Cosmopolis: A Q&A with Colin Boyd Shafer

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

Colin Boyd Shafer cosmopolis toronto

Toronto is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. More than half of its 3 million inhabitants are born outside of Canada.

The challenge: photograph someone born in every single country of the world who now calls Toronto home.
Photographer Colin Boyd Shafer accepted the challenge. And over the course of a year (June 2013 – June 2014) captured Toronto citizens, along with a prized possession that trace their origins and represent tangible connections to their past.

Born in Kitchener, Colin Boyd Shafer is an award-winning documentary photographer, winning the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival’s Photography Competition in London, UK, and the 2014 Toronto Urban Photography Festival’s Global Building Giants Award. His work has been featured on the cover of Asian Photography Magazine and F-Stop Magazine as well as international publications like Salon, The New Internationalist, Foto8 and BBC News.

Meet Colin Boyd Shafer

Colin Boyd Shafer

What is your background/education?

I have a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from Queen’s University in Environmental Science and Psychology Bachelor of Education from York University Masters of Science in The Political Economy of Violence Conflict and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London

How did you get your start as a photographer, did you have a special mentor?

I have a long family history in photography. My great great grandfather opened his town’s first photography gallery. My mother put herself through Dental school photographing children on ponies.

I didn’t have a special mentor, but my mother bought me my first DSLR which was the true beginning of this journey in photography.

What/who (where?) inspires you to shoot?

I love telling stories, and photography is my way. Photography that has a social implication inspires me – and this is why I am always leaning towards the documentary side of this art.

Colin Boyd Shafer Sao Tome and Principe

Selma (Born in São Tomé and Príncipe) One thing that distinguishes São Toméans from others African countries is their clothes. When Selma wears her traditional outfit she feels beautiful, unique and proud of her background.

Who are your favourite photographers?

I love the portraits of Danny Street and Richard Renaldi, the documentary work of Dominic Nahr and GMB Akash, and the beauty/ feel of Mel Tjoeng’s work. I follow these photographers.

How did you come up with the concept of Cosmopolis Toronto ?

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 89) 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. I guess the aim of the project is to visualize/capture the diversity of this great city, and create an accurate picture of Toronto today.

Colin Boyd Shafer - Tonga.

Alisi (Born in the Kingdom of Tonga)
– Many amazing Tongan meals have been shared here and it is where Alisi and her sister Sosina often reminisce about their childhood in Tonga.

What has been your most memorable experience while shooting this series?

Having the idea, pursuing the idea via crowdfunding with Indiegogo, and seeing around 130 people (many who have never been to Toronto!) contribute to making this idea come to life was very exciting.

During the shooting of the project, photographing Catherine born in Lesotho was exciting, since we did the shoot with her sitting on the edge of the very busy Gardiner Expressway. I didn’t think the photograph would be possible, but we managed to pull it off!

Finally every time I found someone living in the Greater Toronto Area from a very small country like Tuvalu and Liechtenstein it was really exciting!

Colin Boyd Shafer - Lesotho

Catherine from Lesotho – The view of the city, where it first starts to appear while driving along The Gardiner Expressway, will, for Catherine, always be special. “This is where I first laid eyes on the city and it reminds me of the first time I arrived here and how much I have changed.”

What are some of your biggest challenges? How do you overcome them?

The type of photography I like to do does not pay well, and is not glamourous. Cosmopolis Toronto was initially crowd-funded, which was great, and I am currently applying for grants so Cosmopolis Toronto can travel and for my upcoming project INTERLOVE. Finding the funds to get the project “out there” is a huge challenge.

Luckily I had awesome volunteers like Project Manager/Curator Vanessa Tamburro, and the team made of Lisa Takkinen, Jennifer Rodrigues, Keely Bland and Anna Sabrina Sopian. We also have an amazing communications volunteer Christine Liber, and an amazing company based in Germany called Marcellini made our website for free. Without the preceding people and many others who have taken the time to lend a hand, none of this would have been possible.

Colin Boyd Shafer- Yemen

Kamal (Born in Yemen)
The very fact that he owns a dog in Toronto – something he was never allowed to have growing up in the Middle East – makes him love this city even more.

Is there anything you would have done differently in your own career?

My career in photography is just starting … I hope!

Do you have any advice for photographers starting out?

Don’t sit on an idea. If you want to tell a particular story, do it. Also taking nice pictures is just….. taking nice pictures. My process of becoming a photographer, has been moving away from the single picture, to the series or collection. I see it as moving from superficial to something with depth.

Colin Boyd Shafer - Bhutan

Tsheltrim (Born in Bhutan)
Since leaving Bhutan Tsheltrim has spent a lot of time sitting by the lake thinking about all of the memories and people he left there.

Tell us a little about some of your favourite photo gear. A short list with your fav camera, lighting equipment, lens, modifiers. How does travel affect what you bring?

I have always shot with Canon equipment. This whole series was shot with a Canon 5D Mark II and a 50mm 1.2. I have never used anything but natural lighting in anything I have done.

What is your favourite photo accessory, other than your camera?

My eyeballs

Colin Boyd Shafer

Mohan (Born in Nepal) –
Mohan explains how the Nepali Dhaka topi, for him represents Nepali identity.

If you had to choose just a single camera and lens would it be and why?

I’m happy with what I have. Of course I wouldn’t mind upgrading to the 5D Mark III if Canon wanted to give me a gift.

Can you share with us anything that you’re working on right now?

I am currently beginning a yearlong portrait project called INTERLOVE, where my incredible team and I will be exploring how people (partners, friends, sibling) in Canada with differing faiths or beliefs manage to love.

Where else can people see your work?

The work from Cosmopolis Toronto will continue to be exhibited around Canada, and hopefully internationally. People can also view the series at People can keep up to date with what I am doing via or Colin Boyd Shafer Photography on Facebook.

Belarus1 Colin Boyd Shafer

Anya (Born in Belarus) Although it is nice to have the “hustle-and-bustle” of the big city when she wants it, it is here at home where she gets to have her cherished “cozy downtime”.


You can see a selection of Colin’s work in-store various Vistek locations, see the below schedule for a complete list.

Toronto: September 15 – November 6, 2014
Mississauga: November 10 – November 28 2014
Ottawa: January 5 – January 31, 2015
Edmonton: March 2 – April 3, 2015
Calgary: May 1  – Jun 1, 2015
Willow Park: TBA