“People sleep down here, up there, over here, where we were just at. Everywhere we are showing you so far is where people sleep,” said Montgomery Tobias, 60, speaking about the empty campsites and makeshift shelters hidden throughout Cedarvale Ravine.
Tobias, with four friends he knows through Native Men’s Residence, is trekking through the trees, near St. Clair Ave. W. and Bathurst St. All are armed with disposable cameras to shoot photos for MYTORONTO, a new contest aimed at showing Canada’s largest city through the eyes of people who have been pushed to its margins.
The men chose to focus on a place full of natural beauty where they regularly walk, swap childhood stories, share what they have in their pockets and have sought relief from the struggles of daily life.
They also wanted to highlight how a lack of affordable housing and a chaotic shelter system leads vulnerable people to seek a life entirely off the grid.
The people who make the ravine their home won’t return until after dusk.
“So they are safe to set up their campsites, sit down and get something to eat and maybe lay down and go to sleep,” said Tobias, who thinks the city should make it easier for people to live outdoors if they choose.
In July, organizers of the MYTORONTO project handed out 100 single-use Fujifilm 35 mm, 27-frame cameras, to people who had experienced homelessness or are currently without housing. Five days later more than 2,400 images came back.
Judges picked 40 that will be blown up and unveiled at a public exhibition on Oct. 18, as will the top 13 photos that will be published in a calendar that winners will be licensed to sell on the street. The calendar will also be available online.
The Star will be publishing the stories of the winners this fall.
MYTORONTO is modeled on MyLondon, launched by Café Art, in England, in 2013. It was brought to Toronto by humanitarian charity Ve’ahavta and the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness, with the support of the London team and made possible with the help of city staff, agencies supporting marginalized people, commercial businesses and leaders in the photography world.
The prizes include $500 for the cover image, $200 for the 12 remaining months, and $50 to anybody who took a top-40 image.
Camera pick-up, drop-off and phase one of a two-part judging process took place at Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts building.
That first day, 70 people were given cameras, lunch and a short lesson on light and perspective, for those who couldn’t attend earlier photography workshops. The extra 30 cameras were handed out by project volunteers, including members of Inner City Family Health Team and Habitat Services, to clients and friends who fit the criteria.
Participants were instructed to show what Toronto was to them.
Their pictures range from panoramic skylines taken from Toronto Island to a focused shot of a cardboard box on the street. Swans, frenetic shots of performance artists, iconic Toronto street signs and portraits of friends and strangers were among the images judges, and later, a steering committee sorted through.
Several people had more than one photo in the top 40.
MYTORONTO project co-ordinator Daphna Nussbaum said she hopes the competition will show off the valuable perspectives and potential of people parts of society can overlook or underestimate.
“They do have a voice, they do have vision,” said Nussbaum. “When an opportunity comes along they do take advantage of it.”
Ten cameras are still out there. Nussbaum said they would look at the film if the cameras are returned, but the main contest is closed.
On camera pick-up day Lolley Jeng, 26, knew part of the story she wanted to tell.
“I am just trying to flip the script and say you think homeless has a face, it doesn’t have a face. It’s the situation that you are in,” said Jeng, who is currently staying in a women’s shelter.
Jeng, who recently started a drywall finisher apprenticeship, wants to raise awareness around the housing needs of lower-income workers.
“It is ridiculous, I love Toronto but I am not in love with Toronto,” she said. “I respect the business of construction, but I don’t like the social aspect where they are not catering to the people who drive the economy.”
She took some of her photos along a stretch of train tracks, overgrown with grass, in Scarborough.
“The trains, when it goes by I always think about the destinations. The places I want to go,” said Jeng.
Later that day in the ravine, Tobias, along with Ray Solomon, 53, Guiseppe Carulli, 47, Tim, 50, and Kenneth, 45, shared jokes, cigarettes, bottled water and photography tips.
During a rest at the base of a bridge Carulli ran to scout for places where people sleep, then to the top to capture the skyline. Toronto, he said, is a world-class city and it doesn’t make sense that not everybody has a home.
Tobias stopped to snap a park bench, branded with the name of a private donor. “I spent the better part of seven seasons on that bench,” he said.
Solomon said somebody should fundraise to create a memorial bench for homeless people, using donated wood and the carving skills of people who might have used the shelter system.
The walks through both sides of the ravine system have revealed red-winged blackbirds, red foxes, raccoons, jackrabbits, “one stupid coyote” and a pair of red-tailed hawks.
The men don’t all currently live at the shelter, but when they did they got into the habit of leaving first thing in the morning. Solomon, between taking pictures of graffiti, explained the ravine is “a great relief” from a place where privacy is non-existent and tempers can boil over.
Tim spent most of his time quietly scouring the reeds and trees. Kenneth, from Ghana, wanted to wait until sunset, so the light would enhance the beauty of the horizon and the dense vegetation.
“Everybody feels this is just like a concrete jungle and I have to meet with friends like that to learn there is a place like this that is just like Africa,” he said.
At the end of the path, Carulli comments on the beauty of a distant view of the CN Tower, visible across a grassy field.
Tim walks into position, steadies his camera and clicks.
Tobias teases him. “You need a zoom lens buddy.”
Carulli jokingly insists he should get half of any prize money.
Tim agrees it has a shot.
“Yes, I felt that picture is going to win.”
The winners of MYTORONTO photo competition will be on display from Oct. 18 to 22, at Artscape Youngspace on Shaw St.
Their stories will be featured in the Toronto Star and details about the contest and where to buy the calendar are at http://mytorontocalendar.com .