This photographer took a portrait of one Torontonian from every country in the world
Photographer Colin Boyd Shafer has always been drawn to ambitious projects: he’s shot the Turkish uprising, Myanmar’s political exiles and interfaith couples from around the world. His newest project, Cosmopolis, is his most formidable yet. Through 2013 and 2014, Shafer tried to photograph a Torontonian from every country in the world. To date, he’s covered 195 nations—though he’s still missing 10 small countries like East Timor, San Marino and some South Pacific Islands. He shot each subject in a setting of their choice, with an object that linked them to their past. “When you’re a white Canadian, it’s very easy to disconnect yourself from migration,” says Shafer, whose own roots stretch back to the U.K., Spain and the U.S. “I hope this encourages everyone to take a step back and think about their own migration history.” Here, the stories of eight new Canadians from Shafer’s expansive project, on now until January 8 at 18 Toronto Public Library locations.
From Pointe Noire, Congo
Photographed at his office, an engineering consulting firm
Andrea’s family moved to the Ivory Coast after he finished high school for his father’s job; in 2002, they moved to Tunisia during the First Ivorian Civil War. After high school, Andrea completed his studies at Concordia University, and has finally settled in Toronto with a job at an engineering consulting firm. Andrea likes to teach his colleagues about the Congo. “I am sure that it reduces the misconceptions people usually have about Africa.”
This picture shows Andrea with his grandma, father and sister. “There is an African saying: l’eau chaude n’oubli pas qu’elle etait froide avant. It means ‘knowing where you come from will benefit you and guide you perfectly for future choices.’”
Eileen (Shafer’s grandmother)
From Stoke on Trent, United Kingdom
Photographed in her home
Eileen and her husband wanted to work in a Spanish-speaking country, but in a surreal twist of fate, her husband accepted a job in British Columbia in 1957, thinking it was Colombia. They left Canada within a year arriving, but returned in 1961, and Eileen’s been here for more than 50 years since. “This is my special spot,” she says of the chair her late husband, John (he died in 2011), made after she hurt her hip.
This album contains childhood photos of her three kids. “Whenever the children were bored or sick, it was always, ‘Can I look at the albums?’ They all knew that ‘if the house sets on fire…grab the photograph albums!’”
From Pyongyang, North Korea
Photographed at a park in North York
Jina’s family was forced out of the North Korean capital when her father criticized the government. She escaped the country soon after, swimming through the freezing December waters of the river that separates North Korea from China. She met her husband there through a Korean church, and they decided to move to Canada together. Despite having no money or ID (she’d left it with her family in North Korea so that they could tell people she died in a car crash), she was able to get a Chinese passport and a flight.
Jina lost an heirloom necklace during her escape, but whenever she wears something she thinks her mother wouldn’t allow—like this purse—she thinks of her.
From Khartoum, Sudan
Photographed at Old City Hall
Atif was blacklisted in Sudan for joining a political opposition party. A friend who lived in Toronto told him about life in the city, and Atif set his sights on Canada. When he obtained official permission to fly over, he remembers feeling like the world was his. Once here, he participated in protests outside Old City Hall to bring attention to the plight of the Sudanese. “Toronto police officers were on site,” he recalls, “and rather than reprimand us, they allowed us to continue.” At the time this picture was taken, he was working in security.
Drinking coffee with friends is a big part of Sudanese culture, but Atif didn’t like Tim Hortons at first. Now he drinks it regularly—after seeing Torontonians with their cups every day, he figured, “If I want to be Canadian, I should do it too.”
From Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Photographed at her office, a real estate investment trust corporation
Oyu had an uncle in Canada, but her family still waited six years to be approved by the Canadian Embassy. She now works in accounts payable at a real estate investment trust corporation and dreams of becoming an accountant.
In Mongolia, Buddha statues were commonly placed next to pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Oyu purchased this statue for her parents from one of the Tibetan and Nepalese handicraft stores on Bloor Street West.
From Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Photographed at the Church of Christ in Brampton
Esther was a social worker in Papua New Guinea, where she felt human rights weren’t a government priority. Simply walking by herself after dark could spell danger; the country is often regarded as the worst country in the world for gender violence. Once she moved to Canada, she felt safe and believed she had more opportunities. After arriving, she met another woman who was also from Papua New Guinea who had been living in the GTA for almost 30 years. That woman introduced her to the Church of Christ in Brampton, where Esther socializes and feels at home.
It takes Esther as long as a month to make bags from ropes (like this one). She uses dried, twisted fibres that are taken from the yell tree and scraped until they’re soft.
From Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Photographed at BMV
Laleh moved to Toronto with her family when she was 13. “I think it is probably the only city that feels like Italy in one corner of the town and China in another,” she says. “It lays the world under my feet.” She’s spent countless hours in the BMV bookstore near Yonge and Dundas, looking for authors and books she enjoyed back in Turkmenistan.
Older Turkmen women often wear traditional scarves like this one—it reminds Laleh of her past.
From Grenoble, France
Photographed at St. Lawrence Market
“I left France to see what was on the other side of the ocean,” Florent says. He came to Toronto through an overseas job opening at his company, and says he always feels welcome here. He likes to shop for fresh vegetables or grab a peameal bacon sandwich at St. Lawrence Market on Saturday mornings.
This bottle of lavender oil, a gift from his parents, reminds Florent of his home in Provence.