I packed up my life and spent two years photographing immigrants in every US state

By Colin Boyd Shafer
I packed up my life and spent two years photographing immigrants in every US state
Ebti Nabag

In 2017, Colin Boyd Shafer, a documentary photographer, convinced his partner, Kate Kamo McHugh, a dance artist, that they should quit their jobs, pack their lives into their hatchback and drive across America. Why? Boyd Shafer wanted to dispel false narratives about immigrants by interviewing and photographing new Americans in every state. He turned his experiences into a book, Finding American: Stories of Immigration From the 50 States. Here, he explains how the project came together.

Kate and I both grew up in Kitchener. We went to the same high school and even acted together in the school musical, but we didn’t know each other well. Believe it or not, the musical was Kiss Me, Kate. I have an old home video of my performance. My mother had a habit of zooming in on just me, but every once in a while, Kate pops into the frame.

Years later, in 2015, we reconnected on Tinder and instantly hit it off. By then, I was a high school social sciences teacher and a documentary photographer. I’d recently finished two big photo projects, Interlove, which focused on interfaith relationships, and Cosmopolis Toronto, which featured portraits of one Torontonian from every country in the world. Kate had been working as a theatre artist in Buenos Aires.

Our relationship moved fast. After spending only a week together, when Kate was home from Argentina for the holidays, we moved to Bulgaria to teach at an American school. One of the administrators at the school was familiar with Cosmopolis Toronto and had reached out to me, thinking I could be valuable in the geography department given my experience meeting people from different cultures. Kate signed on to teach ESL.

Then it was 2016, and Donald Trump had just won the US presidential election. I was teaching global studies, and my Bulgarian students were captivated by the spectacle of Trump. His antics weren’t directly affecting their lives, so it was sort of like watching a reality TV show for them. 

From halfway across the world, I watched how the media covered Trump’s campaign. He ran with a strong anti-immigration policy, and when the media discussed immigrants, they often divided them into two categories: heroes or villains. Either they were model citizens getting into Ivy League schools and starting respectable careers as doctors and lawyers or, as depicted by the more nefarious news outlets, they were “illegals” who snuck across the border and stole jobs from hard-working Americans. 

I packed up my life and spent two years photographing immigrants in every US state
Juan with his daughter Sofia at their home in Mobile, Alabama. Juan grew up with 12 siblings in the city of Tepic, in western Mexico. Since the age of five, he worked on the streets, selling Jell-O, bread and doughnuts. Now that Juan has kids of his own, he often reflects on how different his childhood was from theirs

I wanted to tell a more nuanced story. My parents immigrated to Canada from England and the US. And, since I had experience interviewing and photographing newcomers for Cosmopolis Toronto, I had a sense of how to tell their stories. But, in order to humanize them and turn them into real-life people—not just the caricatures depicted in the media—I felt I needed to go right into their homes and spend time with them. So I started planning our American road trip. 

In August 2017, we left Bulgaria and returned to Kitchener. One month later, Kate and I headed east on the 401 toward Vermont. A friend had told us about an app called Couchsurfing, which is basically a free Airbnb, and we planned to use it to find a place to sleep every night. I kept two Google documents: one with everyone we planned to interview and another for everyone we planned to crash with.

I packed up my life and spent two years photographing immigrants in every US state
Elke, from Germany, with her husband, Tom, on the back of their four-wheeler. They live on a large property in Georgia’s Appalachian Mountains, where they run a trout shipping business

We tried to pack light, but we ended up filling the small car to the brim. My mother’s boyfriend helped me construct a big lockable metal box, which we kept in the trunk. That’s where we stored our most valuable items. Otherwise, we brought a couple of duffle bags; a digital SLR camera, a medium-format film camera and lots of film; an audio recorder; a bunch of Clif Bars; coffee mugs to fill up at gas stations; a hatchet to protect ourselves in case we encountered any trouble; and tiny bottles of maple syrup to give to people we met along the way. 

We broke the trip into three driving legs plus separate flights to Hawaii and Alaska. I spent a lot of time on Google Maps calculating the route. Each leg had to be capped at three months because I couldn’t get health insurance for longer than that. Between trips, we stayed with my mom, in Kitchener, in the front room of my childhood home.

First, we hit the east coast, going from Vermont down to Florida, then up to Ohio. The second leg included the middle of the country, north to south, from Mississippi to North Dakota. And, finally, we covered everywhere else, travelling from Michigan to Nebraska. I admit, it wasn’t the most efficient route. I did my best to coordinate where we were staying with where we were meeting participants.

I packed up my life and spent two years photographing immigrants in every US state
Sophia, from Pakistan, in the gardens of the Arkansas House of Prayer, in Little Rock. Sophia is an interfaith leader and runs the local mosque

On a typical day, we would be on the road for eight hours between Couchsurfing hosts. Otherwise, we’d hit the road for a few hours in the morning, meet up with interview participants in the afternoon and then head off to wherever we were staying that evening. Podcasts were essential to our sanity. We listened to S-Town, the seven-hour murder-mystery about a guy from rural Alabama who’s obsessed with clocks.

We had about $40,000 saved up for the trip from our time teaching in Bulgaria. A lot of that went to gas and highway tolls. We started off driving my old Yaris, which helped cut fuel costs. After the first leg of the trip, I was having problems with my knees, so we switched to my mom’s Prius because it had automatic transmission. The trips to Hawaii and Alaska cost around $5,000. And we often ate with our Couchsurfing hosts, shared meals with participants, or bought cheap grub from gas stations and fast-food restaurants. Originally, Kate and I had agreed to avoid eating at fast-food chains to stay healthy. That didn’t last very long. 

Using the Couchsurfing app to find accommodations relieved a lot of the financial burden, but obviously, shacking up with complete strangers was a bit risky. We had some bizarre experiences. In the Bronx, I stayed with a Cuban guy who spent our entire time together wearing a robe and a Speedo. Apparently, he was a nudist, a detail I had overlooked when I scoped out his Couchsurfing profile. (He stayed covered while I was there, thankfully.) There was a hoarder in Ithaca. The house was filled—nearly to the ceiling—with boxes and old newspapers, and his pet pitbull insisted on sleeping beside me. But we were also pleasantly surprised by some places. In South Carolina, we stayed in the basement of a sprawling mansion with its own private lake. It was like a five-star hotel.

I packed up my life and spent two years photographing immigrants in every US state
Ruth, from Zimbabwe, with her children, Simba and Chido, in their Belleville, Nebraska, suburb. Ruth grew up without her mother and tries to give her children everything she never had

As we travelled, we used social media to connect with people in each state and arrange interviews. I tapped into my network of Facebook friends to see if they knew anyone living in, say, Michigan. It often led to opportunities. I also messaged our hosts on Couchsurfing to ask if they had any immigrant contacts. Otherwise, I just did a Google search of the state and the word “immigrant” to see what came up. I probably emailed every immigration-related organization in the country. That’s how I connected with some authors, a mayor and a former Olympian.

One of my favourite interviews was with Ernie, an 88-year-old retired hematologist originally from Karlsruhe, Germany, and now a resident of Scottsdale, Arizona. Ernie lived in a retirement home with his wife, Eve, a spritely woman who liked to play table tennis and ski with her friends. They may have been the only Democrats in a building full of Republicans. Their room was filled with all sorts of wonderful tchotchkes.

I packed up my life and spent two years photographing immigrants in every US state
Ernie holding a portrait his mother commissioned of him when he was a young boy in Karlsruhe

Ernie was obsessed with model trains, boats and airplanes. In 1938, his family had fled Nazi Germany on the New Amsterdam. He had a replica of it. When his family arrived in the US, they wrote to their loved ones in Germany, but all of the letters were returned, unopened. Everyone had been killed. Ernie’s stories were full of wisdom, and he reflected on how our modern society—with its ongoing racism and social issues—hasn’t learned much from the past. Ernie had cancer, so we both knew he didn’t have much time left. I feel lucky to have met him. 

We spent about three hours with each participant—first interviewing, then photographing. Kate was a big help. She usually assisted me with brainstorming interview questions or getting the equipment ready. Her presence put everyone at ease. If the participants had kids, Kate would play with them. 

In West Virginia, we met Laird and Barbara, an older couple who had adopted three siblings from Ethiopia in 2009. Laird wanted to take the family back to Ethiopia, to reconnect with their roots, but he couldn’t quite afford it, which seemed to weigh on him. The kids all had interesting stories about integrating. One of the kids, Helen, hadn’t realized there were Black people living outside of Africa. At school, they bonded with the other students by playing soccer, one of the few common interests they shared. It was fascinating to see how unique every participant’s immigration story was.

After driving more than 48,000 kilometres, meeting 200 participants, spending 275 days away from home and drinking countless cups of gas station coffee, I flew home from Hawaii in October 2019 and officially finished the trip. (Kate didn’t join me on the last leg because she was very pregnant with our daughter.) I think it gave Kate and me a solid foundation for our relationship. If we can survive that much time in a car together, we can survive anything. It was a relief to be finished living on the road, but I never really had that feeling of, “Yes, I did it,” because I still had to put it all into a book.  

I packed up my life and spent two years photographing immigrants in every US state
Kakiko, from Mexico, in Anchorage, Alaska. A mountain climber, Kakiko had long dreamt of moving to Alaska. In 2010, the Mexican consulate in Alaska was looking for someone who was good with computers, so Kakiko applied. “I really like the snow. Climbing mountains is a suffer-fest, but it’s really appealing to me. I feel safer and more stable up there”

Since then, I’ve been sorting through 400 hours of interviews and more than 50,000 photographs, trying to put everything together. A lot of other stuff has happened. We’ve made it through a pandemic. We have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter named Isabel, and we live in a condo in Kitchener, just a 10-minute drive from my mom’s place. I’m trying to support Kate as she builds her artistic career, just as she supported me during my project. I’ve kept in touch with many of the participants. Some, like Ernie, have passed away. Others have built families of their own.

If everything goes according to plan, my book will be released in September 2023. I hope it shows the complexity of the immigrant experience and how human beings can’t be reduced to heroes or villains.


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