever since I did my first portrait series in Melbourne, Australia, I have been asking the people I photograph to not smile or frown. I believe this allows the viewer to appreciate the person as a whole, to contemplate the environment and really connect with the photograph. As humans we automatically look at a person's smile, and it triggers an emotional reaction. I want to avoid such manufactured reactions and instead allow for a more genuine connection.

For this particular project, I think it is important because of the fact that they are mostly immigrants being photographed all over the city - sometimes in places that are common tourist attractions. I don't want these Torontonians to look like they are on vacation in a place they call home! Also I think we forget sometimes that the concept of smiling for photographs is rather new - and not something that people started doing until the 20th century began and the [USD] $1 Kodak Brownie Camera was made available.

3. You often photograph people in their Toronto-home or featuring something connected to their place of birth. What is your notion of 'home' and what would object would you choose for your own piece?

That is a fantastic question. The portrait is of the participants in a place they feel at home in the city. I emphasised to them how this should be a place they feel comfortable. Like many of them had difficulties choosing between places, I too would struggle. I think I would choose my high school Eastwood Collegiate Institute's football field here in Kitchener, Ontario. I was the Quarterback of the football team, went on to be a cheerleader at Queen's, and then became a Social Sciences teacher. I also like to think that the photography I do has an educational element. 

For what I would hold that connects me to my past...I think I would choose to hold my mother's hand. She is the reason I am who I am today.

For what I would hold that connects me to my past - once again it would be tough to choose - but I think I would choose to hold my mother's hand. She is the reason I am who I am today. I know that without her my opportunities for travel, exposure to different ideas and overall well-being would not have been anything close to what I have experienced. She has always supported me, and continues to support my sometimes crazy ideas - like trying to photograph the whole world in one city!

4. Interviewing all these people, you must hear some amazing stories. Has there been any story that struck you particularly?

It is truly amazing how each and every individual has a great story to tell. I firmly believe that, and this project exemplifies this. I think I couldn't help but be moved by Jina who was born in North Korea. The fact that she was willing to participate in the project in the first place is courageous.

Secondly, her story of escape, of leaving her family behind - them having to make up a story of how she died  - losing all of her possessions, and by a stroke of luck finding the necessary help to find refuge and safety.

She is the only participant so far, that I chose not to photograph the face of - since I feel like it is better for her safety.

Jina's story reminds me to count my lucky stars.

5. If you were to name one surprising characteristic of Toronto's multiculturalism to attract visitors to the city, what would it be?

I guess it would be the multi-layered-ness of the diversity. This is something that the project speaks to. My participant born in Germany is from an Iranian family, participant born in Egypt is from parents born in India and the Czech Republic and my participant born in Lebanon is from a Palestinian family.

As well, interests overlap and surprise. My participant born in Jordan is an avid Argentine Tango dancer, participant born in Uganda is a champion boxer and the participant born in Croatia is trying to learn Sanskrit. Once again, Toronto's diversity is too deep to essentialise.

It is a city full of individuals – that each have their own complicated stories. This is what is beautiful - but it doesn't fit into a pre-defined box - which makes it a little more difficult to discover - but once you do - you can't help but love this city.

Related: Baudouin's 75 Parisiennes

Related: Five x Five: Edeline Lee



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