Voice Staff Writer

Friday, June 03, 2005 | It’s been a little more than one year since Crawford High School senior Nick first picked up a camera. Since then, he has taken countless black and white photos of his home, his family and his neighborhood in City Heights – the street signs on the corner of his block, his sisters playing under a tree, an electrical tower against the sky.

Nick, 17, a Sudanese refugee, is one of more than 200 San Diego students who have participated in The AjA Project, an international nonprofit organization based in City Heights that teaches photography and multimedia to refugee youth.

For Nick and other AjA participants, taking photos is more than just a hobby; it’s a means of communicating their personal experiences and thoughts on adjusting to life in the United States.

“It’s another way to express my feelings, what I think about … the things I’ve been through. Basically it’s a way to store memories,” said Nick, who immigrated to the United States with his family eight years ago.

But Nick wasn’t always interested in photography. It was his father who encouraged him to pick up a camera through AjA’s Journey program last spring.

“I didn’t want to get in (The AjA Project). I thought taking photos was very easy. When I got into the program, it wasn’t just about taking photos; it’s about a way of looking at photos,” he said.

Founded in 2000 by two college friends, The AjA Project takes it name from a Spanish acronym “Autosuficiencia Juntada con Apoyo,” which translates to “supporting self-sufficiency.” AjA currently runs programs in Thailand, Colombia and San Diego, helping children affected by war, violence and displacement to become empowered, self-sufficient individuals.

Summer Lopez, AjA’s vice president, emphasized the key of the program is to put cameras in the hands of communities that are often a subject of documentation and are usually without the resources to document themselves.

Using point-and-shoot and digital cameras, AjA instructors and volunteers not only teach the photographic basics of composition, light and perspective, but provide an outlet for these youth to tell their own stories, “to honor what they’ve come from in their past and express who they are in their new home,” Lopez said. By snapping photos and writing short captions to accompany their images, students learn “to be proud of who they are and not to feel that (their identity is) something they have to hide. That it’s something important, that’s valued by the community.”

Since opening its City Heights headquarters in 2002, The AjA Project has taught participatory photography classes through after-school programs in City Heights at Crawford High School and the multicultural storefront at Springfield College, as well as Cajon Valley Middle School in El Cajon, a city that has one of the largest Iraqi and Afghan refugee populations in the United States.

The organization believes that strengthening self-confidence through creative expression is particularly important for young people who have experienced upsetting events in their homeland and usually continue to face difficulties, such as gang violence and struggling with English, upon their arrival here.

“We provide a tool. We’re there to help the transition … to transform those difficult experiences, things that I can’t even imagine, the ordinary lay person can’t even imagine, into some kind of leadership,” said Shinpei Takeda, AjA co-founder and president.

AjA’s latest endeavor to foster dialogue and bridge cultural differences, both within the individual refugee communities and within the greater San Diego community, is a two-month public art exhibition, “INTER+SECTIONS: Photos and Stories by City Heights Refugee Youth,” which opens Saturday.

More than 100 large-scale photographs and stories from about 40 AjA students, including Nick, will be displayed in storefront windows and on exterior walls and fences of businesses along 14 blocks of University Avenue (between 40th and 54th Streets) in City Heights. The stories, written in English, will also be translated in Vietnamese, Arabic and Spanish to increase accessibility within the community.

AjA students’ photos have been shown to international audiences in Washington D.C. and at the United Nations. However, this is the organization’s first major exhibition in San Diego.

“This is an opportunity for the students to express themselves in the most public space but also for the community to recognize and value the creativity of young people here in their own neighborhoods,” said Warren Ogden, AjA co-founder and executive director.

Hanging the photos along University Avenue not only provides a unique venue, but also showcases the rich cultural diversity of City Heights, a community with residents from over 100 countries speaking 32 different languages. Colorful business signs in Arabic, Vietnamese, Spanish, Chinese and other languages are scattered down the length of this main thoroughfare.

“We didn’t want to do a typical museum exhibit because this community doesn’t really go to museums. We want them to be a part of the exhibit. We were kind of looking for something a little non-traditional that would incorporate the community as part of the event. That stretch of University Avenue … is kind of part of the artwork,” said Lopez.

She, along with the rest of the AjA staff, hopes that the exhibition will bring residents throughout San Diego to City Heights, an area that many “may think they don’t want to go to but that is really fascinating and has a lot to offer.”

Most importantly, Lopez adds, the youth will appreciate “seeing that other people care about what they have to say.”

“INTER+SECTIONS” opens Saturday, June 4, in conjunction with the 13th Annual City Heights International Village Celebration. The exhibition will remain up through the end of August.

For more information and to see AjA students’ work, visit

Please contact Claire Caraska directly at

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