By Nadja Sayej
In the early 2000s, Chicago photographer Carlos Javier Ortiz had a dream of becoming a photojournalist. But after working at a local newspaper, he quickly learned that it just wasn’t for him.
“I worked at a newspaper because I wanted to cover my communities,” he said of his time in Camden, New Jersey, where he wanted to cover the day-to-day lives of the city’s Hispanic and black communities. “I was told I couldn’t do that.”
Ortiz is part of the community he photographs – he uses his camera to be a subjective viewer. “It just started by me going to shootings and sticking around when journalists were not, getting to know the families, that took years,” he said. “I saw a progression of how communities got involved after violence was inflicted on them.”
That whole “sticking around” concept led Ortiz to ditch his dream as a photojournalist and embark on an art career. Now, almost 20 years later, he is showing 100 photos as part of an exhibition just opened at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago entitled Chicago Stories.
From jail cells to block parties, vigils and graveyards, Ortiz has spent a decade documenting how violence affects Chicago families long after the news crews have left. Photographed through an empathetic lens, much of his work has been a way to push against stereotypes, but also to detail what the news world has overlooked.
“When people get shot, journalists cover it in a way that’s ‘this has got to stop’ but there is no critique of the system that puts people in a terrible situation consistently,” he said. “Why are we there besides taking photos and film?”
By bringing his camera into neighborhoods such as Englewood and Auburn Gresham, he started his project We All We Got after a shooting in the community in 2004. “I said to myself ‘I got to do this’, because I didn’t know how to talk about these things, but my ideas were there,” he said.
The series is a haunting, almost nightmarish account of the link between youth culture and gun violence in Chicago. The camera follows empty boarded-up houses and teenagers playing with guns, as well as young inmates in prisons and even casket shopping.
There are youngsters wearing custom-made t-shirts to commemorate loved ones lost, a blood-stained sidewalk with a young onlooker, police officers searching for evidence with flashlights on a barren road, melancholic open casket shots from funerals and commemorative walls lined with memorabilia.
“I got really close to people I was photographing, I took part of their lives,” he said. “It was important to attend protests, vigils, parties and celebrations in my community. I found it important to.”
One of the families he got close to was that of Siretha White, a 10-year-old girl who was killed in a shooting in 2006. Her death sparked protests across the city and Ortiz got to know her family in the days after she died. In the following years, he met with other families who had lost children to violence.
Visually, each photo has its own dramatic quality that triggers an emotional response. “When I was there, I was feeling what I was photographing,” said Ortiz.
There is a poignant sub-series of photos that shows incarcerated youth at a detention center in the St Charles district of Chicago. “It was about talking about the prison pipeline,” he said.
Ortiz, who was born in San Juan, grew up in Chicago in the 1990s. He recalls always having trouble finding the right words to express himself, so turned to a camera as a vehicle of expression. “I daydreamed a lot in school and had trouble communicating,” he said. “When I discovered cameras, I felt I could talk.”
He attended a high school where only half of the 3,000 students graduated. His fellow classmates had been stabbed, dropped out to join gangs, and one even went to jail for murder.
“The kid who sat next to me was Puerto Rican, like myself, his family was part of a gang,” said Ortiz. “He ended up murdering someone as a gang initiation. One day you’re in school with someone else like yourself, then he’s being walked out of school and never returns.”
What asked what has changed, Ortiz says that the same narrative he’s seen continues on the streets today. Gun violence is decreasing in Chicago although 426 people have already been shot this year. Ortiz has seen the cycle of youth violence in inner city Chicago.
“It’s this quagmire you’re in,” he says. “The neighborhood is the place that’s like a washing machine. It either doesn’t change or it’s gentrified and you’re out. There’s no room to grow.”
He’s also showing works from his series A Thousand Midnights, a photo series and film which was created on the anniversary of what would have been Emmett Till’s 73rd birthday.
“The title came from Emmett’s cousin, who did an interview a few days before his funeral and was describing how he felt being in a room with Emmett and said, ‘It was as dark as a thousand midnights’. So that became the name.”
Fusing past and present, there are photos of Till’s gravestone, a mural of the Obamas and a photo of film director Spike Lee shooting a film at night. “I’m inspired by news events taking place but looking to talk about a bigger structure for these problems,” said Ortiz. “It focuses on events we experience every day.”
This series is also personal, as it’s based on the story of his wife Tina K Sacks’ mother who migrated from Mississippi to Chicago. It taps into the Great Migration, where six million African Americans migrated from the south to cities in the north, including New York, Chicago and others, as this photo series was made in 2015, a century after the migration began.
“It was about going internally in my family and asking questions about the second wave of the great migration,” he said. “That came back to the work I was doing in Chicago: kids getting killed, families in dire needs, descendants of the Great Migration. The Great Migration opened my eyes to all of it.”
Ortiz is showing his photos alongside David Schalliol, a Chicago film-maker and photographer who is screening The Area, a feature film which follows community activist Deborah Payne who is fighting a multi-billion-dollar freight company who is attempting to buy and demolish more than 400 homes owned by African American families in her Englewood neighborhood.
Alongside the film, Schalliol is showing his Isolated Building Studies, photos which document remote buildings in Chicago which signal areas of decay.
Revealing the truth of Chicago doesn’t necessarily attempt to shed a particular positive or negative light on the city. “I can’t predict what the viewer is going to feel, but I do lean on the side of empathy,” said Ortiz. “Not as in ‘look at these poor people’, but we dream the same way. The empathy you have for your child you should have for mine. For me, it is all about community.”