What the mask you wear says about you

Photographer Paul Perrier captures Toronto's incredible diversity: of its people, places and COVID couture.

Welcome to Uncultured, where, paradoxically, you can expect a shot of culture. If you have any comments or suggestions, drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

There may be no fashion accessory better tailored to aloof Torontonians than a mask that covers the nose and mouth.

Is that your back off face or your keep walking face? Suddenly it’s hard to tell!

The city might even seem friendlier now that we all have a reason to cover up and keep a distance from one another.

Especially when the masks we’re wearing look like this.

Or this.

This one? Not so much.

Perhaps no one is better acquainted with the city’s legendary standoffishness than Paul Perrier, who has spent the last six months cycling around, asking strangers on the street to pose for a photo with their masks on.

By his own count, the Montreal-raised, Toronto-based photographer was rejected more than 3,000 times.

“Most people were indifferent to even stop and listen to what I was doing. I think a lot of people thought I was trying to sell them something,” he says. “A handful of people got angry at me for some reason.”

Then again, some 467 subjects agreed to a portrait, and the result is the fascinating ‘Mask’ series, which wrapped last week and is showcased on his Instagram page, The Toronto Portrait Project.

Subject #896 - Thank you very much Mayor @johntory for participating in ‘The Mask’ portraits! Great start to the last day of shooting images for the series. #themask #torontolife #portraits #covid_19 #streetphotography #socialdistancing #isolation #eyes #besafe #toronto #canada #staysafe #ArtMatters #showmeyours #wearadamnmask #toronto_street #gohabs #maskuptoronto
September 21, 2020

Every photo offers several points of interest: the human subject, the mask they’re wearing, and the often vibrant Toronto backdrop. We’re left wanting to know more about the diverse places, faces and masks.

And is it just us, or do a great many of those human subjects appear to be smiling (or “smizing”) behind their COVID couture?

Perrier discusses the origins of the project, the highs and lows, and what’s next for the series. (Interview has been edited and condensed.)

I’ll start with the obvious: Why did you do this project?

This is how it started. I went out on March 18 with my camera and the fake brick wall that I used for “The Wall” series I shot last summer, because I was planning on continuing it after the winter months. It was quite a windy day and I was having difficulty taping the backdrop to a wall.

As I was packing it up, a woman walked by with a mask on and I thought it would make an interesting portrait ... mainly because most of the subject’s face was being blocked. I asked her to pose and she agreed. We spoke briefly afterwards. She worked in the film industry and was panicking about employment and was on her way to get tested for COVID-19!

The portrait is very simple; a woman dressed in blue, with a blue mask on, against a grey wall. I liked it and I figured that the mask would be the symbol that defines this moment in history.  

And why did you stop now?

I decided to stop shooting the series last week because I thought the six-month time period covered all the phases of the lockdown. I also didn’t want it to become too repetitive. On top of that I was also physically and mentally exhausted. It was like running a marathon a couple of times a week.

This past Tuesday I went out without my camera for the first time in a long while, and it felt very liberating not to be stalking subjects and locations. 

Can you tell me a few of your favourites?

That is a difficult question. I love them all, but there are so many that I shake my head at how the subjects and the backgrounds worked so well together. Here are a couple that stand out.

Subject No. 535: This was taken one month into the project. I think this photo is almost perfect in the sense of composition. The diagonal lines of the top part of the back wall work perfectly with the lines of her mask and the line created by her purse. The line that separates the top from bottom runs perfectly through her waist and the two horizontal lines on the legs of her tights balance out the two sides in a sense. I get dizzy looking at it after a while.

The full-frame image (not viewable on Instagram) of Subject No. 734 wearing a Ramones t-shirt is another of my favourites. It was shot in front of a vintage clothing store on Queen Street West. In 1979, I saw The Ramones perform at a bar in Montreal and it was a game changer for me. I explored the punk music scene and adhered to the D.I.Y. ethos. Still do.

How did you find people to shoot?

I went out with my camera almost every day for six months, riding around on my bicycle to different parts of the city searching for subjects. I often found a place I thought would make an interesting backdrop and waited for the right person to come by. Other times, I would see someone interesting walking along the street and I went after them and selected a location nearby. 

What did you learn from doing the project?

I’ve lived through many dark events in history of mankind … The FLQ crisis, 9/11 and a couple of freaky personal near-death experiences. The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest and I just did what I have been doing for most of my life, which is using creativity to help me cope with and find meaning in these tragedies.

These portraits helped me get through the last six months and I hope that in some way the series helps other people in the future.

How well do you know the city now?

Like the back of my hand. Just don’t ask me street names!

What's next for you? Will we see more from this series?

I have some big plans for the series now that it is done. I can’t share anything just yet, but I will be making announcements on the Instagram page as things proceed.

Thanks for reading, friends. Mask up, stay safe, and if it’s not too much trouble, click that little ♡ button on your way out. See you soon.