Those giant portraits at Nathan Phillips Square? The wash of colour and craft opens doors to photography in the heart of Toronto

Shine On: Photographs from The BIPOC Photo Mentorship Program, installation at Nathan Phillips Square.

First off, an apology.

Writing this monthly column was always a challenge and it finally got away from me last fall. I hadn’t planned on ending it so abruptly, but when that window opened up between Delta and Omicron, my calendar was suddenly filled with catching up on long delayed projects.

Scheduling and time management went straight out that window, dragging this column in their wake. I inadvertently ghosted you, dear reader, and for that I am truly sorry. To make amends, with the grace of my editor, I return for this one last column and a proper goodbye.

When I was asked to be Toronto’s second photo laureate in 2019, this column was the very first idea I pitched. The invitation was generous in its scope, with few concrete requirements and the latitude to fulfil the role in line with my artistic interests.

This position is the first of its kind in Canada, and the only expectation was that I be willing to serve as an ambassador for photography and visual arts in the city, and to use my perspective to create a dialogue on contemporary issues.

Since we live in hyper-visual times, these are already intertwined: much of what we think, believe and understand about the world is shaped by the production and circulation of images.

This has always been so, but the stakes have been digitally raised over the past two decades by the internet, social media and streaming television. With the visual deeply embedded in contemporary culture, visual literacy — the ability to interpret, negotiate and understand information presented in the form of an image — is an ever more important 21st-century skill.

My hope then was that I could spend my three-year term working to expand this ability for Torontonians. Rather than focusing on making photographs, I was more interested in thinking about photographs out loud and encouraging us to consider the work that photographs do.

Writing in Canada’s largest daily newspaper seemed like a compelling way to do that, and I’m grateful to have been given this space. It has been a privilege to have this platform, one that I never took lightly, even as I struggled some months to find something to say.

Eventually, knowing that I needed to address you each month honed my observations, leading me to become more reflective and attentive to relevant issues and ideas. And given the Star’s diverse readership, I could aim for breadth, writing about the visual representation of a wide variety of subjects, from climate change to vaccine selfies to photos with Santa.

Given the Star’s diverse readership, I aimed for depth too, researching my topics and conducting interviews to bring as much information and insight to you as I could.

Yet, no matter what I wrote about, my preoccupations remained the same. Looking and seeing, ethics and consent, power and responsibility, these are the questions that I continually grapple with in my own work, and which showed up here month after month.

These fixations were echoed in all of the other activities that I undertook during my time as photo laureate, including talks and tours, portfolio reviews with photographers, jurying the Scarborough’s New View Photo Contest and curating the exhibition “We Buy Gold” last summer.

Mine, of course, was unfortunately the pandemic term, which meant some projects were cancelled. So, as I wrap things up this month, it’s extra sweet to be able to share one final project with you in the heart of our city.

Currently installed on the ramp at Nathan Phillips Square, “Shine On: Photographs from the BIPOC Photo Mentorship Programis the inaugural exhibition of photographs produced by mentee participants in this homegrown Toronto initiative.

Founded by Sheridan College professor Heather Morton, the BIPOC Photo Mentorship Program was launched in September 2020 as a way to address systemic barriers faced by emerging BIPOC photographers and with the goal of encouraging diversity in the industry.

That month, I wrote about the program in this column and the important actions that it was taking, following the protests and the black squares and the hot air of summer 2020. Since then, more than 100 photography professionals have stepped forward to offer more than 210 mentorship opportunities.

The mentorships have varied in structure and content: from fielding business questions by phone, providing on-set opportunities, giving project-specific critique via Zoom and FaceTime, offering structured research and shooting assignments, to hosting virtual group-based check-ins and encouragement. Like many others, I was keen to see the results.

The opportunity came from the team at Doors Open Toronto and, as you can see above, the outcome is a wowser. The 15 enormous photographs on display range from portraiture to fashion to still life, adorning city hall in a wash of colour and craft.

In highlighting the work of these photographers, the exhibition responds to this year’s Doors Open theme of “Renewal,” touching on “the world’s awakening to deeply rooted social, cultural and environmental inequity, injustice and imbalance.”

But the theme might be even better encapsulated by the relationships forged between these mentors and mentees. While the work of the mentees is deservedly writ large, “Shine On” also seeks to celebrate the effort put in by the mentors to renew our photographic industries.

This is the goal I have shared as your photo laureate, and it truly has been my honour to serve. The city invested in me, as did you, and I am grateful. Thank you for reading and for looking and for seeing.

“Shine On: Photographs from the BIPOC Photo Mentorship Program” is on view until May 31. Presented by Doors Open Toronto in partnership with the BIPOC Photo Mentorship Program, CONTACT and ArtworxTO: Toronto’s Year of Public Art 2021-2022. Doors Open Toronto is presented by Great Gulf and produced by the City of Toronto.


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