Photographer’s focus inward brings greater depth of field

Photographer Ajani Charles, BA’08, began meditating in 2014 as he adapted new habits to improve his mental health. Photo by Ajani Charles, Hoame, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2020

A moment from Ajani Charles’ final year at Western captures his fast rise from fan to photographer of top recording artists.

“I remember editing photographs that weren’t particularly good in my apartment on the corner of Oxford and Richmond, while listening to Drake,” Charles said. “Two years later, I was on stage with him.”

A natural talent, Charles, BA’08, had been shooting and developing his own film since he was 12. But “digital photography was foreign to me,” he said. After poring over books and tutorials, he sought out mentors to critique his work. He also interned at 235 Films, home to some of the most successful music video producers in Canada, allowing him to improve at a staggering rate.

Today, alongside images of Canada’s top rapper, Charles’ portfolio boasts shots of Snoop Dogg, Janelle Monáe and Slash. He stands among the world’s noted photographers as a Canon Ambassador and owns a media production company as a writer, director and producer.

Yet, “a lot of the most seemingly impressive things I’ve done have had a dark aspect to them,” Charles said, recalling an “existential crisis” that saw him train his focus inward, emerging to use his artistry as a mental health advocate.

Drake in concert

Recording artist Drake, as captured by Ajani Charles early in his career.
Photo courtesy of Ajani Charles, The Sound Academy, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2009

“It all came to a head during the summer of 2014,” Charles said. Poolside at a Toronto club, he was surrounded by dancing, happy people but feeling “alone, disillusioned and dead inside.”

He was exhausted to the point of burnout, having buried himself in his work. “There is nothing glamourous about workaholism and perfectionism,” Charles said. “They are probably some of the most dominant forms of regulating emotions and disassociation in my life.”

Both propensities surfaced in childhood and manifested while he attended the Claude Watson School for the Arts in Toronto.

“I would be at school from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” Charles said. “I was the arts council president, I was on the basketball team, the rugby team, track and field. I would exhaust myself, especially in the last two years of high school. I would sleep on my lunch breaks to catch up.”

When he received offers from photography programs in the U.S., he declined. A quest to “escape from neurotic overachievement” brought him to Western to study philosophy.

“I thought philosophy could provide some clarity into who I am and what the world entails,” Charles said, noting his major had “a profound and positive impact on my life.”

A course on existentialism and the writings of Nietzsche and Sartre influenced his decision “to align all aspects of my life with what I was most passionate about, visual arts and photography.”

And while he worked hard to find success, he nearly lost himself. Until that turning point, in a club, six years ago.

“I’m grateful to have experienced pain, because it inspired me to truly change. Overnight, quite frankly,” Charles said.

“Many of my habits and thought patterns were unhealthy and maladaptive because they were no longer appropriate for my life. I replaced drinking with yoga and meditation. I replaced going to nightclubs with philosophy and meditation meetups. I learned how to process my anger and disillusionment. And I realized I could combine these new habits and paradigms with my career to help others.”

Sharing his own experience widely, he became a mentor at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), teaching clients the basics of photography and Photoshop. He’s an ambassador for Calm, the meditation and sleep app, and a writer for Thrive Global, founded by Arianna Huffington, to support individuals struggling with stress and burnout.

Charles is also art director for Operation Prefrontal Cortex. The project, aimed at curbing gun violence and systemic racism in Toronto through meditation and mindfulness, is cofounded by one of his early mentors: award-winning director Julien Christian Lutz (professionally known as “Director X”).

“I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a Zen Buddhist monk. I know Zen Buddhist monks, and I’m not that patient,” Charles said, noting he’s still very much on a journey of self-discovery, “working on projects that are fulfilling and in alignment with my goals and values.”

“Quite often the hardest path is the easiest in the long run, because of what you gain.”

Ajani Charles in full vertical portrait

Ajani Charles portrait by Neva Wireko