Fifteen years ago Shinpei Takeda was a struggling nonprofit entrepreneur who moonlighted as a downtown pedicab driver to pay the rent. He shared an Ocean Beach apartment—which also served as the office for his fledgling photography based nonprofit, The AjA Project—with the organization's co-founder Warren Ogden.
"The first few years were very difficult," said Takeda, who launched the organization in 2001 as a resource for San Diego's growing refugee population. "We had just enough funds to buy 20 point-and-shoot cameras. We used black-and-white film and had a makeshift lab in our garage."
The project has grown larger than Takeda ever thought possible, surviving an economic downturn and rapid technology changes and evolving into one of the more dynamic nonprofits in San Diego. Since its founding, the goal of the City Heights-based organization has been to enable self-expression and social change through the power of photography. The organization's programs and classes serve underprivileged youth, typically from refugee or immigrant communities, and teach them how to use cameras as a tool for making a personal statement. The benefits from these classes go far beyond simple technical skills, according to AjA executive director Melinda Chiment.
"In the communities where AjA works, there aren't many opportunities for young people to have their voices heard and have their perspectives shared to a wider audience," Chiment says. "Through the arts we provide that opportunity."
To reach a broader audience, the best work from the classes gets displayed in public art exhibitions. In January, AjA unveiled Flight+PATHS at the San Diego Airport, a mural featuring portraits and narratives from immigrants living in the Mid-City area. Like much of AjA's public art, the goal of the exhibition is to foster conversation about a polarizing subject, in this case immigration.
"We feel like oftentimes certain voices are excluded from social conversations," Chiment says.
On Saturday, Aug. 27, the AjA Project will celebrate its 15-year anniversary at The San Diego Museum of Man with the official unveiling of its newest exhibition, Inter+FACE, a collection of self-portraits from San Diego teens that will be part of Museum of Man's ongoing Race exhibition. A majority of the exhibition pieces were produced by female artists from San Diego's East African Muslim community. Chiment says she envisions more exhibits like Inter+FACE in the future. That is, multimedia projects that are both art pieces and channels for self-expression.
"I never expected it to grow this much, not to mention that we survived the economic hardships of the late 2000s," says Takeda. "I suppose 'image' in all senses has always been and will always be an important factor in our society."