This year marks the 15th anniversary of The AjA Project !
Co-founded by Shinpei Takeda and Warren Ogden in 2000, The AjA Project is an organization that works to transform the lives of youth and communities through photography. I had the opportunity to catch up with Shinpei on Friday, November 4th, and we discussed his inspiration for creating The AjA Project , his work with refugee communities in the El Cajon area, as well as his future plans.
The interview was conducted in the lobby of the AjA building that used to be the City Heights public library, where the entirety of wall space is filled with past art pieces and participant photographs. Shinpei and I began by talking about his journey from Japan to North Carolina for college. Shin told me that his confusion about what he wanted do with his life led him to get a grant from his university to travel to Thailand: “I started to go there [Thailand] and teach English.” By junior year, Shin started doing photography projects with one of his friends from school and they eventually did a show in New York City that completely altered his view about art. Through his travels, Shin felt he had seen both sides of the spectrum, and wanted to build a bridge between two communities: the refugees and the wealthy, “For me, it’s all about communicating the two sides. Getting people to see the stories on both ends is how I want to create the story.”
Stories are extremely powerful tools to convey messages, and they are tools that Shinpei understands and uses in all of his pieces. This theme of storytelling and creating memories inspires a lot of people regardless of their backgrounds. Shin learned the importance of visual storytelling at a young age. “I’m privileged to have traveled from one place to another,” Shin shared, “and I want people to understand my experience. It all started out when I was a kid, and I wanted people to understand what I was seeing in different places. I couldn’t articulate it, so I started taking pictures.” This desire to help people understand various topics also inspired Shin to create common ground between people who don’t understand the similarities between themselves and others. “We are not so different from each other. They [refugees] are not terrorists, they are not dangerous, and we need to break that misconception. The world will be a better place.”
Shinpei Takeda started The AjA project in 2000 when he was 21 years old in partnership with fellow graduate student, Warren Ogden. In those early years Shin financed the work by driving rickshaws on the weekend and writing grants during the weekdays. The inspiration originated from a dream to create an organization that worked to empower the refugees in Thailand, but then grew as The AjA Project team realized that the scope of the issue was much greater. They sought to create an organization that has a lasting impact on the citizens of San Diego.
When you imagine an art piece, do you usually imagine it in a museum? An art gallery? What about in a public space? The location of an art piece helps define its meaning for its audience. Recently in Dresden, Germany, one site of the horrific World War II bombing, Shinpei created an art piece that spoke to the tensions in that small city and allowed people to start talking about what had happened in their history. “[With art], there will always be dialogue. Art is tangible, but it’s not too personal; art is an excuse to talk about something; and art is a form of communication.”
What I took away from this interview was that art making does not have to be about the individual artist showing their work; it can be about connecting a story between unlikely people and creating a safe space for everyone to participate in something larger than themselves. This is a story that I am grateful to be a part of.