'Art from a different perspective': Homeless photographers aim to capture Toronto through their eyes

Up to 100 homeless and formerly homeless people are taking to the streets as part of a groundbreaking photography contest.

The winning photos will be printed in a calendar and displayed at an exhibit later this fall

Ana Leiva is one of up to 100 people aiming to capture Toronto through the eyes of its homeless residents. (Jacqueline McKay/CBC)

Dozens of unlikely photographers are on a mission to show a side of Toronto that's rarely been captured on film.

Armed with a disposable camera and given five days to prowl the city, up to 100 homeless and formerly homeless people are taking part in the first ever MyToronto photography contest. The winning photos will be printed on a calendar and then displayed at an exhibit in the fall.

The results will show the city "art from a different perspective," said Distant Thunder, one of the competing photographers who's been living in homeless shelters since 2015.

Distant Thunder says the contest is a chance to share his photography talents with the city. (Jacqueline McKay/CBC)

MyToronto is an opportunity to show "that we are beautiful, creative people who have many talents," Thunder said, shortly after receiving his camera on Wednesday. "One of mine is photography and I would love to share that."

"The participants may be able to show somewhat of a deeper understanding or a better understanding of homelessness," said Bob Singh, who's currently searching for a stable home.

Like many of the participants, Singh isn't sure exactly what he'll photograph during his five days with the camera, but will wait to see which scenes present themselves as he moves through the city.

Ana Leiva isn't sure where she'll point her camera, either. But she knows the emotions she wants her photos to evoke.

"I want to express how much I suffered, how in my body, I suffered being homeless," said Leiva, who endured three years without a home after moving to Toronto from Guatemala, and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder to this day.

'Self-esteem and dignity'

It will be weeks before the last roll of film is developed, but examples from other homeless photography projects offer a glimpse at what's to come.

The MyToronto project draws its model directly from the MyLondon homeless photography project, which has already produced several calendars filled with images captured by the homeless in London.

'London Calling' was one of the 2016 winners of the MyLondon homeless photography contest. (Cafe Art)
'Banksy's Dalmation' was selected as the cover photo of the 2017 MyLondon calendar. (Cafe Art)

Beyond the stunning images, organizers of the Toronto spin-off say the project can provide a much-needed lift to its participants.

"This is really an opportunity to provide self-esteem, dignity and meaningful activity to people who have been challenged by street life," said Karen Goldberg, executive director of Ve'ahavta, which is organizing the project alongside the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness.

"People really felt they had an important job to do when they were given this important opportunity," she said.

The photographers will also have a chance to make money through the project, organizers say.

'I hope to open some eyes'

Once the calendars are printed, the photographers will have the opportunity to sell them on the streets, pocketing $10 for every $20 calendar they sell.

While that opportunity will be valuable to some, others like Robert James Cotie say the chance to change the public's perception of homelessness is the most exciting.

He was homeless for six months around 15 years ago, and is now a homelessness activist.

"I think it's going to show that the individuals themselves who are homeless are very strong people and that it's through their own will and their own character that they're able to survive," he said.

"I hope to open some eyes through my photographs."

The calendars and photo exhibit are planned to be ready in October.


Nick Boisvert is a multimedia journalist at the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He previously covered municipal politics for CBC News in Toronto. You can reach him at