In an era when a global pandemic has compounded feelings of loneliness and disconnect, taking care of our well-being is more crucial than ever. Toronto-based photographer, director, producer, mental health advocate, and Canon Canada ambassador Ajani Charles has personally witnessed the trauma that a lack of mindfulness and mental health awareness can inflict on both the individual and on the community, and now dedicates his multidisciplinary practice to helping others overcome the obstacles that lie at the root of personal and societal challenges.
Through the camera lens, Charles expresses the beauty of the human experience, weaving together stories of community and self-actualization. Since December of 2006, he has been working on Project T-Dot, a visual documentation of Toronto’s hip-hop culture. The series of raw and dynamic photographs tells the story of a rich and resilient community of world-renowned figures as well as the lesser-known creatives who have helped to build the tight-knit Toronto subculture, including members of LGBTIQA+ and Indigenous communities, women, youth from equity-deserving neighborhoods, and newcomers.
In an interview with Arts Help, Ajani expounds on his creative journey, the importance of mental health, and his years-long endeavor documenting Toronto’s hip-hop community.
Can you tell me about your background in the arts and how you got your start in photography?
I have a Fine Arts background, and professionally I’m a photographer. However, I do a lot more than photography. I'm also a producer, a director, and a mental health advocate. I write very frequently because of my Fine Arts background, specifically through the Claude Watson School for the Arts in Toronto. The conditioning of that institution helped me to avoid putting myself in particular boxes.
I have the capacity to create and express myself through photography, but also many other mediums — mediums that go beyond visual art. I've been on this journey since I auditioned and got into the Claude Watson School for the Arts at the age of nine, and my parents noticed that I had a propensity or inclination for the visual arts as early as the age of three.
In your experience, what is it about photography that works so well in conjunction with your work in mental health awareness and mindfulness?
I believe that the arts, including but not limited to the visual arts, are great at conveying messages, great at eliciting emotions, great at connecting with people and facilitating storytelling. For something like mental health advocacy, for example, it can be quite effective to convey that message in a way that is visually and intellectually appealing to the observer. The message will be more well-received if it's told within the context of a beautiful story or beautiful images, or at least images that resonate with the audience.
You've just recently had an exhibition installed in Toronto highlighting your work in Project T-Dot — can you tell me a little bit about this project and what it means to you to have it exhibited publicly in the heart of the city?
Yes, it means a lot to me, and it also means a lot many other people, namely the individuals who make up and have contributed to Toronto's hip-hop community. Project T-Dot is a project I've been working on since December of 2006, and I came up with the name and the general structure of the project by January 2007 at a rap battle.
As far as this exhibit is concerned, it represents so many incredibly creative and resourceful people who have rendered Toronto's hip-hop community a world class hip-hop community and one of the most influential in the world.
Their individual stories are very powerful, very interesting, very multifaceted, and I was attracted to the idea of shedding light on this community as a whole — and not just the music aspect that most people associate with Toronto's hip-hop community.
There's so many other aspects to it. There are profound painters, graffiti artists, break dancers, choreographers, DJs, community leaders, journalists, editors, writers, etc. that make up Toronto's hip-hop scene.
Project T-Dot is shedding light on all these individuals, on the sub communities within Toronto's hip-hop community, and the project was created to preserve the history of this important aspect of Toronto's history. It feels great that this exhibit has been produced in collaboration with ArtworxTO and Canon Canada because it was rejected countless times over the course of the 15 years that I had been producing it before it was approved for this exhibit.
The photographs that make up Project T-Dot are all in black and white — what was the reasoning behind this artistic decision?
It was very intentional. I chose black and white for numerous reasons. Black and white is very nostalgic to me. I first learned how to shoot and develop film and essentially learned the art and technology of photography by shooting with black and white film, specifically T-Max 400, so black and white is nostalgic to me in a general sense, but also personally.
Also, many aspects of hip-hop culture can be viewed from a black and white paradigm. Even though all aspects of human life and all aspects of human consciousness have a lot of nuance and are very complicated, in many cases beyond our conscious understanding, within the context of hip-hop, certain things are black and white. For example, if you watch a breakdancing battle, there is a winner and a loser. In a DJ battle, there's a clear winner and a loser. When it comes to selling records, for example, Drake is the clear winner in comparison to all rappers from Toronto — the rest are not quite on his level.
Those are some of the many reasons why I chose black and white for Project T-Dot. Another reason is that there was a clear desire to take Toronto's hip-hop community and history from obscurity to international prominence and recognition, and that was very clear, very black and white. When I began documenting Toronto's hip-hop community in 2006, there was a clear desire to go from being an obscure hip-hop scene in Canada's largest city to showing other cities in Canada, and nonbelievers in Toronto, and many communities around the world that Toronto has a world-class hip-hop community.
What have been peoples’ responses to viewing Project T-Dot? Have any reactions stood out to you?
I've been blown away by the response. When Kardinal Offishall officially saw that I announced it on social media, he said that he was going to the exhibit immediately. Amanda Parris, who's a prominent media personality, filmmaker, and writer, went to the exhibit recently and was brought to tears by the images.
Many people have told me that I've captured an important part of Toronto's history that has never been showcased before. Keeping in mind that Project T-Dot will be ongoing until 2024 (if not longer) there are also many images from the early 2000s, and those images in particular resonate with many people who have contributed a great deal to Toronto's hip-hop history. Most people that I've interacted with in general and from Toronto's hip-hop community have been very blown away by this exhibit and have said that it resonates with them greatly at an emotional level.
Though the power of art, Project T-Dot visualizes the Toronto hip-hop community by bringing together individual portraits to create a portrait of a whole culture. Can you elaborate more on this link between the personal and the collective as it is embodied in this project, and how well-being plays a role on all levels of a community?
First, I want to say that I'm very grateful to ArtworxTO (the City of Toronto's public artworks division). I'm very grateful for them and for the fact that they believe in Project T-Dot and that they facilitated its installation within two of Canada's most identifiable landmarks: Nathan Phillips Square and City Hall.
Within any society, the well-being of an individual is not mutually exclusive to the well-being of the community. I read a study recently that showed that public artwork has been proven to reduce the volume of car accidents. On top of that, COVID lockdowns, the increase of the cost of living in Toronto and other major cities in North America and elsewhere, and many other variables have caused people around the world, Torontonians included, to experience a great deal of stress, and public artwork alleviates that a great deal. The more beautiful a town or city is, the more accessible that beauty is to the citizens of a given town or city.
Project T-Dot has helped me a great deal, especially early on in my career. Entrepreneurship, the arts — it's incredibly challenging to monetize such endeavors. For every major success story, there's 1,000 so-called failures, and when I was struggling to gain traction in my career early on, Project T-Dot was something that was completely in my control. I could go out and document Toronto's hip-hop community, and it provided me with a sense of purpose and well-being and groundedness and reminded me that I am able to focus on what's in my control while letting go of what isn't. There's a lot to be said about how public artwork relates to the well-being of individuals and communities.
Project T-Dot, as I mentioned, sheds light on Toronto's hip-hop community and history as a whole. There are a handful of individuals who are important parts of Toronto's hip-hop community and who are strongly tied to it and who have experienced international superstardom of which they are deserving. Drake, The Weeknd, Jessie Reyez, my friend Melanie Fiona, Boy Wonder — these are all great examples of members of Toronto's hip-hop community who have ascended to the realm of stardom.
But there are lesser known individuals and lesser known communities that contribute to Toronto's hip-hop scene who haven't been given the shine that they deserve, from my perspective, and being able to do so through this exhibit and through Project T-Dot as a whole, I believe, has had a positive impact on the mental health and sense of self of these individuals.
As part of your practice, you teach mindfulness and mental health tools to influential figures like executives, entrepreneurs, musicians, and so on. Why do you think that the work that you do is so important and meaningful for the individuals in these professions or environments?
The reason I'm attracted to working with artists and entrepreneurs, people that are tapped into the creativity that all human beings have, is because I am an artist, and I'm also fascinated by self actualization. I'm fascinated by individuals who have an idea or a vision and put in the work to bring that vision to fruition. Mental health is directly related to that in the sense that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to bring an artistic project or an entrepreneurial venture to fruition if your well-being is compromised, if you have anxiety, if you have chronic depression, if you have low self-esteem, if you're plagued by chronic shame and guilt, if you have unprocessed trauma — this makes the act of creating far more arduous than it has to be.
Furthermore, I've been greatly disturbed by the fact that many great artists, some of which are prolific and others who are not very well known, have succumbed to their mental health challenges over the years, and I want to do everything in my power to prevent that, because creatives, namely artists and entrepreneurs, are avatars for self-actualization. They give most other individuals in society hope. They show that it's possible to create whatever it is that one wants to create. And at the very least, they create the art adventures that give most people meaning, hope, or, at worst, a distraction from the existential angst that many of us face in our day to day lives.
Generally speaking, we’ve made great strides in terms of mental health awareness even in just the past few years, but in your opinion, what are some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding mental health that we still need to address?
There's so many misconceptions and taboos related to mental health that exist in a general sense globally and throughout many communities around the world. There's so many different cultures that frown upon talking about mental illnesses and that frown on getting some of the treatments that are most effective. I believe there's great stigma around people talking about mental health, and there's great stigma associated with many of the treatments associated with different forms of mental illness, some of which are very effective and lower in cost.
I believe in empowering individuals and communities to speak up about their challenges and to seek the right forms of support because, quite often, it's not safe or advisable to simply start talking about one's mental health challenges to just anyone. If the proper channels were made available to all people in a society, and if the best practices of expressing one's challenges to mental health professionals or to the right supportive community were available to most individuals in Toronto and elsewhere, I believe that mental health conversations would be less taboo and less stigmatized, and people would be more predisposed to getting the help that they need.
Do you have any advice for artists when it comes to taking care of mental health and practicing mindfulness?
I think it's very important to write down goals and values, to be clear on what one's goals and values are. It's also important to surround oneself with supportive individuals, people who are on the same page who share similar goals.
Getting support for any mental health challenges is hugely important, whether it's anxiety or depression or any of the others that may compromise an artist's or entrepreneur’s capacity to create. I believe that the most easily accessible mental health interventions and tools are mindfulness practices and different forms of meditation. Most of these are free, and personally they've had a huge positive impact on my life. If I had to reduce all of the modalities that I engage in on a daily basis to just one or two, they would certainly be mindfulness practices.
Frequently engaging in personal projects is very important. As I mentioned before, Project T-Dot provided me with a sense of fulfillment and hope when I could not get that sense of fulfillment and hope elsewhere within the context of my career and artistic practices. One of the biggest mistakes that I've made throughout my career when I started my production company is that I focused on making money, supporting clients and building that business. I stopped engaging in personal projects. I rarely shot for Project T-Dot or any of my other personal projects, and that compounded my depression and made the journey of being a creative far harder than it had to be.
There's two ideas that are very dangerous. One is the idea that for an artist to be prolific, “truly an artist”, they have to suffer, that they have to be overly identified with their suffering, whether it's physical, psychological or both. That notion is very dangerous. Suffering is not necessary for creating great art.
The second thing is the concept of starving artists. There's this idea that if an endeavor or project is fun, then one can't be compensated well for it. Many artists feel that they're undeserving of being paid well and of being able to support themselves through their art. Art gives life meaning, and art inspires others. Art is a proxy for self-actualization. The artists who do these things incredibly well ought to be compensated, just as well as any great profession in the society that we live in.
Project T-Dot is free and open to the general public 24/7 at Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square until at least mid-July. A panel featuring Charles and other notable figures from the Toronto hip-hop community will be held at Manifesto Community Projects in Toronto at the end of May 2022.
Learn more about Ajani Charles and Project T-Dot here.