The exact number of countries in the world varies depending on whom you ask – the United Nations has 193 members, while the U.S. State Department pegs it around 196 – but for his purposes, photographer Colin Boyd Shafer has narrowed it down to 190. And he just finished capturing numbers 173 and 174: Mozambique and Burundi.
For his project Cosmopolis Toronto, Mr. Shafer is endeavouring to photograph a portrait of one immigrant living in the city of Toronto from every country in the world. The effort has provided insight from some of the city’s smaller and less-vocal immigrant communities. And those Torontonians born in countries that are currently in the headlines can offer a unique perspective that other Canadians might not understand, such as Ukraine’s complex relationship with Russia or the hidden corruption in Brazil’s government. Cosmopolis highlights the city’s diversity, but also what all Torontonians can learn from our global population.
“I’ve travelled to maybe 40 countries. I’ve done tons of travelling and I’ve honestly learned more about the world through this project than I have through all my travels,” Mr. Shafer said.
Mr. Shafer raised money for the ambitious project through crowdsourcing funds on Indiegogo and had a curated selection of portraits displayed at the Toronto Centre for the Arts earlier this year.
After moving home to Toronto to help care for his aging grandmother – who was subject number 100, Eileen from the United Kingdom – the 31-year-old wanted to embark on a project that would both challenge him and allow him to explore the city he now calls home. Portraits are Mr. Shafer’s preferred format, and with such a diverse city, the idea for Cosmopolis quickly emerged.
Mr. Shafer photographs each person in a space in the city where they feel most at home – the locations range from Toronto Transit Commission bus stops to churches to the Steam Whistle brewery – and takes a separate shot of them holding something that reminds them of their homeland. He also conducts an interview and provides an accompanying synopsis of their story.
He has about 15 portraits to go, posting three new stories every three days on his website.
It has been challenging to find subjects from smaller nations, in particular island nations such as Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Palau, but Mr. Shafer believes that he can find someone in Toronto from every nation, and doesn’t want to leave any country unrepresented when he is done. He even extended his own deadline to May 15; if a country isn’t represented by the time he has his final exhibition shortly after that, he wants to be sure there’s a very good explanation.
“If there’s a country that’s not included, I want to at least be able to say, ‘Here’s why,’ ” he explained, noting that his team of volunteers, which has grown as more people hear about and participate in the project, has been instrumental in tracking down subjects.
His hope is to capture Toronto’s multiculturalism in an honest way.
“One of the participants told me it feels like home because it’s not perfect. This project doesn’t always paint a rosy picture of the city. But it paints a realistic picture,” he said. “Our diversity is not flawless. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
The Globe and Mail talked to five Cosmopolis participants – from countries that have had a particular spotlight in the news in recent months – to get a closer look at their perspective on issues in their homeland and what Toronto means to them.
Diogo Lopes – Brazil
Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Mr. Lopes moved to Canada in 2010 because he thought it would be a safer place to raise a family. He settled on Toronto because he felt it was the most diverse.
“[Toronto] was the only place that looked like home when I look at others. People look like me sometimes, sometimes not. I thought it would be easier to start in a city that looked like home.
“There are so many problems in Brazil. People here normally don’t understand the size of the problems because Brazil’s beautiful, we have Carnival, soccer, et cetera, but it’s really scary. We have so many social problems and corruption and violence there. Maybe the World Cup will be good because people will be curious about Brazil and now they’ll see there are real problems there.”