“Everyone – or perhaps no one – here is a Torontonian, regardless of whether they were born here, how long they have lived here, or how long they plan to stay […] At the same time, there is something strange and wonderful about that notion of uncontested belonging,” says Macedonian-born Vera, one of the participants in my Cosmopolis Toronto project.

While statistics certainly help to quantify Toronto’s diversity, I often wondered what it actually looked like. So in the fall of 2013, I began a yearlong journey to photograph someone from every single country of the world who now calls Toronto their home for my documentary portrait project Cosmopolis Toronto. Cosmopolis denotes “a city inhabited by people from many different countries” and I saw this as an opportunity to help preserve and promote Toronto’s local histories while giving a face to the statistics by highlighting the unique individuals that make up this city.

As part of the project I take two pictures of each participant: The first photograph is a portrait. Each portrait provides a context that helps to tell the story of the individual’s connection to Toronto, a place where they feel most ‘at home.’ Each location is distinct, revealing individual realities and personal histories. With this, I try to peel away the layers of Toronto’s sometimes impenetrable and shiny surface to reveal the eclectic array and diversity behind it all.

The second photograph of the participants shows them holding an object that tells the story of where they began their journey. From favorite food to family photos, these objects serve as tangible connections to the past and intimate reminders of who they are – and how far they have come … Within this context, there is still a sense of consistency and cohesiveness, something that reveals the power of human connection and how our similarities tend to outweigh our differences. There are definite ‘themes’ emerging from the collection, including food, music, faith, family, and cultural heritage.

Through the process of photographing the world in Toronto, it has become evident that we all carry a part of our past with us. These integral parts of our identity can also play vital roles in uniting us and forming the deeply rich, yet highly complex fabric of the city.

One of the greatest impacts of the project on Torontonians is that it has created a platform to build lasting bonds, affect actual change in various communities across the city, and move various individuals to engage in positive and open discussions on our similarities and differences. By bringing this to light, the project is connecting people and communities within Toronto. At the launch event for Cosmopolis Toronto’s first exhibition in January 2014, I watched Atif, born in Sudan, having a laugh with Killi, born in Estonia. Melvyn, born in Botswana, and Catalina, born in Colombia, have been out partying together. New friends are being made. Whether or not someone likes ‘diversity’ or believes that “diversity is our strength,” as the slogan goes, a multi-faceted society is an undeniable part of Toronto – and what makes it such a great city. Cosmopolis Toronto is also helping to break down stereotypes and assumptions: For example, the Torontonian born in Jordan is a tango dancer and the Torontonian born in Croatia is interested in learning Sanskrit. Hopefully, we encourage people to get to know individuals rather than ‘averages,’ ‘groups,’ or ‘others.’ Moreover, the project is opening up discussion on immigration and the diverse experiences of people from various diasporic groups. Not everyone who comes to the city has the same experience.

This project has the potential for replication in other cities, especially metropolises like London and New York often claimed to be just as diverse. Such a project might also be interesting for photographers in smaller cities because it gets people engaged and talking. Although you may not be able to find someone born in every country of the world, a photographer could focus on different faiths, languages, or cultural foods.

I hope people will take the following away at the end of the project:

We cannot risk forgetting that a city like Toronto was built on migration and diversity. It is this complex diversity that makes Toronto such an incredible city.

Learn more about Cosmopolis Toronto at http://cosmopolistoronto.com or follow us on Facebook | Instagram | Twitter.

Article co-written by Colin Boyd Shafer, photographer and creator of Cosmopolis Toronto, and Vanessa Tamburro, project manager and curator.
Header image: flo222/photocase.com
All the other images: Colin Boyd Shafer