Taking on the world one Torontonian at a time: An inside look at photographer Colin Boyd Shafer

Posted by Alex Florian & filed under Diversity.

Colin Boyd Shafer
Colin Boyd Shafer

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Toronto has long been known for its diversity, and has been argued to be the most cosmopolitan city in the world, with more than half of its three million inhabitants being born outside of Canada. Its ethnic buffet of food options was even recently celebrated in the New York Times. Photographer Colin Boyd Shafer set out in June of last year to photograph a resident of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) from every country around the globe. And he’s doing it! Only 17 countries away, only one of which that has a population that’s larger than Toronto’s. May 15 is the deadline he’s set for the search (so tell your friends), but he already undeniably has a comprehensive picture of the globe, it’s already a success.

Gloria - Angola

Gloria – Angola

This project is a great way to showcase Toronto’s diversity, but also shed light on the real human experiences of migration and belonging. He takes two photos of each participant: one of them in a place where they feel “at home” in the GTA, and another with an object that they feel connects them to their place of birth.

I was fortunate enough to be able to pick Shafer’s brain for a while, and he was as interesting as the photos he produces.  So what makes him different from anyone else with a camera?

Well for one, his work is good. He’s won several awards, including the 2013 Human Rights Photography Competition out of London, UK for his photos highlighting the human element of conflict in an Istanbul protest movement. He also may as well have been born in a dark room. His great great grandfather was a portrait photographer; his mother put herself through dental school with photography, taking a pony around the city and taking photos for families of their children on the pony; his grandfather was an accomplished painter; and his father a camera collector. But what really separates Shafer is his drive for a bigger picture.

I asked him, “Why photography?

I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot and with travel comes a lot of inspiration to photograph. But like I said before, when you travel you can take straight snap shots, and you can take amazing photographs but they’re just one piece, they’re not like a puzzle. Let’s be honest, everyone has a camera now and everyone can take decent photos, what separates a photographer from everyone else taking pictures is that at the end of the day a photographer is trying to create a cohesive body of work. I am kind of ready to do that, so that’s where my photography is coming.

And it was similarly having a purpose and a unified aspect of the project that drives him with this project.  I asked “What’s been your favourite part of Cosmopolis Toronto?

One thing with photography, I was realizing I was good, I got that much. I know how to work a camera, people like my photos, but I felt like it was a bit empty. So last year I tried to work on more meaningful projects, things that are more cohesive, and I guess have more depth to them. With this project, nothing I’ve ever done has had so much depth. I mean, five months of doing the same thing with so many different people, I think that that has been an amazing part of the process. It is kind of what I imagined, and more so. And I think the fact that it’s working, whatever it is, it’s working; it’s a really cool feeling.

I decided to turn the tables on him and ask “What item would you hold as a connection to your place of birth if you were a part of the Cosmopolis Toronto project?

Troy - Guyana

Troy – Guyana


(prepare yourselves, ladies)

I’m a momma’s boy, I would choose my mom’s hand. I’ve had a couple participants choose family members and I think because she is still a big part of my life, that would be the most meaningful thing I could think of.



So what comes next for Cosmopolis Toronto, and for Shafer? The project is being exhibited now, then June in downtown Toronto, then in Kitchener, and ideally Shafer wants it to become a book.

The book is the dream for me. A book is where you can put it all together. I’m kind of imagining a human atlas. When I was a kid I would go through an atlas and check off countries I wanted to go to. Aside from that I’m also trained to be a teacher, which is what my mother thinks I should be doing right now, so I probably will do something with that. I plan on doing that internationally again.

As a project, right now it’s pretty much about finding the rest of the countries. Obviously getting people to know that the project exists is a challenge of itself, and also trying to get sponsors for our exhibitions. Right now we have about one quarter of the basic necessities to cover costs because everything we’ve done goes way beyond what I expected when I originally crowdfunded the project.

A great showcase of diversity, and a work intensive photography feat.  It’s an amazing project to be a part of, and I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to talk with Shafer.  I’m looking forward to seeing what he will take on next.

I’ve attached a few of the photo’s from the project, but check out the full website.  Below are the details for the exhibitions too; well worth seeing if you’re in Toronto!


Location: R2 Cafe
Dates: April 1 – 30, 2014*
Address: 668 Queen St. West, Toronto (ON) M6J 1E5
Hours: Mon – Fri: 7:00 am – 8:00 pm Sat – Sun: 8:00 am – 7:00 pm
Description: Exhibition features a selection of works from the TCA Exhibition.


Location: Moniker Gallery 
Dates: June 12 – 26, 2014
Address: 452 Richmond St. West, Toronto (ON) M5V 1Y1
Description: New exhibition featuring a selection of works by Colin Boyd Shafer, curated by Vanessa Tamburro.

Nadia - Bangladesh

Nadia – Bangladesh

Bruno - Belguim

Bruno – Belgium

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