Toronto photographer creates in-depth portraits of city's taxi drivers

Photographer Henry VanderSpek walked CBC Toronto through some of his favourite portraits of taxi drivers and the stories behind them.

Henry VanderSpek's exhibition 'Taxi Drivers of Toronto' will show as part of the Contact photo fest

VanderSpek first became interested in cab drivers after witnessing what he calls the 'social network of taxis' firsthand about a decade ago. 'They are connected with each other and have that ability to help out people in need in the city,' he explained. (Henry VanderSpek)

A new photo series on display this month as part of the Contact photography festival is dedicated to capturing Toronto taxi drivers as they move around the city.

Toronto photographer Henry VanderSpek, whose photo company is called Culturesnap, said he first became interested in taking pictures of taxi drivers more than a decade ago, while working at a refugee agency.

"A taxi driver brought a refugee claimant to the door … I was really intrigued how the driver found out about the organization, because we had no signage," he remembered.

"He said, 'I asked a bunch of my taxi driver friends, what can we do to help this guy.'"

VanderSpek's interest in what he describes as "the social network of taxi drivers" was born and in 2013, he began snapping their pictures and interviewing them about their lives.  

He walked CBC Toronto through a series of his favourite portraits.

Swapan, photographed in front of Union Station, impressed VanderSpek with his commitment to giving to charity back home in Bangladesh. (Henry VanderSpek)


"One of the things that I learned about him is that he and his wife support 60 kids back in Bangladesh. I'm sure it just kind of grew as the years went by because he's been driving for a long time. I [believe] they are orphans. They send money, and there's an organization that helps them get schooling and makes sure they are cared for."

Rotimi agreed to pose for VanderSpek on a cold evening in early spring, telling him all about an encounter with Seinfeld star Michael Richards. (Henry VanderSpek )


"He met Michael Richards, but he didn't know him by any other name but Kramer. He made him take off his glasses, and said, 'Let me look at you!' and he said, 'You're from Seinfeld.' The last bit of Rotimi's anecdote was, 'He gave me a dollar tip.' Drivers do remember the big tips that they received so I'm sure he thought it was curious he only got a dollar."

Taxi driver Najeeb agreed to pose for photographer Henry VanderSpek outside of the Royal Alexandra theatre on King Street West. (Henry VanderSpek )


"In the middle of our interview someone walked by and asked him for directions, and he gave very specific instructions for this individual on the street how to get to where they needed to go. There's a constant service benefit that the city is getting from these drivers in terms of their knowledge and insight."

Aamir, a Beck Taxi driver pictured in front of Massey Hall, let VanderSpek in on his favourite way to pass the time between fares: studying trivia. (Henry VanderSpek)


"One of the questions I asked drivers is what they do in between rides when you're waiting, I wanted to know what keeps them engaged. He said he studies trivia, and he does it so he can play cash cab. So of course, I had to ask him what cash cab is. He asks passengers if they want to play, and he'll give them trivia questions, and if they answer them correctly, he'll give them a free ride. I figure with all the years of studying he's done they've got to be some good ones."

Qhadeer, pictured on Simcoe Street by Roy Thompson Hall, has moved on since the photo was taken and is now working at an airport. (Henry VanderSpek)


"He's such a kind guy. He studied tourism at Centennial. I followed up with him more recently. Since about a year now he's been working at the airport in Edmonton so he's moved on. His situation, and maybe a couple of other drivers I spoke to, really illustrates what taxi driver work can be. They talk about it being a first job for immigrants. I saw a number quoted that in Toronto, more than 90 per cent of taxi drivers are immigrants. So it's an immigrant story, the work of driving a cab." 

With files from Here and Now