I first bumped into Cosmopolis Toronto on Twitter.
It’s the name that caught my attention. Being of Greek heritage and knowing that the word had Greek roots, literally translating to World (cosmos) City (polis), or city of people from all over the world, I was intrigued but wasn’t sure what to expect.
And then I dove into it and I’m glad I did because it’s been a fascinating journey. (Trust me, for a girl who LOVES memoirs, learning about different cultures and travel, it’s easy to lose hours on this website).
The project was created by Toronto photographer Colin Boyd Schafer, who wanted to put a face (well, many faces) to the diversity that is Toronto. So he took it upon himself to photograph someone from every country in the world who now calls Toronto his or her home. Best part? It all started with an Indiegogo campaign. 🙂
Full disclosure: Greece was still available when I bumped into Colin, so I submitted my father’s immigrant story and it was accepted (his portrait is just on the right!). I’m so supremely proud to see part of my father’s tale immortalized online.
I caught up with Colin to dig into what motivated him to want to tell these stories, what countries are still waiting to be represented and where we can go to get a global dose right in our own backyards.
N&M: What inspired you to start this project? What’s the “why” behind CosmopolisTO?
CBS: I was inspired by four things:
1. My interest and capability with portrait photography.
2. My longing to come back to GTA, spend time with Grandma (she is 88) and do a project in Canada.
3. I have an interest in migration (I started a project called Everyone Has Hope working with refugees in Malaysia, and my Master’s degree focused on the Stateless Rohingya of Burma).
4. Finally I think we say ‘diversity’ quite often but rarely (maybe never) are there ‘real stories’ about the individuals involved. The aims of the project are to:
• Visualize/capture the diversity of this great city, and create an accurate picture of Toronto today
• Share compelling individual stories
• Create engaging and positive opportunities for dialogue among people from various cultural and social backgrounds within the GTA
N&M: I love that you crowdfunded this on Indiegogo. How did you feel when you saw that you exceeded your funding goals?
CBS: It was hard work, but surpassing the goal was incredibly fulfilling. I don’t know if I knew exactly the extent of what I was getting myself into!
The special thing about crowdfunding, for me, is that you are free of an agenda. Because it is a ‘crowd’ instead of a corporate sponsor, you retain the ability to decide where they project is going. It is all based on trust between you and your funders. In the end over 150 people helped kickstart this.
Still today, the project has become a lot larger than expected, and the expenses have far exceeded the initial funds raised. This is why we need sponsors that share our interest in art, Toronto and its people.
N&M: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced on this project so far?
CBS: Aside from the obvious ‘money issues’ mentioned above, the biggest challenge is going to be finding the remaining countries. All of the countries of birth missing from the project are now smaller in population than Toronto, with a few like Palau and Tuvalu having under 10,000 people! This is clearly a huge challenge, and obviously there is a possibility that there is nobody born in these places that now lives in the Greater Toronto Area.
Toronto is not perfect, but it is a pretty great city.
N&M: I know it’s probably hard to choose which profile has been your favourite (akin to choosing a favourite child, I imagine) but who has been your favourite profile and why?
CBS: I do love every single story. If I had to choose, I would say my favourite profile has yet to come. My grandmother is included in the project as the participant born in the United Kingdom.
The time I have spent with her over the last five months has been very enjoyable, and she has taken a keen interest in the project itself. Her story of migration is in many ways, my story of migration. I am the first Canadian in my family – so I got thinking about identity, migration, and I guess it connects me to all of the other people I photograph in a way.
N&M: Considering you’ve spoken to over a hundred people from incredible diverse upbringings and experiences, what’s the most interesting/shocking/remarkable thing you’ve learned along the way?
CBS: Despite our interesting differences, that really do make this city exciting, the similarities of experience are striking.
The things that make people happy, give them comfort… what people long for, or desire in life. Whether you migrated here from Papua New Guinea or Panama – feelings of love and fear are important drivers.
So many themes emerge like food, music, family, art, tradition… Aside from our varied backgrounds there is a common humanity.
Toronto is not perfect, but it is a pretty great city.
N&M: I’m curious as to why you decided to focus more on where someone was born rather than whether they’re ethnically from that country as well. For example, you have an ethnic Persian for “Germany”, an ethnic Palestinian for “Lebanon”. Now, I know you also featured an ethnic Lebanese born in Cyprus. But, do you have an ethnic German born elsewhere you’re featuring? Is there a concern that a certain ethnicity will never be represented or missed in CosmopolisTO because you focused on birth country more than ethnic representation? I’m very interested to hear your thoughts around this.
CBS: First of all ‘ethnicity’ is a lot more complicated than we often consider it – a mix of genes and culture. Can you be ethnically Lebanese? How many ethnicities exist? What is an ethnic Palestinian? Where do you draw the line? Is it biological or socially constructed?
Biologically speaking, we all share a common ancestor, and hence the saying “we are all African”. I love this thought. Even though someone may identify as ethnically ‘x’ they may have a more varied background – and depending on where you are, the way you identify “your ethnicity” may change.
I had Indonesian students in Malaysia who didn’t identify as “Malay” until they arrived in Malaysia and were continually asked “what are you?” It is because of this complexity that it would be a rather impossible project to photograph people based on their “ethnic background.” Also, I think it would go against something I feel strongly about – and as a photographer I wouldn’t have an interest in a project like that. I do not believe in ethnic states. The same way I believe in a separation of church and state, I believe in a separation of ethnicity and state.
People should not feel excluded from being from a place just because of their beliefs or background. This is one of the things that makes Toronto special – and this project special. Nobody can claim it as exclusively theirs because of their culture, skin colour, religion etc. Many of the people I have photographed for this project may have migrated because they didn’t feel comfortable in the country they were born in – because of their background. Hopefully, they can find comfort in Toronto, not because of the fact that they change who they are to fit in, but because people here accept them for who they are.
The people I am photographing do not represent the country they were born in. Ava born in Germany does not represent Germany. She only represents herself – she is an individual with a unique past and set of lived experiences. But really… who does represent Germany?
I would like to finish this thought saying: Who represents Canada?
To get to know a little bit more about the world you don’t need a lot of money or a backpack. Turning and starting a discussion with your neighbour on the subway may end up being far more enlightening.
N&M: What do you hope people take away from this project?
CBS: I hope people can appreciate the diversity within diversity that exists in the city. How “diversity” is full of individuals with their own stories.
I don’t fit into a ‘box’ and I really don’t think the participants in the project do either. There are a lot of wonderful surprises.
We cannot be defined by our country of birth, our ethnicity, religion etc.
Finally, to get to know a little bit more about the world you don’t need a lot of money or a backpack. Turning and starting a discussion with your neighbour on the subway may end up being far more enlightening.
N&M: I know you’re getting very close to the end! What other countries are you still looking for representatives for?
CBS: Antigua and Barbuda, Bhutan, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Kiribati, Liechtenstein, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Micronesia ( Federated States of Micronesia), Monaco, Nauru, Palau, San Marino, Solomon Islands, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Timor-Leste, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.
N&M: Once you’ve photographed someone from every single country (who now calls Toronto home) what’s next?
CBS: I would love to see this exhibited outside of Toronto, outside of Ontario, and even outside of Canada!
The website will continue to exist as a tool for educators and many of the participants are forming lasting bonds with each other.
My personal end goal is to make this into a Photograph Book. The content is there. Now we just need a publisher and a lot of time to design something that does the project justice.
N&M: Where can people enjoy your work?
We will be at Rsquared Café (668 Queen St. West, Toronto) from April 1-30th, 2014 and then Moniker Gallery (452 Richmond St. West, Toronto) from June 12th – 26th , 2014.