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What does a Torontonian look like? Art project explores immigrants’ links to birthplace and new home

What does it mean to ‘look’ Canadian?

Colin Shafer — a white, 30-year-old man with brown hair, brown eyes and a light beard — gets this a lot.

“I find that really strange,” says Shafer, on a call from London where he’s completing a master’s degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

“My dad’s American and my mother was born in the U.K. I’m not that deeply connected to Canada, so why do I look Canadian? What does that really mean?”

One of the reasons the Kitchener-born photographer and high school teacher launched his most recent art project, called Cosmopolis Toronto, is to explore the idea of identity and how it relates to the place we call home.

This October, Shafer will begin to photograph Torontonians with the aim of collecting the portraits of one person from every single country in the world. His full-time job for four months will be getting to know three people per day — taking one photo of them in a place that gives that person a sense of connection to this city, and another of them touching something that links them to their birthplace.

For instance, a local writer wants to be photographed in the library where they first became inspired. “I think that’s a beautiful connection,” Shafer says.

For their second portrait, another person wants to hold a picture of their grandma, whom they lost touch with.

Shafer has always been aware of this country’s diversity, but thinks there isn’t always opportunity for immigrants to share their story. He hopes Cosmopolis — which will plot portraits on an interactive map created by German ad agency Marcellini — will allow people to see that, “wow, here we have the entire world.”

But if the ‘global village’ concept brings to mind a cliché image of different races holding hands to portray the beauty of multiculturalism, rest assured that’s not what Cosmopolis Toronto is about, Shafer stresses.

“If that was my agenda the project itself could come off as just another one of those feel-good projects. There’s going to be real people, real stories,” Shafer says.

Get connected with Cosmopolis Toronto

  • Cosmopolis Toronto is a crowdfunding-supported project on Indiegogo.com.

  • Money raised will support the artist, who will eventually turn his portraits of about 200 people into an interactive map, a book and a gallery display.

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