Participatory photography: Toronto photographer Colin Shafer's subjects were integral to authoring the images. Above: born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Nadia shared with Shafer that Toronto is home “because it’s the first place [she] called home.”

Cosmopolitan moments

Diversity through the lens of Colin Shafer

A young woman stands against a pole in a subway, framed within the window of the car. She looks directly at the camera. Her face is not expressionless, but it doesn’t evoke a particular expression either. This is what we see: her ease of presence in what is clearly her own space within this public landscape. This might be a mundane occurrence, easily captured on a camera phone, but the shot is clearly staged: meant to tell the viewer something about the woman in this spot in this subway car at this moment. Captured within the image, she now offers a story in an anthology of such images of Torontonians: a book of photographs curated and shot by Colin Shafer to capture the city’s complexity and cosmopolitanism.

Cosmopolis Toronto was born and has become a project of participatory photography (PP). Normally a process where participants are asked to photograph what’s important to them in their community, PP as a movement strives to gain insights about how to inspire social development and get perspective on a community from within the community itself. In contrast to other participatory photography projects, Colin took the pictures but the subjects were integral to authoring the images by choosing relevant scenes to portray their different communities. At the end, all of the participants were able to show what was important to each of them: offering authentic moments from their own lives to engage their own communities and, hopefully, create opportunities for development.


Yasser: Immigrating from the Republic of the Maldives, Yasser relates his impressions of Toronto: “I was struck by the grittiness of the city and the unabashed realness of the people here. I loved that I did not stand out in any way because everyone was of a different colour, a different style—everyone had a different voice but managed to speak to each other in a brilliant cacophony.”

Killi: Although coming from “a privileged life in Estonia” – attending an English immersion school, raised by a mother working in the hospitality industry and a father who was a Rock Star in the 80s—it was still “living in prison”. When Killi arrived in Toronto, she says she literally had ten dollars to her name and the decision to stay meant starting from zero. She emphasized that “everything [she has] accomplished here, [she has] done on [her] own merit”, with good friends and a strong community to lean on.

Colin’s ambition for the project is to photograph someone born in every country of the world who now lives in Toronto. Each subject is asked to communicate his or her life here through two sets of experiences. The first is a portrait of the person, taken in a part of the city that is significant to him or her: a school, a church, a special restaurant, or his or her own home. The second asks for a meaningful object that ties the subject to his or her past: something a relative made as a gift, a picture, a piece of jewelry or even a person. When planning the project, it was important for Colin to foreground “not forgetting the past and also looking at the present in a truthful way.” “I think that by looking at the past/present/future, the different tenses, you get a solid feel for how complicated the person is and that is important for the project.” These characteristics make it a cultural project of photography akin to Humans of New York, but with a whole different feel to it, probably inspired by Colin’s academic background with an MSc in Political Economy of Violence Conflict and Development and photography. The project has certainly taken off and Colin has shared his vision through different media outlets, including his recent talk at TEDxToronto 2014.


Colin is honest about the fact that participant selection was first-come, first-served. But that doesn’t take away from the importance of each individual story. The fact that the participants volunteered guarantees that they have an interest in telling their stories and, according to Colin, “the project shows you how everyday people are interesting, especially people that come from somewhere else. They had to go through something to get here.” Every single story was important to Colin and he made sure that every person who applied to be part of Cosmopolis knew that. The application process was another factor that characterized the project. People had to fill out an application form, from which most of the information for the stories was selected. In this way, participants had “[to take] that little extra step, taking ownership” of their stories. Going out and photographing the participants in their own settings gave this project an ethnographic nature. However, to Colin “one of the biggest issues about ethnography will often be that your own bias can influence; and especially me, as a white male, I was aware of this and so tried my best to minimize any kind of insert I could have on the story by sending them to [the participants] and them having the final say”.


Tsugumi: Tsugumi is standing at a streetcar stop along St Clair Avenue West in Midtown Toronto. The St Clair West Transit Improvement Project was the first project she was involved with when she arrived in the city. Since then, she has worked on projects to improve transit across the city – this streetcar stop is an important part of her history in Toronto.

There is a risk when working with immigrant communities that Colin was careful not to fall into: “preconceived notions that people from certain countries should look a certain way”. His interest in capturing an honest and impartial view is reflected in the neutral expressions of his subjects. As Colin learned, for some viewers this neutrality might evoke a sense of melancholy but for him it was an important sign of authenticity. He did not want his subjects to appear “like tourists in their own city.”

As opposed to simply “capturing a moment”, Colin sees his photography on Cosmopolis Toronto as visual aesthetics: well-thought images that align to his perspective as an artist, giving his participatory photography project a specific take that is his own. And this can be seen in the beautiful portraits and the thematic lines that one can find while browsing through them. “Some of [his] favourite pictures are not ‘the one’ the person had envisioned, with recognizable landmarks in the background…but usually what ended up working was something that was more personal because at the end the story is not about the landmark, it is about [the participants].” Recurring themes include people seen through windows, playing with light and shadows, which results in some of the most striking photos in the project.


Rafael: Born in Puerto Rico, Rafael wanted to be photographed in Kensington Market’s Perolas Supermarket, a grocery that caters to Toronto’s Latin American community. Here he can buy red beans, rice and plantains, all of which are important parts of Puerto Rican cuisine. The market reminds him of Old San Juan, with the narrow streets and local vendors he grew up with.

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Nour: Nour lived most her life in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and then her family decided to migrate to Canada, seeking out a more ‘open’ life that would be easier for her and her siblings to adapt to. Both of her parents had studied overseas, and they wanted their children to have similar experiences. She says Toronto has become her home, as it is where most of her memories are from.

Colin recognizes that the pictures are not exactly how some people would want to be depicted: “participants might not have loved their photographs but their friends did because they are pieces of art portraiture and sometimes we don’t feel comfortable [being in the spotlight], being art.”

One could say then that the lived diversity of Toronto is the overarching theme of this project. By putting it front and centre, Colin invites his audience and his subjects to question how diversity takes shape in Toronto: “It would be a mistake to look at it as unified. Diversity is a sweeping term that doesn’t really say much. Within this diversity we can find pockets of people who are more disadvantaged [due] to how their particular group is perceived”. Toronto is famous for its neighbourhoods, and “we want [them] to exist because they do promote culture but we also want to make sure that people are able to explore other areas”: to feel like they belong in all neighbourhoods.


Ernest: When growing up in Nevis, West Indies, Ernest always had a view of the sea, and he has always yearned to have such a beautiful view close by. The Ajax Waterfront Park fulfills this desire, and it gives him that natural comfort he remembers having as a child. He takes every opportunity to visit the waterfront, either with family and friends, or alone, to appreciate nature’s beauty and to simply people watch.

At the moment Colin is still missing a couple of countries to finish the map, but he’s not worried about that. When he started the project he wanted “to tell individual stories, create a framework to expand the globe. I wasn’t really trying to prove anything; it just gave me a reason to reach out to people, to ask personal questions”. The next step is trying to publish Cosmopolis Toronto, which Colin thinks could be the perfect book to highlight one of the unifying qualities of our country: our diversity. He hopes his work will inspire other communities to start their own “Cosmopolis” projects,creating, in the process, a unique and participatory portrait of our nation.

By Ixchel Cervantes, Peeps

Colin Boyd Shafer ( (b. 1983) is a Canadian documentary photographer who focuses mainly on large-scale portrait projects. His most recent award-winning project Cosmopolis Toronto (, features a portrait of someone from every single country of the world who now calls Toronto home. Currently he is working on Interlove Project ( ), a series exploring how people with differing faiths come together in love. You can follow him at Colin Boyd Shafer Photography on Facebook, @cosmopolisTO Twitter and @cosmopolistoronto on Instagram.

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TAGS /Culture / diversity / photography / toronto / urban /