54,000 Portraits: One Photographer Captures the Many Faces of Canada

Through his Canadian Mosaic Project, photographer Tim Van Horn of Red Deer, Alta., has woven together 54,000 portraits from 1,200 communities—the largest portrait in Canadian history. And it took almost a decade to make.

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Everyone dreams of that endless road trip across Canada from coast to coast, but so few of us embark on what should be a rite of passage, a pilgrimage bound to our citizenship. Personally, I had to wait 40 years before I set out across Canada from my home here in Red Deer. When I did set out, it was in a newly camperized GMC full-sized van heading east into the heart of Canada.

The Canadian Experience

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Crowd of international peoplePhoto: Tim Van Horn

What began as a well-intended, but somewhat aimless, one-year journey to capture a photographic “day in the life” look at Canada, became a decade-long, life-changing, creative quest to unite an authentic, multifaceted face of Canada.

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Mother with her babyPhoto: Tim Van Horn

One wife, two dogs, three vans and five trips across Canada (without a spare tire) later, 54,000 portraits from 1,200 communities have been taken and woven together—making it the largest portrait ever amassed in Canadian history.

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Canadian man wearing parkaPhoto: Tim Van Horn

With a new adventure around each new bend, the weeks flowed into months and the months into years. My time was spent wandering across the nation, extending myself in goodwill to complete strangers of all ages and nationalities. I respectfully challenged everyone I came across to believe in my desire to unite the nation—by having their portrait taken.

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Two Muslim Canadian womenPhoto: Tim Van Horn

Despite being a 40-something white male from Alberta, I found myself being welcomed whole-heartedly by people from all walks of life. Whether it was standing on city street corners, showing up at front doors or places of work, I was overwhelmingly greeted with trust, support and intrigue.

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Man on motorcyclePhoto: Tim Van Horn

As I traversed freely across the country—in all seasons—I was transformed. Shedding all connections to my past persona, I was reborn into a new character, finding vigour and purpose in life for the first time.

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Elderly Canadian manPhoto: Tim Van Horn

I continued to follow the road less travelled. I felt as though, somehow, I had been chosen to put a face to our nation: I had received a “call to duty” and headed off into the unknown.

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Canadian familyPhoto: Tim Van Horn

One day in my fourth year of travelling the country, and after dealing with several difficult situations, it dawned on me that I was now engaged in an epic, modern-day pilgrimage to unite “my people.”

The public seemed to understand my mission. So many people supported my cause and boosted my morale—I received donations of every shape and size, from fruit to funds.

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Two Asian Canadian womenPhoto: Tim Van Horn

During the course of my travels, there were days I felt as though I was caught up in a profound dream state that I couldn’t wake up from, while other days I suffered unimaginable torments and just wanted to return home. I was dirt-poor in terms of money but rich in experiences and adventures.

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South Asian-Canadian womanPhoto: Tim Van Horn

The project continued, one person, one story at a time, uniting the family of humankind into the face of Canada’s intrinsic multicultural mosaic. The photographic story I wanted to tell was falling into place.

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South-Asian Canadian boyPhoto: Tim Van Horn

I began to study the collection of portraits, analyzing the visual dialogue, the meaning behind each portrait and piecing together the collective voice of everyone I had met.

I was bearing witness to the collective will, tempo and sentiment of the people. With story after story, I gained insight into the workings and ideals of the Canadian mindset. Each story was penetrating my soul—I was in awe and would tear up daily with so many revealing and touching encounters. Simultaneously, while I was busy traversing the country collecting the portraits, I was also trying to figure out how best to share my colourful, insightful findings with the nation—taking it on the road seemed to make the most sense.

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Canadian couple with cameraPhoto: Tim Van Horn

Although I technically hit the road on May 26, the tour officially begins on July 1. In celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, the ‘To Canada With Love’ mobile education pavilion will embark from the grounds of the legislative assembly in Victoria on Canada Day and make 150 inspirational stops over a year-long cross-Canada tour.

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Canadian protestor Photo: Tim Van Horn

The entire exterior surface of this interactive, multimedia magic bus is a medley of 54,000 portraits, text, music and flags, giving the pavilion flare, movement and a fun, festival-like atmosphere. The mission will be to spark a wave of inspiration, pride and inclusivity across Canada.

The magic bus will beam out a message of goodwill in an effort to connect the soul of our nation in a contemporary love story, as we celebrate a new chapter as a country and a people.

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Originally Published in Our Canada