Che Kothari is a photographer, director, producer, organizer, manager, instigator and artist. Whether in life or in his practice, Che brings tremendous energy towards anything he creates. He graduated from Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts in Stills Photography in 2005, and in his final year was the Managing Editor of Function Magazine Issue 6.
Interview by Julia Nemfield
Transcribed by Dylan Courville
FN: What led you to photography?
CK: When I was really young, I remember grabbing my dad’s SLR camera and taking it out to shoot some pictures on the street with my friends and stuff like that. A couple years later, my mom bought me a little Kodak camera for Christmas. I wasn’t too excited about it, but I remember shooting at school with it. I started to print 4×6 prints and put them up on this big white wall in my room—the wall eventually filled from side to side and top to bottom. I developed an amazing passion for photography and documenting my community, which at the time was my high school. When I became the yearbook photographer, I heard there was a darkroom in our school that hadn’t been used in years. My friend and I convinced the principal to allow us to re-open the darkroom and we taught ourselves how to use it. That’s when we started a photography club where we taught other kids photography. We developed all their images in the darkroom and the only thing we asked them to do was to buy the supplies. It was a turning point for me. The club really gave us the opportunity to test our skills and to learn new things.
FN: When did photography become more than just a hobby?
CK: It really all comes down to the time I took the yearbook camera home with me and brought it on a family trip to Curaçao. I started shooting landscapes, but where photography really awakened in my DNA was when we ended up the Curaçao Carnival parade. I jumped the fence to take pictures, and because I had the camera no one asked me to leave. I realized the access photography gave me and as I was taking these photos, I started to realize the importance of the pictures and wanted to go home to share them with my community.
FN: How do you develop that connection with your clients and the people that you’re photographing so you feel that you are accurately representing their story?
CK: Especially because I’m a portrait photographer, so much of my role is to document the essence of someone and who they are at that time. I create an image of the person in the time that I have the opportunity to meet them, but my goal is to make it timeless. A person is beyond their body, they are a spirit and that is what I am capturing. Some experiences are short and you have only got five minutes to capture their soul and their essence. Other times you have a few hours, or a couple of days to travel with someone, and you can really get to know them and create more intimate moments. In every instance, my core objective is to get to know the person as much as possible.
FN: Is there a particular person who has helped you or inspired you throughout your practice?
CK: Mentorship is very important to me. First of all, my family has continuously helped me throughout my practice, especially my father. Even though we had a difference in opinions on what my life and career should be like, the foundation that he set around family values—his focus to provide for his family, and his community service—those are the core values that ground me as a person and seep into everything that I do. Professionally, in terms of my understanding of my role as a photographer, Jamel Shabazz is a photographer that I reached out to by email. I honestly just said that I really loved and appreciated the work he was doing, and we developed a strong relationship from there. Through that experience, I was inspired to mentor young people. These mentorships, in which I am the mentor, are as valuable to me as being the mentee. For me, it is always an each-one-teach-one mentality; it is a cycle. I love having young people around me and I love having elders around me because I am in the middle gaining from the knowledge of the future and of the past and I am living in the present.
FN: Are you doing this mentorship work through your non-profit, Manifesto?
CK: Yes, Some of it has been through Manifesto, but mostly it really came out of my time at Ryerson. During my years at Image Arts, I was being incubated in a place where there were four hundred other students trying to figure out their identity. We were given a space for critiquing our art and developing as a whole, but it was not that diverse of a space. It was still predominantly white, and the conversations we were having were about a certain type of art that was being created. Outside of school though, I started to get invited to a lot of hip hop events as a photographer and I always went because I loved the diverse community. My role started with documenting these communities and then I started to invite people into the studio.
FN: So Manifesto started with you being welcomed into a diverse community?
CK: It was definitely a starting point. Eventually though, I called a meeting at city hall, and said let’s all come together, and discuss what we can do to change our reality. In the beginning, it was just twenty people discussing the barriers we were facing as a community, the solutions, and our next steps. But each time we called a meeting more and more people attended. At one point, we had 650 young people coming to city hall to talk about how we were going to stop the violence through the arts. This continued to evolve, and the Manifesto Festival was born out of those town hall meetings and our discussions about what the community wanted to work on together. The mission statement of the organization is to unite, inspire, and empower diverse communities of young people through arts and culture.
FN: How do you define success, and what do you hope to leave behind?
CK: I think success is living in my purpose —to self-actualize, and to inspire others to do the same. I wake up every day and I put my purpose at the forefront, and the actions that I do in a day have to point towards that. I want to be living in my fullest integrity and building towards my purpose. I always hear people saying that they want to change the world, but when we recognize that we are a part of the entire omniverse, once we change ourselves, we have intrinsically changed the world — that is the real goal.
FN: What is next for you in terms of producing and artwork?
CK: I started taking on management, on top of sharing Manifesto in Toronto, I am the president of the organization in the United States, and an active supporter and member of the Manifesto Jamaica. I manage Machel Montano, the king of soca music, and I manage a few Toronto artists as well. What I am interested in is developing self-sustaining communities with artistic and human development. I am working with family members and mentors to create new spaces, in a few global locations. I would say, through it all, we are starting to formulate what a self-sustaining community looks like for us and how it works to actually live in harmony with our purpose.
View more of Che’s work here