As soon as Anthony Esguerra walked outside into the cool air, he knew what he wanted to photograph.
He bounded down the steps of Ryerson’s Student Learning Centre (SLC) towards the market across the street, and pulled out the Sony a7 II he doesn’t go anywhere without.
He crouched and tilted his camera upwards, making the strap loose around his wrist. Angling it upwards at the rows of lights that stand out against the darkening sky, he hit the shutter release.
Esguerra, 23, is in his final year of marketing and law at Ryerson. He’s one of a growing number of street photographers in Toronto.
A quick scroll through #StreetsofToronto on Instagram produces over 700,000 results. They show images like the silhouette of the city skyline over a sunset, and a streetcar on Dundas with lights obscured by streaks of falling snow. With the rising popularity of street photography online, Toronto photographers have come together to form real-life communities.
On a sunny Sunday in February, Esguerra and four friends met at the SLC to host a photo walk. These photography enthusiasts advertised the event on their social media accounts.
“We thought there’d be a small turnout,” he said.
Sitting on the stairs, wearing a red winter parka too warm for the day’s weather, Esguerra started noticing people arriving with cameras. “It registered that strangers are actually going to come.”
In total, 40 people joined the photo walk.
As students and photographers continued to join, the group migrated inside. The women’s gold medal Olympic curling game was playing on a screen in the lobby of the SLC, and participants filed into the rows of white chairs to watch. They began bonding over the Olympics, streetwear and, of course, photography. By the time the group started walking to their first destination, an art installation at Bay and College Streets, people were proudly sharing their photos with each other.
“There’s already this kind of feeling that we’re supporting each other for our work just by being here,” Esguerra said.
Even when he’s not participating in a planned event like the photo walk, he likes to shoot with a group. “I try to invite as many people as I can,” said Esguerra. “It’s fun to shoot with other people and see different perspectives and see their process of shooting and editing.”
Mitul Shah, another Toronto street photographer, agrees that street photography used to be more “secluded,” but has grown because of platforms like Instagram. He gives workshops to other photographers, with the goal of helping, “others become better photographers or even learn photography.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever shot alone, because I feel like when you’re shooting with others, you learn from them and it creates this overall social experience,” said Shah, a fourth-year business technology management student.
The city of Toronto makes an accessible subject for Ryerson-based photographers, he said. “Being in the city often, and the growth of Instagram, people, especially Ryerson students, it’s easy for them to do street photography compared to more nature photography [or], landscape.”
The bonds forged between Toronto photographers have also resulted in photographers attempting to make connections with the larger Toronto community. Both Esguerra and Shah said they see photography as a way to create social change in the city.
Esguerra is an ambassador for Thank You Toronto, an organization that sells branded apparel and donates some of the proceeds to feed homeless people in the city. Thank You Toronto’s Instagram page features photography of the city, “to drive interest and traffic in their brand.”
Shah also points to Yasin Osman, whose #ShootforPeace project aims to provide a safe hobby for kids in Regent Park, and Jamal Burger, who asked fans of his photography to donate shoes and socks to kids in Regent Park and Bleecker areas, as examples of people who use their photos to help others.
Historically, street photography has been used to draw attention to social causes in Toronto, according to Sarah Bassnett, an associate professor of art history at Western University, and the author of Picturing Toronto: Photography and the Making of Modern City.
“Photographs were kind of used to make arguments for things like cleaning up the slums, and the health department used them a lot to make arguments about things that needed to be done to clean up the city, and transportation networks — things like that that were being built,” she said.
Those photos used to circulate in a print newspaper. Today, street photography reaches a wider audience through social media— and there is a larger number of photos circulating. And although Bassnett said that street photography used to be an individual pursuit of professional photographers, Esguerra’s 40-person photo walk proves that it has become a collaborative effort.
People stopped to stare at the group of 40 holding cameras as they made their way down Bay Street, pausing occasionally to photograph light shadows in between the tall buildings. Esguerra’s photo walk group stopped at the intersection of Bay and College Streets to photograph twisted, white sculptures. Then, they circled through Yorkville, finding a wall with what looked to be over 100 surveillance cameras arranged in neat rows. Along their walk, the group found some stray photographers, who joined the pack. Finally, they ended up at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).
Standing outside the ROM’s boxy glass exterior, Esguerra saw a man, alone, playing a slow song on an Asian guitar. He observed that people walked past the musician, barely noticing him. As the group of 40 photographers gathered for a group photo, Esguerra felt “thankful of what was happening” around him.
“I took a second to think about what we had accomplished, just all those people gathered from across the city in one location doing one common interest together,” he said.
“We’re pretty hard to miss, as this community of photographers.”
By: Sherina Harris