Alberta artist photographs Canadians for national birthday

Tim Van Horn is traveling across Canada shooting portraits by the thousands on the way to creating a vast mosaic of Canadian faces

Tim Van Horn has taken 32,000 photos of Canadians so far

Tim Van Horn, Maple the van, and his bike. (Taylor Ablett)

 Tim Van Horn says the idea to take 36,000 photographs did not come from him. 

"I like to think that it found me," says Van Horn. "It put it in front of me, and I chose to listen to it."

Fifty-five months on the road  with his dogs and camper van, he's 20, 000 portraits in and roaming the streets of Hamilton for fresh subjects. His goal is to take 36,000 portraits by 2017, and to take 22, 000 more portraits that year, the year of Canada's 150th birthday.- a total of 54,000 photos.

The project started in 2008, with the goal of playing a major role in the country's 150th birthday. Van Horn says he sees a need for Canadians to feel part of a powerful message, and the project has been an evolution.

"36, 000 people represent 0.1 per cent of the population," says Van Horn. "Each of us has a story, so it takes these 36, 000 stories and weaves those together into the story of life."

Van Horn travels around Canada in his 1981 refurbished camper van, outfitted with a two-burner stove and a fridge. The van is self sufficient for two weeks at a time, and is decorated by mosaics of subjects previously shot.

Van Horn approaches his subjects by telling them about his project, and where the photos will be displayed. He then asks if they would be willing to have their picture taken, and tells them where they can find it when it goes online; usually about ten days later. Not everyone obliges according to Van Horn, as he estimates 30% of subjects say no.

A military background

Van Horn's upbringing plays a major role in the project, with dedication and perseverance in his genes.

"I was born into a military family," says Van Horn, 43. "We travelled for the first 13 years of my life, and so I kind of developed a sense of duty with the military, and I kind of got hooked on travel in the military."

"The fact that my grandpa was in the Second World War and my dad was in the Canadian Armed Forces for 26 years, I was raised feeling you should have a sense of duty. So this is my creative tour of duty."

Van Horn says he knew he wanted be a cameraman at the young age of five, and although he is not currently making a profit from this project, he will continue on until his goal is complete.

"I have some commercial jobs, that are photography jobs, that are coming up," says the Alberta native. "I am putting my own money into this thing so that I can maintain control over it, and say to that person on the sidewalk, 'I'm here for you'."

He has no corporate or government sponsorship, supporting himself along the way.

"My job is to inspire on the sidewalk," says Van Horn. "Look, I'm just one man doing this trip, you can do whatever you want too."

Life long learning

Van Horn says this project teaches him more about himself and about life everyday.

"When I started this, I was a lot less knowledgeable about life, and the different stages of life. And now, with every encounter, I'm becoming a little bit wiser."

That wisdom has brought Van Horn to the realization that this project is about the celebration of life.

Van Horn has been to every province and every territory in Canada, including Nunavut in minus 60 degree weather, and he wants to shoot everywhere in every season.

"I have to go to as many towns as possible to include everybody," says Van Horn.

A typical day for Van Horn includes a couple hours of travel, three to four hours of shooting, an hour of editing, and walking his two dogs that travel with him.

He says  all of his equipment is on it's last legs: "It's all on a wing and a prayer."

Regardless of who Van Horn approaches, he never feels unsafe or like he is in a situation that is dangerous. He says this is because he talks to so many people in one day, all judgment and prejudice is removed.

"This whole thing is wrapped in a huge karma bubble," says Van Horn. "Because I am doing such good work, I am being taken care of. It's as easy as that, so I don't really worry about things."

Canadian Identity

Traveling across the country has taught Van Horn about the life of Canadians, and how our diverse culture unifies and identifies us.

"I best equate our identity to world citizens. We have all the cultures here, we think liberally, we are pretty easy going, and we are open to change. We use a lot of technology and so I really think the Canadian identity is best identified as being a world citizen. I'm proud to say that."

Van Horn hopes his project will inspire Canadians to be open, to communicate with each other, to be friendly, supportive, and to remember everybody has a different story.

Van Horn will continue to travel across the country in his quest to create the biggest portrait ever done of Canadians, with Canada's 150th birthday in 2017 as his final goal.

All the photos Van Horn takes are available for free on his website,