Photographer Anthony Gebrehiwot on being creative amid the COVID-19 pandemic

As a portrait photographer Anthony Gebrehiwot has had many feats – high profile clients, notable exhibits and award wins. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, it forced him to take a step back and re-evaluate his art, his career and his goals.
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Anthony Gebrehiwot tears up talking about his mom and what she went through in her journey to Canada from Rwanda as a refugee. “Just thinking about it, like damn, she just had to go through so much and do so much, that what I have to do with my life is like peanuts in comparison it feels like,” says the Toronto-based portrait photographer. “… It does give me a sense of purpose,” he adds. “… it does give me a sense of drive.”  

Gebrehiwot, known to many as Tony, has had many feats in his 10 years of being a photographer. His past clients include Nike, Olympic gold medalist Donovan Bailey, singer Tobi, the City of Toronto and Royal Bank of Canada. His powerful From Boys to Men series, which challenged how masculinity can fit into today’s society, was showcased at Nuit Blanche and he received the 2019 Flash Forward Award from the Magenta Foundation, a charitable arts-publishing house that showcases the work of talented artists on a global scale.

Right before the COVID-19 pandemic, Gebrehiwot had set out on another mission: to give back the art of storytelling through a series of photography workshops to youth from his own Toronto neighbourhood, Scarborough’s Malvern, in partnership with R.I.S.E. Edutainment and Art Gallery of York University. The workshops had to be cut short due to the lockdown, but Urbanology caught up with Gebrehiwot over the phone during the pandemic to find out more about his work, what this time has been like for him and how he remains creative. 

A lot of your work is very reflective on culture and thought provoking. Where does your inspiration come from?

It’s eclectic. It comes from a lot of different places, comes from music, comes from other visual artists, comes from my experiences … life experiences … my experiences in community. …  It’s like a direct reflection of who I am.

Your parents are from Rwanda and Ethiopia. How has your cultural heritage influenced your work?

I got to give a lot of credit to my parents. I feel like they instilled a lot of different values in me that inform the work that I do and I’m really inspired by their personal journey … My mom is from Rwanda and her dad was the equivalent of what we would say a mayor is here. But he and her also lived around the time of the genocide so she went from being like a very privileged person to a refugee. She went from having everything to nothing and had to come here with pretty much nothing. My dad … I remember I asked him how much money did you guys come here with when you came to Canada and he said like $500. They came with literally like not enough to even pay for rent and managed to survive. Not only just survive, but have a child, raise a child … Do their best. I didn’t know we were poor per se … like they did what they had to do … I’m so appreciative … just knowing their kind of background as I’m an adult now. I feel like that’s like my driving force and I’m just trying to make them proud and do what I can to make the rest of their lives easier.

What kind of things were you able to learn from your mom now that you’re an adult and able to humanize her and her experiences?

I’ll never have to sacrifice as much as they did … especially my mom more than anyone, like I’ll just never have to … There’s personal stories she’s told me that I can’t really share because they’re super, super personal, but you know, it’s like hearing that kind of stuff, like what she really had to go through even just to get to Canada, is like man … I’m tearing up just thinking about it, like damn she just had to go through so much and do so much, that what I have to do with my life is peanuts in comparison it feels like. … It does give me a sense of purpose … it does give me a sense of drive. It just means a lot to me … As an adult, you’re just like, oh, OK, she did this so it’s my job to push it forward so that I can create wealth for my children. I’m just looking at it from a generational kind of lens. Maybe three years into me actually taking photos on my own, she busted out her old film camera.

Oh wow.

And told me, ‘I went to college for photography,’ … I didn’t even know that. It was like in my blood, but I naturally gravitated towards it, you know, naturally picked it up. So that’s like another layer of a sense of purpose that came with my mom’s storytelling.

You took a year off from photography you mentioned, you said you were getting depressed. Do you think that those experiences of your own difficulties with mental health, taking the year off and everything, kind of helped you find your truth in what you really wanted to do?

As artists, even though you specialize in one art form, I feel like it’s super important to experiment with other art forms. Like at that time I was just writing and focusing on writing … When I went back to [photography], it made me appreciate photography so much more. I’m actually able to apply the elements of, let’s say, hip-hop into like the business aspect of running a photography business … how to hustle and how to do all of those kinds of things. I’m super grateful for even the time off from photography.

Just trying to create in a time when things are hard is an outlet in and of itself.

Photograph by Anthony Gebrehiwot / Model: Chantal Rose / Stylist: Khadijah Palmer / Make-up artist: Chantal Taki / Glow artist: Zyrelle Endozo

Prior to COVID-19 you were running photography workshops in Scarborough. Now with the whole COVID-19 situation and everything being virtual, do you think that idea of mentorship will change?

Good question. I mean, I think prior to COVID-19 there were already mentorship relationships that existed virtually … I know it can exist, but I also just don’t think it’s the same as physically being in the presence of another person … I’ve had some really great mentors over the course of my past 10 years. Che Kothari has been a great mentor, d’bi.young anitafrika has been a great mentor … I think what made those experiences so impactful was like physically being there. … With d’bi.young, she did an artist residency in Hawaii … I just remember sitting on top of a school bus in a farm field and having conversations about what really matters to me and things I’m trying to work through. You’ll never forget those moments.

How do you think you can be a leader or mentor for youth in a virtual world now?

That’s a tricky question because, at least initially, had you asked me the question when this all started, I feel like I really couldn’t because I was personally trying to fight for my own. Yeah. Things change. You know. I didn’t feel like I was positioned to kind of lead them … But what I have been doing, I’ve been just sharing more of myself online, kind of more of what I’ve been going through, and kind of more of what I’ve been creating during this time and not just sharing online, but like sharing it with them personally. I’ll just send them a message of like, ‘Yo, this is what I’ve been working on, but I hope it inspires you.’ We’ll talk about it.

How do you think that creativity can be helpful right now? Because, like you said, you were mentioning things to them and kind of being there for them, but what kind of ways could they do it themselves?

First of all, just trying to create in a time when things are hard is an outlet in and of itself. It’s like an opportunity to take whatever you might be feeling and putting it into your work and your creations. So, yeah, I’ve already had that conversation with them and encouraged them to do that … but also through the available opportunities that I’m sharing with them … It’s challenging them … [A challenge] I sent to them requires you to actually go out and take photos and highlight what this period of time, the quarantine time, looks like. Right now, people are going out, the weather is nice, but there was a time when everyone was at home and things were very different and I was like, OK… so how are you going to create when you don’t have people around you? And that was kind of one of the challenges that I put out to them. I mean, they’re doing it, you know, they’re open to it. They’re trying. And it’s cool to see that.

I had to let a part of myself die, in order for another part to be born, you know. And that’s painful.

Photograph by: Anthony Gebrehiwot / Model: Ayrah Taerb

I also find that there’s the other side of this quarantine where if you are creative, it’s like you have to come out of it with this new skill. Don’t rest, make something of yourself … I know that you sound like you’re having very positive experiences now, but you did say at the beginning it was a little bit frustrating. So how are you facing those challenges during the quarantine?

Yeah, and you are super right. I did initially feel pressure to acquire a new skill and develop a skill that I was already working on and all that kind of stuff. It was really tough in the beginning … but I think once I got over accepting the new reality that we were in, then I was like f— it… I just gotta do it. … I remember one day I was like, OK, I did everything I could do today. You know, I had the to-do list with everything, but it’s 3 p.m. and everything was done. And I was like, let me open up Photoshop and then I just started going nuts with like collage art or graphic art. I would just start pulling images off the Internet and repurposing older portraits that I could get and creating.

I’m creating these multi-dimensional kind of images that convey my energy … like the things that I’ve learned through my spiritual journey and all that kind of stuff. I actually did do it back in the day, like maybe 2015, 2016 or something like that … I picked it back up during this time and now it’s giving me so much joy.

Just when I thought I couldn’t really do anything else, or give in to the feeling of, like, feeling hopeless, and this whole arena of uncertainty that I’m living in … It really helped me translate my feelings into art … I’m super happy, with the creations I’ve been making, I feel like people are receiving it really well as well, which is great.

I know you mentioned that you were on a spiritual journey. So how has that process been for you?

Yeah, 2020 has been a year. Been a real year … personally, just like going through a lot of changes in my life. It’s been by far the most challenging year of my life.

And I think because it’s been so challenging it’s encouraged me to redefine who I am. Redefine what matters to me, like I think I got caught up in the day-to-day race of life in trying to advance my career, just getting lost in the hustle.

But I think when everything paused and when everything changed and when everything didn’t  seem like it would operate as it would normally look for the rest of my life if, like, I just saw capitalism existing throughout the course of my life. I mean, it’s still going to exist, but it’s not going to exist in the same way and the way that we used to live. So, when you factor in all of those things, it’s like I had to … I had to let a part of myself die, in order for another part to be born, you know.

And that’s painful.

I won’t even say, five years from now, or even in a year, because it’s kind of hard to tell, but where do you think you would at least like your journey to be?

If you had asked me this pre-COVID-19, I’d want to be working … all that kind of stuff … but I feel like this whole thing has taught me to just take it a day at a time … give every day the best I can. And everything else will follow.

I kind of tapped into a particular kind of space … that’s like … All you have to do is do your best and everything else will come. I don’t have anxiety about the future, I don’t have worries that like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be hard for me to adapt,’ … I shall (adapt) in this new reality that we’re living in. I just feel like I need to take it a day at a time. Put my energy into the things that are helping me grow and evolve and everything else that I desire will come out of that you know. I actually already feel it happening … I just have faith that everything will come when it’s supposed to.

Photos supplied courtesy of Anthony Gebrehiwot

Gabrielle Austin is a writer who is passionate about all things film, TV, music and culture related. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism at Humber College after receiving her Advanced Diploma in 2016. When she’s not looking for her next writing idea, you can probably find her watching some kind of reality show or reading a book.

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