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Local educator connecting people through documentary photography

Kitchener local Colin Boyd Shafer’s latest project captures the stories of Victoria Park, and how it brings people together, as well as its complicated history

Victoria Park has been a lot of things over the years: an important migratory route for Indigenous peoples, the home of Land Back Camp, a place to fall in love, to skate for the first time. It’s been home to protests, festivals, and art installations.

And for many, including Kitchener local Colin Boyd Shafer, its green space offered respite for those feeling cooped up during the pandemic. 

Shafer is an educator, primarily a geography teacher. Since the pandemic started, he’s been working as a supply teacher to spend more time at home with his young daughter. 

But the rest of the time, he’s working on his documentary photography projects, the most recent being his series on Victoria Park. 

He started working on the project last fall. It will  eventually be exhibited, he hopes, in the park itself, and will pair archival information and pictures with contemporary stories and photographs. 

Shafer was compelled to take on the project after the pandemic. Having a new baby and being cooped up in an apartment with no balcony, he says the chance to safely explore green space “saved” him and his partner. 

“I just think that the park is so essential to Kitchener. Hopefully whatever this ends up being, it’s something that is a celebration of the space,” he said. 

But he doesn’t want it to just be a “fluff piece,” and doesn’t intend on ignoring its complicated history. 

“There are also people that have slept in the park. It hasn't always been a safe place for everyone. And I don't want to shy away from that,” he said, adding that although it is about the park, it is not pro Queen Victoria or colonialism. 

So far, he’s collected more than 30 stories. 

“What I'm trying to do is to make connections between historical photos and contemporary photos, and experiences of the park.”

The series is filled with diverse and “powerful” stories connected to the park. Shafer photographed a family who is new to the area, and came to the park to ice skate for the first time. 

It’s also filled with information people wouldn’t likely know about the park. For instance, it was home to a junk playground in the 80s. 

“The idea was that things are becoming too safe and we need kids to take risks, and they can learn from that,” he said. Kids could do things like build forts with nails and hammers and scrap pieces of wood. 

There is a woman who walks her dog every day in the park. There is a man who made his own boat. And there are lots and lots of love stories. 

“There's a young couple that got engaged in the park. And I think their first date was also in the park,” he said. “The park is a big part of a lot of people’s relationships, which is pretty cool.”

His journey into documentary photography began in 2013, with a project called Cosmopolis Toronto, where he photographed someone from every country in the world who had moved to Toronto. 

“It was encouraging, because I realized the power of storytelling and combining photography with storytelling.”

Since then he’s tackled several projects, mostly focused on humanizing differences. 

“That idea that if you learn about something, you might be more open and accepting of it,” he said. 

His last project, Finding American, culminated into a photobook, filled with stories of immigrants in the U.S. 

When Donald Trump was running for office, Shafer was teaching in Bulgaria. But being so far removed from everything that was going on left him feeling uncomfortable. 

“I felt a connection to the topic of immigration because I’d already done Cosmopolis, too. And in the classroom, I teach about immigration, and I did my Masters on a related topic. I wanted to do something positive to try to humanize the narrative around immigration,” he said. “It was inspired by a feeling that something's wrong, and I want to be on the right side of history.”

So, he convinced his fiance and now wife Kate Kamo McHugh, to go home so he could do a project centred around immigrants in the U.S. They spent the next three years driving and flying to every single U.S. state, interviewing people who had immigrated to the country. 

“Quite often, what makes the news is when someone does something amazing or horrible, and so this was an effort to meet people who are just living their lives,” he said. “The book, in the end, is trying to take all this content and distill it into a general picture of immigration in the 21st century.” 

K-W residents might notice some familiar faces in the book, too. Shafer interviewed a number of people who moved from Waterloo Region to the U.S., including a doctor who lives in Ohio, a dancer in Las Vegas, and a flautist in Montana. He spoke to them about their experiences growing up in the region, as well as what it was like to immigrate to the U.S. 

The book will only be published if they meet their pre-sale goal, which cuts off on July 8, 2022. So far, they’ve made over $21,000 -- 58 per cent of the goal. If it hits the goal, it will be distributed internationally.  

If it doesn’t meet the pre-sale goal, it will still be distributed on a small-scale to those who purchased it. 

You can purchase Finding American for pre-sale here

You can follow Shafer’s Victoria Park project at @victoriaparkkitchener. For his other projects, you can visit his website

Shafer is still accepting stories about Victoria Park. If you have one you'd like to share, you can fill out this form. 

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