Welcome to Chicago: re-segregating, hyper-gentrifying, national-trend-frustrating Chicago. As the homicide rate has declined in other major American cities in recent years, Chicago’s has more or less stagnated, and apparently guns flow easily and increasingly through poor neighborhoods.
Since 2006, photographer Carlos Javier Ortiz has been getting to know the residents of high-crime areas, and documenting their stories in stills and video for a short film called “Too Young To Die.” His photos, some of which appear here below our interview, comprise a sobering and emphathic account of life under threat of violence. They also capture moments of stubborn, carefree childhood joyfulness. Ortiz often insinuates his lens into the epicenter of chaos, listening to police scanners and turning up on the scene while a young victim is still sprawled, bloodied, in front of gathering crowds. This close up, some of the photos are painful to witness. See: a grieving mother, girlfriend, and worried-looking baby sitting beneath a long column of butcher paper crawling with dedications to a dead man. An old man shielding his eyes with a handkerchief as he weeps at a funeral. Photos of other photos, depicting young men in cap and gown, slightly blurry images pregnant with promise.
Ortiz is raising money for the film on Kickstarter, and at the end of our interview below about the project, he asked me to tell audiences that “any amount they can give, no matter how small, helps.” He’s about $8,000 away from his goal.
Nishat Kurwa: Let’s start with the Siretha White story. Can you talk more about how you went from seeing Siretha’s story on the news, to attending her funeral, to turning this into an ongoing project?
Carlos Javier Ortiz: I actually started thinking about (youth violence) years ago when I saw lots of kids being shot and killed. But nothing really sparked a light until these two girls were shot back to back, in the same week. It was a week apart. Starkisha Reed was murdered when she was getting ready to go to school – this is what they wrote in the newspaper – and nibbling on a piece of fruit. She heard gunshots and looked out of her window, and got shot in the head. The guy that was shooting was basically in a car, shooting at another guy across the street. It was over a girl. I went to Starkisha’s funeral and her family wanted privacy (so I didn’t take pictures). I actually walked up to her casket and saw her laying there. Beautiful girl, young, and she was just laying there, dead. And then I got to know her mother afterwards. Her mother is really active in making sure that the same thing doesn’t happen to another family. A week later, Siretha was shot at her birthday party on a Saturday night. And the the irony of it is that the mothers (of the shooters and the victim) knew each other, grew up blocks apart. I approached Siretha’s family and told them what I was doing and her mother didn’t really want to talk at the time, but one of the family members made sure to get in touch with me. They had a memorial for her at her school on her actual birthday. They sung “Happy Birthday” to her. She never got to cut her birthday cake, so they took the cake back home, and cut it, and celebrated her life. I went to her house, and dropped off the pictures. Her mother called me up. She called me up and said, “Baby, I need you to do something for me.” She wanted me to go to the radio station with her the next day. She didn’t know me from Adam. She just had this trust in me, and wanted me to tell her story. So then I covered Siretha’s funeral. After that, I was just like, I gotta commit myself to doing this.
NK: You cite prisons and street violence as two of the themes that have been central to this work. Everyone from community workers to politicians uses the term “stop the violence,” but what do you think that means to your photography subjects? What do they think could change the violence that’s struck their families?
CJO: I think they would like to see a change in their neighborhoods. A lot of kids talk about, “We need jobs, the resources are s*!#.” Liquor stores are prominent. There’s really no infrastructure. I was driving down the street the other day on the South Side, and there’s food deserts, no supermarkets. Chicago public schools are really working on having afterschool and mentor programs, which I believe has helped a lot. Segregation has a lot to do with it…it takes away from the young kids. They’re not segregated on Facebook, on television, but they’re segregated in their neighborhoods. We had high-rise poverty for years. For the past ten years we had the biggest project complexes in the city, and then they were dismantled, and people were moved all over the city, which led to more gang violence. Gentrification pushes them off to another part of the city.
NK: What’s your sense of how street violence might be changed given the shifting political sands in Chicago, with Rahm Emanuel’s election? Is it your sense that this issue is a priority to him?
CJO: I think Daly started working on the South Side and then he just kinda neglected it…the past seven years it kinda fell apart. I did a story about this family that lived in Hegewisch (on the South Side). The father was a worked for the city as a garbage man. He would clean alleys on the North Side, and then come home to garbage strewn in his neighborhood. They may not be paying the same taxes, but I believe we should live in a society that should offer that. In some parts of the South Side there are five to six boarded up houses on a block. If Rahm can do something about poverty in Chicago…it just takes a good idea. Community gardens in the summers. Offering incentives to desegregate the South Side. Those are things that will definitely curb this.