Colin Boyd Shafer: Issues Bigger Than the Classroom

July 5, 2016 by American College of Sofia

We knew we would be interviewing ACS geography teacher Colin Boyd Shafer for the next alum mag as early as November of last year, which was when we heard about his Cosmopolis Toronto project (2013-14). In it, he tells the stories of 195 immigrants, as he attempted to photograph someone from every single country of the world who now calls Toronto home. For the project he took two pictures of each person – a portrait where they feel at home in Toronto, and another of them holding something/someone connecting them to their past. What an ingenious way to show and celebrate a city’s, well, the world’s, diversity, we thought! We then found out about Colin’s next photography project, Interlove (2015-16), another portrait series, this time telling interfaith love stories in black-and-white. Alongside his teaching of grades 9-10 at ACS, Colin managed to present his work at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) conference in Baku in April, and is currently taking portraits of influential Canadians for a book that is due to be released for Canada’s 150th birthday (2017). Colin coaches basketball and advises the American Football Club and Short Film Club, too. In his Geography classroom he really tries to get his students to think outside the box. Walking the stairs of Abbott Hall last spring, we enjoyed his grade 10 geography students’ “stories of migration,” where students got in touch with people outside the school community who migrated, then interviewed them, and presented their story by making a creative map of their migratory path. Did we mention that Colin’s work has been featured in National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, The Globe and Mail, CNN and many other media outlets? Yes, Colin is busy, so we waited patiently until one morning in mid-June when we could spend an hour discussing storytelling, diversity, and belonging.

Colin, tell us what you were busy with before coming to Bulgaria to teach. 

I had taught overseas before, in Malaysia. And I’d been two years out of teaching, because I was working on photography projects in Canada. They were large scale, independent, crowdfunded projects, not for the money – I like to do photography that I feel good about and isn’t economically driven. The first was Cosmopolis Toronto: taking pictures of people from every country in the world. That was successful, so I decided to do a second one, Interlove, which was photographing interfaith couples in Ontario, my home province. And that was all after doing a Master’s in Violence, Conflict, and Development in the UK, so I’d spent three years in total out of teaching and doing other things. But going back to teaching, it is my career, it’s what I studied. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop doing photography.

Pic. 1 Colin with children from Regents Park in Toronto who are learning about photography and discussing his book

Colin with children from Regent park in Toronto who are learning about photography and discussing his book

So is photography your super power, then?

I definitely don’t think it’s my superpower. But I started getting into it about ten years ago. I did a big trip around South America and took a lot of photographs with a camera that my mother bought me for Christmas. I thought they were decent, people seemed to think so. I started wanting to do it more. So I started traveling and taking pictures. That got me into it at first. I just found a decent camera, and tried to put in a concerted effort to take pictures while I was traveling. Looking back, I don’t think they’re necessarily good photos – I mean, there are beautiful places and it’s easy to take a good photo, – but I wasn’t what I would call a photographer until maybe 2009. I didn’t study photography. My art knowledge in general is pretty minimal. For me it’s just the process of doing it and being interested in it. Is it my best skill? There’s nothing else I feel as passionate about.

Does photography help your teaching?

It definitely does. The projects that I’ve done have all been related to what I teach. In one sense, the kind of photography I do involves talking to people; being able to talk to another person is a great part of it. I think that’s very relatable to teaching. But then the actual content of what I photograph creates conversations in the classroom. Specifically, obviously, with geography, having photographed a person from every country in the world is a very directly connected thing.

We just saw and marveled at the Stories of Migration projects of your grade 10 geography students. What a simple yet ingenious way to humanize migration. How do you choose the assignments you give to your students?

Obviously, there is a curriculum that needs to be covered. So I guess the challenge for me is deciding how to get students to do something that isn’t just like a textbook, filling boxes, or remembering terms; how to get them to do something that would hopefully lead to bigger ideas, or that maybe outside of my classroom would get them involved with an organization or continue a connection to a person who is probably in a very different situation than themselves.

At my previous school, I led a World Issues conference because I was the World Issues teacher. It became more than just a class project. It became a huge thing where people from around Malaysia and organizations that were doing important work with refugees, women’s rights, etc. would come and present. It was really great and is still going on today. These types of activities, just like the Stories of Migration project, are definitely bigger than the class. For some students it might be seen as extra work, but I think it’s really rewarding. It’s more rewarding than just reading about someone migrating, or making a map about some fictional person that I give them – they’re actually meeting the person and telling their story. It’s pretty cool. In Geography, migration is a crucial topic, and we can sit and talk about push and pull factors, or various statistics, and it gets kind of dry. So I guess the challenge is to find a way to make it more personal. As you said, humanizing migration, especially in this part of the world.

Migration can be a one-day topic and that could be the way that a teacher takes this course. But for me, it is something that’s been treated throughout the second semester. Because I think it’s as important as any other topic.

I just had a student present her father’s migration story. There were a lot of tears, and it was very real for all the students. And it was very real for me to realize that not only is it “over there” but sometimes its “right here.” A lot of the people that were interviewed had left Bulgaria in the late 80’s or early 90’s, and many of them had come back – I would be surprised if they had had a lot of people reach out to them before and say, “Hey, I want to tell your story and I want to tell it in a way that’s respectful and honest and not sensationalized. I’m just interested.” Having someone tell your story would be an honor for anyone.

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What’s the worst thing about teaching and what’s the best?

The worst thing is the grading, the marking. I have 220 students…. it’s too much. The best thing is those moments where some learning is happening about bigger issues than the classroom.

The challenge is always going to be to get students to do something for more than just marks, which in itself is understandable because they’re trying to survive in this environment. When you experience those moments, when you realize that they’ve actually done something for another reason – that’s a pretty cool thing. When I was their age, I was doing the same thing, I’m sure I wasn’t excited about doing extra work. But Geography is definitely the type of class where, after reading about something, they’ll continue reading about it, and it could stay in their life, at least that’s my hope. 99.9% of my students aren’t going to be geographers; but hopefully these ideas and these little bits of information will permeate throughout their careers and general thinking about the world.

What’s the worst thing about photography and what’s the best?

The best thing about photography is that it gives you the ability to explore important issues in a visual way. It’s a tool to tell a story. And that’s really good for me because I want to do that.

The worst thing about it, I think, is just the way people perceive photographs. They sometimes read into them too much, this whole idea of the picture telling a thousand words. I think that’s problematic, especially in today’s environment. There are a lot of misconstrued messages. It’s a very powerful thing, but it can be misused. There are a lot of conversations about images being manipulated and documentaries that are supposed to be telling a true story, but there’s also another side to it. In some small way, every image is manipulated to some degree. I think that the big message should be that photographs can only tell you so much, and they are always going to be subjective. And there’s probably going to be an angle to some degree, but as a documentary photographer you try to tell as clear and honest a story as possible. Especially in my portrait projects, I really wanted the people to be happy to be in the picture, and I didn’t want anybody to feel misrepresented.

The artistic projects you undertake draw attention to important social issues like discrimination. What guides you when you choose your photography projects?

The big thing for me was that I was taking a lot of nice pictures, and I realized I wasn’t really doing anything with them. So I wanted to use photography as a way to explore issues that I thought were important. In regards to selection, the issue is the thing that drives the photograph. It’s not like, Oh that’s beautiful, I’m going to take some pictures of it. It’s I want you to talk about this, so I’m going to take a photo – because that’s what I know.

Pic. 4 Eileen (United Kingdom), Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis: Colin’s grandmother Eileen from the United Kingdom

On choosing Cosmopolis Toronto, I knew that diversity was the hot topic, the big conversation being had in Toronto, maybe the most diverse city in the world. So I thought about how I could present that in a way that would be more than statistics, and would be honest and real and not treating the people behind those numbers as subjects, but instead as participants in the telling of their own stories.

It’s important, as in any sort of research, to be open to what you find. I definitely didn’t want to tell only stories of diversity that were positive, just like I didn’t want to photograph only couples that were having a really, really wonderful time in their relationship. I was open to whatever they said. That is important. But a lot of it is not told through the photographs, it is told through the stories that go along with them. That’s why I think if you were to take these photo projects out of any sort of context, they might not make sense – you do need the stories with them. And the narrative is made by the person, not just me making up ideas about what I think they might be like.

How did the Cosmopolis Toronto project come to life?

I needed to go back home and be with my grandmother (who is 91, as of this June). I needed to live with her and I needed to do something while I was there. And diversity seemed to be the most important topic in Toronto.

Pic. 5 Eileen (United Kingdom), Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis: Eileen’s memento

And how did you come up with the Interlove project idea?

While I was doing Cosmopolis Toronto, I started thinking about diversity and the ways it is complicated in itself – there are so many different aspects of diversity beyond what country you’re from. And so the diversity of relationships got me thinking about it. And I still don’t think that anybody has made a concerted effort to listen to – or more specifically, to photograph portraits of – people who are in interfaith relationships. Interracial, intercultural relationships are a common story; it’s been told. And in that context, it’s not controversial anymore. So a project like that would have had much greater importance thirty years ago, but I think that interfaith relationships are kind of where it’s at right now, that it’s still not a comfortable territory for a lot of people.

It was interesting, but also hard to find people because a lot of them don’t want to publicly tell their stories about something so controversial or private. Some of the people I got connected to through friends, or they had heard about the project on the news or whatever. First they would fill out an application in which they would tell me a bit about their story and why they wanted to be in the project. And then, because it was across Ontario, we had to figure out how we would get to them. Distances are pretty expansive in Canada. So, I organized a few couples in clusters, then made a few trips to go meet and photograph them. It could be anywhere from a few hours to spending a day together and figuring out where the best place to take the picture was. No one was coerced into doing it. And many people backed out. Since it was a couple being photographed, if one person doesn’t want to do it, it doesn’t work. Or I photographed some couples and never published their story. That’s fine.

What is the most moving interfaith love story so far, in your opinion?

The most moving one was definitely Samir and Najwa’s story. They’re a couple from Lebanon. They’re quite old now, but when they were young, the short story is that he was an expert in math and she wasn’t very good at math, and so he tutored her. He went over to her house. The complicated part was that he’s Catholic and she’s Muslim. Every day he would be there helping her with her math, and her mother would be there, looking over their shoulders, making sure they were on task and nothing funny was happening. And then, within the math they started writing love notes. It turned into a relationship, and they had to hide it for over a decade, finding creative ways to see each other. During these ten years there was a point when her parents found out, and she was pulled out of school, and kept under lock and key at home. Now they are in Canada, married. Neither of them converted; they’re still practicing their separate faiths. They’ve got a son who is agnostic and is married to a Buddhist woman. They celebrate Muslim, Catholic and Buddhist celebrations as a family.  It’s a really cool story that sticks out for me.

Pic. 6 Najwa & Samir, Interlove

Interlove: Najwa & Samir

Are you looking for a next project?

I’m really interested in Roma issues here in Bulgaria and across the Balkans and Europe. This could result in a very important project. But I’ve been busy, so I haven’t been able to figure it out or connect in ways that are necessary for a project like that.

I’m also interested in bullying and doing a project around the subject. There are so many ideas, but when you embark on something like that, you really have to think it’s important, otherwise it would be painful. It’s a long process, too.

Has your Bulgarian/European experience influenced your photography?

The thing with Roma people, that’s not an important issue in Canada. When I was in Malaysia I got interested in the situation of Burmese refugees there, and I never would have thought about that if I wasn’t in Malaysia. So it’s the same thing here: seeing the degree to which one group of people is other-ized. I’m interested.

What is the most beautiful place in Bulgaria you’ve been to?

I am excited about all the places I still have not seen in Bulgaria. Bansko, and climbing the Pirin Mountains, was breathtaking – so, so far that is the winner!

What is the most beautiful place in the world you’ve been to? Did you take photos?

Beautiful, it’s hard to say. But for sheer “Wow, this place is crazy and beautiful,” I guess Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats in Bolivia. That’s pretty crazy. And that was on the trip where I first took photographs. I’d say that’s a pretty impressive place that sticks out in my mind.

Pic. 7 Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia (Bolivian Salt Flats), 2007

Bolivian Salt Flats, 2007

If you were stranded on a deserted island, what three things, well, two besides your camera if we may assume, would you have and why?

The camera would be kind of pointless on a deserted island because I wouldn’t have a computer or anything, but sure, I’d take it. And I’m not that stuck on a particular camera – I mean, I love my camera, but some people have a particular camera that’s been passed on to them. I don’t have any material items that are really crucial to me.

If someone came to you with the Cosmopolis assignment, what or whom would you choose to hold?

That’s why one of the options I did give people was holding on to something that connects them to their past, so I did have a few people that held on to a person. My participant from Cambodia held her brother’s hand, and my participant from South Africa held his sister’s hand. I think I would probably hold my mother’s hand.

One cool thing is that my great-great-grandfather was a photographer. I have his old slides. I’d hold on to the old slides, that’d be cool. That would have been the end of the nineteenth century. The photographs I have are from the 1890’s or something. He shot portraits. He opened the first photography store-slash-portrait studio in the town that my American side, my dad’s side of the family, is from – Germantown, Ohio. That building’s no longer there, but I have pictures of it. It’s an amazing thing to think about. And the pictures I’ve developed are really cool. But they’re just standard portraits, just people dressed in really old-fashioned clothes. I have no clue who is in the pictures, but they all look serious, there are no smiles.

My mom’s from the UK and my dad’s from the US. My father takes a lot of pictures, and my mom was a photographer putting herself through university. She used to take pictures of kids on ponies. She would go door-to-door with a pony, and then the children would rush out, get on the pony for a picture and then she’d offer it to the parents. It was a very lucrative business that she created for herself. She was taking pictures then, but she never would have said she was a photographer.

When I was given my great-great-grandfather’s plates, probably about 70 of them, they were in a farm somewhere with bugs. Some of them were broken, and some had pieces missing, but it kind of adds to the effect. Today some photographers are trying to create that look. I found his camera, too, and it was homemade and just rotten. There was nothing worth keeping… but I have his slides.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your life?

Biggest challenge, I don’t know. But I do think money is a bit of an issue when it comes to this type of work. It sucks that I have really, really great ideas but the things that I think are important are not necessarily lucrative. That’s a thing that photographers have always had to deal with: the issues that are important to them aren’t going to pay. So how do I deal with that, and how do I find ways to make money, or be economically successful? Maybe someday I will just be doing photography, but that day will only come when I can truly say that I am doing the photography that I think is important, not the stuff that is dull, and that I can do these important issues, but also find ways to make money.

And it’s not like there wasn’t any interest in the issues Cosmopolis and Interlove dealt with, it was fine. I sold all the copies that were made. But photobooks these days are like a dying thing. If you are going to make exclusive art photobooks, that’s one thing – yes, there is a market. But it’s still going to be a limited edition of 200 and you’re selling them for a very high price, and they go to collectors or whatever. But the purpose of this project, the idea of it, is that it’s supposed to be accessible and not inaccessible to average people. So I didn’t want to make a book that would be too expensive for anyone to buy.  But to get a major publisher and to get it into all the bookstores in Canada, you have to be able to show that this is something that’s going to sell like wildfire. And that is only going to happen if it’s Humans of New York, or something really popular.

Actually, I cannot think of another photography project in Canada related to culture or diversity that has been as successful as Cosmopolis. But it doesn’t necessarily translate into money, no. It has led me to get other jobs, and it has helped me to get credentials that may end up leading to other projects.

Pic. 2 Nadia (Bangladesh), Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis: Nadia from Bangladesh

The National Film Board even did a TV documentary about it. I’ve done probably 50 interviews; the photos were published in many newspapers. But I didn’t get paid for any of those. It’s just not the way it works. Money would be nice. The argument is that it’s free content, but its publicity.

I am always going to try to find a way to make it not a losing venture, but I think – and this is a very Canadian way of thinking – if you only do things where the money is, you’ll end up missing out on a lot. In Canada we have our public radio CBC, and people who have a more conservative view think like this: “Let the free market take care of it. The country doesn’t need to have the government support the CBC. Let the people decide.” And when you listen to the radio in Canada, it’s just crap, crap, crap, Top-40, Top-40, Top-40, and then the CBC, which is delivering really, really important content about a lot of things that wouldn’t necessarily be talked about in the free market world. I think that if I just let money drive my photographs, then the stories would be very, very sad.

Pic. 3 - Nadia (Bangladesh), Cosmoplis

Cosmopolis: Nadia’s memento

Who has inspired you in your life and why?

My mother, just because she is independent, hard-working, interested in the world, open-minded and very giving. There is no one else who is even a fraction as close to her in inspiring me. She is British; my father’s an American. She was born in London. My grandfather was born in Spain and my grandmother was born in England, they met in London. My mother has lived long enough in Canada so that she doesn’t have a British accent, unless she is talking like my grandmother.Canada as a whole is so young and its identity is so open to debate.

So Canadians are individuals, people who just live there?

No, there is still a lot of pride. But part of the pride is that it is fluid, open and very complicated. So there is not just one story, but it depends on who you are talking to. I am sure that if you went to a rural community they would have a very different opinion than someone who grew up in Toronto, like me. Either way, what is considered historical in Canada would just be recent in another part of the world. We talk a little bit about that in my class – what it means to be Bulgarian.

What personal quality helped you the most to get to where you are?

I think I am very good at having an idea and following through on it. That’s probably one of my strongest suits. When I want to do something, I generally do it. And it usually works out alright.

What were you like in high-school?

I was a quarterback, and I was very involved on Student Council. I loved my school, even though it wasn’t a very great school from some perspectives. It didn’t have a lot of money and it was in a pretty rough neighborhood. I played a lot of sports, I was the head of Spirit for special events organized by Student Council, and I was in musicals, which was a very rare thing for athletes.  There were no other jocks who were doing that. I am actually bad at singing; I just did it so that I could participate. I would have a speaking role in the musical, but I sang in the chorus. Those types of decisions have made me open to different people.

Do you still do sports?

Yes. I joined the Dudes, which is a Bulgarian basketball team here, but we’re just starting. Next year, I’ll be playing for real. They take it pretty seriously. I am on the ACS American football club and I’m coaching basketball this year. I’m a huge NBA and NFL fan.

What do you work toward in your free time?

A lot of editing photos, a lot of thinking about certain issues that I have become interested in, like migration or various environmental issues.

As my students know, I think our school has a problem with bottled water. At least now we have reusable bottles* – there’s like 250 of them circulating campus now. But in order for these to be truly successful, you need to have the other side, to downplay or discourage the use of the other stuff (bottled water). No one is going to start using these as much as I think they should, as long as there is bottled water being shoved at them. But for me one of the challenges is having the time to think about this other stuff instead of just marking – which, at 220 students, is a problem.

What do you think is the most important lesson that you teach your ACS students?

They would probably think that it has something to do with bottled water. Because that is, I think, the very clear message. I hope that the message that I teach them is that they can have an impact on some of these crucial topics… not just learn about them and do nothing. I hope that they get that from me, whether from the class or from the content, that I show them through my own life that they can make a stand. If you are in a position of any sort of privilege, that is the perfect opportunity to look around yourself and say, “Where can I make a difference and help?” Not being a savior, not going and rescuing the other, but instead just trying to recognize that you are lucky and you could be in another person’s shoes in the future. Hopefully, by learning about the world and Geography, you are not just learning about things out there, but you are realizing that you are connected to them. And that you could be a part of whatever story you want to.

Pic. 8 Surva kukeri festival, 2016

Surva Festival, Pernik

Where do you dream of going to?

Well, there are Balkan countries I haven’t seen and I bet that every place has something to offer. But if I have to name one place, I guess for me it would be the Western part of Myanmar, Burma, where the Rohingya are, which is a group of people I did my Master’s thesis on, and they are probably the most persecuted people in the world. My dream would be that I would go there and they would all be living there again, as if most of them weren’t pushed out. That would be a nice day, in the future, which would probably never happen. Burma has opened up to the West, but with the Rohingya, they’ve just been regarded as invaders, not as native to the area, which is not the truth. So they’ve had their villages burned, they’re very restricted on where they can go, they have no access to documentation and they’re not able to vote. So many of them are in refugee camps and so many are stuck in really, really horrible situations. So that’s where I want to go and be able to say, “Isn’t it nice how things have changed?”


*An ACS student project aims to limit the use of bottled mineral water on campus, among other things, by providing as many students as possible with a free/affordable reusable metal water bottle.

Petia Ivanova, Georgi Iliev, and Roumy Mihailova worked on the material. All photographs except the ones featuring Colin, are his.

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