Che Kothari is an award-winning community leader, teacher and photographer who is most well-known for being one of the founders of Manifesto Community Projects – an innovative non-profit, grassroots organization whose mission is to empower young people through culture, while working to unite and energize diverse youth arts communities in Toronto and beyond.
Last month, CanPhoto contributor Ajani Charles had a chance to sit down with Che to have a conversation about his career and the many different hats that he wears in Toronto’s arts community and abroad.
It was a long conversation and this is only part one.
The second part will drop later, so stay tuned for more! Part Two of Ajani’s interview with Che is now available!
What first intrigued you about the art of photography and how did your education and career begin?
I think that photography is something that found me. I was pretty young when photography became part of my life – I was 15 years old and I basically began as my high school’s yearbook photographer.
To me, photography is really about documenting communities, the people that make up our lives and their stories. So, as a yearbook photographer, the community that I was a part of was made up of my schoolmates.
Working as the yearbook photographer, I had access to working with an SLR. Soon after starting that role I planned a trip with my sisters to Curacao, which is and island just north of Venezuela. We traveled there to checkout Curacao’s carnival.
Coincidentally, I was sick the Friday before my trip, so I wasn’t able to drop off the SLR camera at school and I took it with me on my trip (Che smiles mischievously).
I ended up shooting some phenomenal pictures at the carnival in Curacao. There was a barrier that divided on-lookers from the people who were participating and jumping up in the carnival parade. But, because I had a camera I noticed that the people behind the barrier were welcoming me. They gave me the confidence to jump over the barrier and become part of the parade. No one said anything to me because I had a camera.
When I got back to Canada, I compared what I had documented in Curacao with some of the things I was learning in our Canadian school system. It’s at that point that I realized that I had a role to play as a photographer. I felt that I needed to start documenting this stuff and sharing it with my brothers and sisters back home.
That’s kind of when I get the photo bug — during that trip and it continued to evolve from there.
I did have formal schooling, as well. I went to the Image Arts program at Ryerson. I told my parents when I was 16 years old that I was either going to be a travel photographer, taking pictures around the world or I was going to go to school for photography.
My parents immigranted to Canada in 1969 from India and belonged to the merchant class and they moved to Canada to setup a new life for their family which they would begin creating soon after landing. They came with only about $17 dollars in hand, not fully knowing the language and started working right away. Eventually they took all their experience and opened their own business in Guelph where my family grew up, and most still live.
For me to say that I was going to be an artist was a very big deal. Their perspective was “no, you’re an Indian boy and you’re going to take over the family business. So, if you’re going to be an artist, go be an artist and figure that out on your own.”
So, I moved to Toronto at the age of 17 and I funded my own way into school, I got a scholarship into Ryerson while I also schooled myself by reading books and studying under mentors.
I’m a big believer of reaching out to artists whose work I admire. Because of that, I’ve reached out to Jamel Shabbaz, Ernie Pannicoli and others that I have become good friends and collaborators with and who have influenced my way as an artist, photographer and human being.
I really feel that the street schools and the communities that I’m a part of now — the Reggae and Hip-Hop communities are do it yourself communities. I’ve always been trying to figure things out on my own.
That knowledge and lens of looking at my artwork through the cultures that I’m now a part of has defined who I am as a photographer and why I do what I do.
It’s really about knowledge — knowledge of self and my story and placing myself within the images that I’m taking. It’s about accountability. What images am I putting out in the world and what kind of images am I leaving for the next generation to look at? I recently completed an artists in residency program called Yemoya with another mentor of mine, d’bi young, where I delved even deeper into these kinds of questions.
Am I shooting images that are reinforcing negative stereotypes about my communities? Am I putting out images that are about bigotry or anything else that I don’t want to be putting out in the world? Or am I putting out images that are about love, respect, unity, family and community?
Images are powerful and it feels good when I say “I feel comfortable leaving this in our communities.” So, I’ve always asked myself questions like “what is my responsibility and integrity as an artist?”
I use photography as one of my tools. To me photography is one of the manifestations of my message. I am a vessel, you are a vessel and we are all vessels and we are channeling our energies, which we then share with the world.
One of my tools for doing that is a camera, another tool is writing, another tool is videography and another tool is festival planning. Photography was the catalyst for a lot of the other tools that I now use.
How has photography helped you break down barriers and what kind of barriers do you believe that photography has broken down on a grand scale?
I believe that photography has such a powerful ability to transcend language. We have such a brilliant capacity as human beings to think collectively and to have a collective consciousness and I think that photography and visual arts removes the barrier of language like other art forms do such as dance, music, culinary arts, spiritual arts, etc.
I’m really into creating images that will resonate with the entire human spirit on a global scale and that will awaken us to move and evolve into humanity 2.0.
I’m really into creating images that will resonate with the entire human spirit on a global scale and that will awaken us to move and evolve into humanity 2.0. We’ve already been there, but we’ve been distracted. Images have the power to do that — to distract us. We are bombarded by thousands of images a day, from when we wake up in the morning and look at our phone, to Facebook, to magazines, to driving down the street and so on. But, how do we create striking images that compel the human species to evolve as opposed to taking steps back? So, for example, how do we spread an image of a group of people sitting together while meditating? Recently, I’ve been really fascinated by images of the revolution happening in Mexico and the Middle East. Images of millions of people gathering and protesting for the people have been in circulation. Images like that have an effect on our DNA, as a species, when they’re shared through social media, they push us in the direction of waking up.
When you’re taking an image, you’re capturing light and identifying with a spirit or spirits and the same thing happens when you look at a picture. It’s a very spiritual act to me.
For example, the audio recorder that you’re using now is recording my voice, which will be available for people to listen to for thousands if not millions of years. Sometimes we don’t acknowledge the powerful and almost unimaginable ability that we have through the acceleration of technology and how it can help us accelerate our ability to reach collective consciousness — or remind us, because collective consciousness has always been here, is here now and will always be here — its infinite. To me, it seems as if we have an infinite amount of potential to use technology to aid in our progression and evolution – but this requires many of us to unlearn our current usage of it.
In terms of barriers that my photography has helped me to overcome as an Indian man living in North America, having a career as a photographer, I am now able to speak to an entire community of young people and their parents who don’t view art as being a viable career and life path.
So, for example, I can speak to an entire generation of brown youth that are interested in photography but are being discouraged from following their spirit’s desire. I think that there’s a role for me to play, in terms of promoting self-development and the stories that we want to share and also how can we use photography to empower a generation of people.
Furthermore, we can use photography today to show our elders, like my immigrant parents, for example, that art has helped us to become socially mobile. Photography and other art forms can be used to show our parents that we can build viable careers and viable missions through these art forms.
One of the most important things that I’m now using photography for is to document our rich histories, herstories and our stories. If I look at our Canadian textbooks and information that pertains to the communities that I’m a part of, those communities haven’t created it – there’s a lot of European influences in terms of what’s being taught to the majority of Canadians.
I’m looking to create a holistic learning community. Right now, I’m not even really shooting and I’m more into inspiring and empowering others to use their skills to aid in the development of a learning society.
Creating a holistic learning community will definitely break down barriers in the education system and it will show young artists that they can not only make a career out of their art forms but also reach new levels of awareness and belonging to their community.
Lastly, photography has helped me remove the barrier or notion of celebrity or higher status people.
It’s a funny coincidence that you mention that, because my first article for the Canadian Photographers Network has to do with the halo effect and how the average individual views celebrities and people that have attained a great deal of prestige as being super human. And the point of the article was basically to communicate the fact that we all have the potential to be great.
Yes, we all have the potential to be great.
Sometimes all it takes is for you to go up to someone to say “you’re beautiful, can I take your picture?” That act in itself says, “You are worthy enough to have your photograph taken.” It’s not something that should be necessary, everyone should know that they are as important as every other molecule in this world, but not everyone is in that mind space, so that act and those words can make a huge difference. This is something that brother Jamel Shabazz has always taught me. Photography can definitely help to communicate to others that they’re beautiful and that we all have a role to play in uplifting a larger global community.
In terms of working with celebrities, through photography I have shot a lot of artists. One of the reasons that I’m attracted to shooting celebrities is because I get to be close to those people through photography, a barrier is removed and I can tell them about my mission and my work in the community.
In much the same way, a lot of these big artists are messengers and I’m able to learn first hand their message and then share it with others. I’m getting messages from the messengers and I’m able to give messages to these celebrity messengers in a way that wouldn’t be possible without the access my photography creates.
I feel that it’s important to highlight the important work that these people are doing in their communities and document them for other generations to witness. Many of the people doing prolific groundbreaking work are not appreciated by the mainstream and therefore I take a responsibility in capturing them and highlighting their importance in our time. I hope to further this work and document even more underappreciated and under-recognized leaders and change-makers. And with that being said, I really don’t have huge interests in shooting messengers whose message I don’t believe in.
Don’t get me wrong, if I got asked to shoot someone like Lil’ Wayne, I would definitely do it for a couple reasons. I am on a serious mission to spread peace, love, unity and living healthy and in balance with the universe. So if I shoot Lil’ Wayne a few things can happen. It uplifts my voice in the mainstream, more people who revere Lil’ Wayne will be like wow, Che shot Lil’ Wayne and hopefully they will start to follow and be interested in my works and therefore my message and those of the ones around me and that I have documented with positive messages, can start to have some influence on their lives.
I also get some time with Lil Wayne in the studio, and in that time, I get to get a deeper understanding of him on a human level and better understand what he is trying to say. I also have the chance for him to get to know me, and in that time I can tell him about our work, or I can tell him about a large spiritual gathering that I’ve attended in India, or tell him my recent experiences with acupuncture and how important it is for us to heal ourselves etc… and you never know if I can have even the slightest influence, maybe he will write about it in a track and since his platform is so huge and so many young people hang off his every word – he could take the message and spread it further and wider than I could at this time. It’s cyclical and like a game of chess, but as Marley says “I am confident in the victory of good over evil.”
For more info about Manifesto, check out this great video and part two of Ajani’s interview with Che.