Walking around with lightbulbs on top of our heads

And the other ways art built community

An incredible thing happens when you witness that moment in someone else’s life when they realize for the first time that they are really, really good at something. I’m absolutely certain that if you could extract the power from that moment and channel it in the right way, you would be able to pick up a mountain and move it. To another planet.

About a month ago, I saw the world’s most beautiful and massive lightbulb hover and then go off right above Fidaa’s head, an eleven year old girl who happens to be a participant in our iAM program this year, and who also happens to be a Syrian refugee and newcomer to Canada. About four days into our program, she picked up the mobile phone she was using, kneeled down before some unsuspecting pigeons, and began the process of taking one of the nicest pictures I have ever seen someone with a phone take. The moment was made memorable because the photo was beautiful but what made that moment unforgettable was how proud that photo made her feel. It’s as if as soon as that photo was taken, a door opened up and unveiled to her a whole new world where through art and photography, she could be anything and anyone she wanted to be. There aren’t enough times where life blesses us with moments like these where all we can really do is stand back and be in awe that we are witnessing something so transformative for someone else. Call it privilege, an honour, or sheer luck, but man was I ever thankful to be there that day.

When we decided to focus our energy this year on providing a space for newcomers, we really wanted to test the boundaries of art and photography. We were interested in seeing if despite language and cultural barriers, we could achieve some of the same results as last year’s project when we worked with six youth who at the time identified as at-risk and homeless. Specifically, we were curious to see if through art and photography, we could establish enough trust to create a space where we could share our stories, develop friendships and lay a foundation where a thriving community could be built. After all, who could better benefit from such an environment than newcomers who may have been forced to leave some of these things behind? Could the project build that space we needed? Would the simple act of picking up a camera and having fun with it smash any of these barriers we were nervous about? At first, I was unsure… for about five whole seconds.

I love art. I love the whole idea of creating something out of thin air. I love how art, and more specifically photography, has rebuilt a city around me where I now notice and appreciate that there are ten billion different flavours of light and that each one sings, dances, and bounces off of people and things in different ways every second of the day. I love how this unpredictable relationship between light and where it casts itself creates a new city for me to look at and admire. I love how sometimes, if I’m armed with my camera and deep enough in awe of what I’m seeing, it’s easy to forget that I’ve been crouching down and staring at a wall in an alleyway for two straight hours trying as best as I can to recreate the magic that life has created in front of me. In some strange, yet meaningful way, capturing that beauty doesn’t just give me some photos to keep as proof, but personal purpose as well; it helps me express myself in ways that words never will and channel my energy into something beautiful. I love how art builds purpose, and I love how if you spend enough time looking for it, you’ll find an accepting community of others who feel the same way. The best part is if that community is a healthy one, it doesn’t matter what language you speak, how old you are, or what you believe in, so long as art is the reason you’re all together.

On the first day of our iAM workshop, it took five whole seconds to see this process unfold and a week to truly appreciate what had happened. At first, we didn’t know each other. Then, we picked up cameras and started shooting. It didn’t matter that we didn’t speak the same language because as soon we were exploring and being grateful of our surroundings, we were also having fun and beginning to tear down whatever perceived barriers existed around us. By the third day, enough trust had developed between us that we felt comfortable opening up about ourselves and having meaningful conversations around our own versions of the word home. By the fourth day while we were out shooting together, supermassive lightbulbs lit up on top of so many of our heads, you’d think we would have drained the rest of the world of any remaining creative energy. And then, on the last day, something incredible happened: we opened up the space and invited whoever felt comfortable to share their personal story with the rest of the room. As one of the youth stood up and began to share, I noticed that her nervousness began to dissolve as each word from her mouth was received with love and respect by the rest of us. In that brief moment, her words bonded us, and as she stood there in front of the room growing into a giant, her transformation was a reflection of the community we had built together.

JAYU’s iAM Gallery kicks off on August 27th at Markham House on 610 Markham Street in Toronto. Twenty-five youth took part in the program. To hear their transformative stories and see their beautiful photos (including the one with the pigeons), make sure to visit the gallery. To RSVP to the opening, click here. The gallery will be running in select locations across Toronto until the end of the year. To see the full schedule, click here. 100% of the profits from the photo sales go directly back to the youth.