Along the shores of Lake Erie live a wide range of people whose lives might seem very familiar to or wildly distinctive from your own.
In the documentary photo series North of Long Tail, photographer Colin Boyd Shafer tells the stories of more than 20 residents of Lake Erie’s north shore. From a teacher to a surfer to a refugee, these residents come from diverse backgrounds and different lifestyles, but like millions of other people, Lake Erie serves as their lifeline in the midst of worsening algal blooms and effects of climate change.
“There’s something that seems to run throughout the stories and it’s – people use different terms for it – but I heard it called ‘lifeblood’ or ‘lifeline.’ Water is essential for life, and so many people feel the lake is essential for their life,” Boyd Shafer said.
The series, published by Environmental Defence, is available to view for free on the Environmental Defence website.
Great Lakes Now Intern Grace Dempsey had a conversation with Colin Boyd Shafer. The following interview was recorded, transcribed and edited for clarity.
Great Lakes Now: First of all, could you talk a little bit about your background in photography? How did you realize it was something you were interested in?
Colin Boyd Shafer: It was a slow thing, it wasn’t something I went and studied. I was teaching in Malaysia when I started taking a lot of pictures, doing what I think is very typical of white men in other countries, which is taking pictures of things they don’t understand. Then I realized that a piece was missing, which was the story. Now I push myself to make sure that I understand and connect with the people in my photos. I’m not interested in taking pictures of strangers. I’m interested in connecting with people and making sure that they’re represented in the way they want to be.
The first big project that I did, seven years ago, was photographing people from every country of the world who had moved to Toronto. That was how Environmental Defence became aware of my work. When they were thinking of doing a big project on Lake Erie, I think that’s why I came to mind, because I create big projects and I do them with compassion. And I happen to have a background in environmental science, which is what I studied in university.
GLN: That worked out well. Do you know anything about the intentions that Environmental Defence had with creating this piece? What was the premise?
CBS: Environmental Defence have been trying to get people to care about the environmental issues that plague Lake Erie. And it’s very hard. People tend to care about charismatic species, but they don’t care very much about something like algae, which is the biggest problem facing Lake Erie right now. Then there’s the whole NIMBY effect, which means “not in my backyard.” People tend to think, “If the algae is over there, why should I care about it if I’m over here?”
In 2014 when Toledo lost its drinking water to the algae, everything started to become more real even in unaffected areas. Recently, these problems got much worse, like the algal blooms of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. People took action back then and started to fix the problem. Right now Environmental Defence is trying to make sure we don’t get to that point again. The purpose behind North of Long Tail was to find a way to get people interested in Lake Erie’s issues in a more personalized, human-connected way.
GLN: Reading the individual accounts made Erie’s issues much more personal for me. Did you have that experience, or do you have a personal connection with Lake Erie?
CBS: I didn’t grow up with a connection to Lake Erie, but while working on this project I came to realize that the river that runs behind my house ends at Lake Erie. I never thought about where the river started and where it ended.
That’s true for most of us. There might be one farm beside the lake, and there’s runoff coming from that farm into the lake. But that farm isn’t the biggest concern, it’s the small amounts of runoff coming from all of the fields into rivers and streams, and then they eventually make their way to the lake.
All of the Great Lakes are incredibly special, but we take them for granted because most of us don’t know what it’s like to live in a desert or to get our freshwater through desalination. We just have so much of it.
GLN: That’s a really good point, and the people you interviewed were well aware of that. What was the interview process like? How did you locate participants?
CBS: Obviously, we were dealing with real people, so we couldn’t just decide we were going to photograph a specific person, we had to get permission and see who was willing to take part. We wanted to span the whole northern shore, not just any specific area. And we wanted to make sure that people came from different backgrounds, so you’ll see a wide range of walks of life included in the project. It’s an attempt to be fairly representative of the populations that exist along the north shore.
It’s really important to do the background work before meeting somebody. We planned out what we were trying to accomplish with each person and made sure that they really want to share their story. Not everybody is very talkative. Many people don’t like having their picture taken. But that’s where I’m most comfortable. I don’t like photographing people who are really comfortable being photographed. That feels weird to me.
GLN: So keeping the people that you’re interviewing at ease is a big part of telling that story.
CBS: Yeah. I make sure that the photographs I’m taking are representative of what the people in them want. My term for that is participatory photography. Instead of imposing my thoughts on the project, I try to work with the subjects to create something. I’m still in touch with many of them because it creates a connection.
GLN: That’s really good to hear. Are there any subjects that stand out to you in particular?
GLN: I think there are two stories that are really important for people to engage with. The first is Carrie Ann and Janne of Caldwell First Nation. Most people don’t know much about the history of the Indigenous population in that region, but Lake Erie’s name actually comes from the Iroquois word for long tail, erielhonan. Growing up, Janne wasn’t allowed to learn her language. Her parents didn’t teach it to her because they were afraid that she was going to be put in a residential school, which aimed to strip Indigenous people of their culture. So fast forward to today and Carrie Ann, Janne’s daughter, works for Caldwell First Nation. She knows the language well enough to be teaching her mom, and that’s part of their story, even though their story is incredibly connected to the lake.
And the second story is Michelle’s story. I didn’t know a lot about North Buxton, but a lot of its population came through the Underground Railroad to Canada. Some may have come around the lake, but some actually crossed the lake. North Buxton is not the last stop on the Underground Railroad, but it was quite a long way to travel for Black families coming all the way from the South in the United States. It’s a really tight-knit community that has done a good job preserving its history, but the local people around here don’t know that story. And so it was meaningful for me, and I think Michelle as well, to be able to kind of do this project with her daughter, to share their story and connection to the lake, because the lake represents freedom for her.
GLN: For readers’ sake, what are some of the most important things they should be taking away from reading North of Long Tail?
CBS: There’s something that seems to run throughout the stories and it’s – people use different terms for it – but I heard it called “lifeblood” or “lifeline.” Water is essential for life, and so many people feel the lake is essential for their life. Holly, one of the participants, talked about how she drinks Erie’s water. We’re made of mostly water, and when we drink that water the lake becomes part of us.
A common thing that many of the people acknowledge is that they took the lake for granted. It’s such an essential part of their life. It’s always there, it’s always been there. It’s true for me too. I got to bring my wife and baby along, and because of that, the first lake that my baby ever swam in is Lake Erie.
GLN: What do you hope, if North of Long Tail has an impact on anyone, what do you hope that it’ll do in the world?
CBS: There’s clear policy in place for what the government needs to do to protect the lake, but it’s not being enacted. I hope that Environmental Defence and other organizations can use this to push for positive action in regards to the lake’s protection. And then I hope that when we look back in 20 or 30 years, we won’t have to say, “Look how beautiful the lake was.” It would be really sad if my daughter doesn’t know what it’s like to eat perch from Lake Erie or swim in the water, but that’s the direction we’re heading right now.
Erie is unique because it has this history of resilience. It recovered from the algal blooms in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I hope it’s able to do that again.
Catch more Lake Erie stories on Great Lakes Now:
Featured image: Robin holds a photo of herself at Hawla Beach in Bataan on her first visit to the Philippines. (Photo Credit: Colin Boyd Shafer for Environmental Defence Canada)