Siretha White was celebrating her 11th birthday when a stray bullet ripped through the front window of her aunt’s Chicago home, striking the young girl in the head and killing her almost instantly. Eight days earlier, and only a few blocks away, a stray bullet fired from an AK-47 had pierced a basement window and killed 14-year-old Starkeisha Reed. Her family was planning to move out of the house in a few days.
This pair of tragic murders motivated Carlos Javier Ortiz to begin his eight-year documentary project looking at impact of gun violence. By embedding himself with a few families affected by random acts of violence, Ortiz captured powerful images that examine the repercussions of a split-second of brutality. The images are challenging, but also catch moments of the incredible strength of those who are left behind.
During the eight years Ortiz worked on the story he says more than 1,500 young people in Chicago were killed.
The work was published earlier this year in a book, We All We Got, and will be on view until March 22 at the Bronx Documentary Center. The multimedia exhibit mixes Ortiz’s photographs with found objects collected in the neighborhoods where he worked, handbills from memorials, a projection of the names of those killed and an experimental documentary film. Ortiz says that, while documenting the impact of these murders was important, a crucial part of We All We Got was exploring the non-sequential flow of what it means to mourn.
“For me, the project was about memory and change and time,” says Ortiz. “These objects come from memory, the ephemera that people leave behind for loved ones.”
Here, Ortiz talks about getting started on the project, connecting with the families and working long enough to move past the misconceptions of gun violence.
You’ve said the murders of Starkeisha Reed and Siretha White pushed you to seriously pursue this project, but where did the initial idea for We All We Got come from?
The project was influenced by growing up in Chicago—just seeing certain things when I was young, on the news and in the streets. One of my father’s friends was a grammar school teacher and she was murdered outside of her school in the ‘90s: robbed and murdered. The police caught the wrong guy. They had to catch somebody. I don’t think they ever really figured out who murdered her. That was one of the things that I witnessed as a kid.
The project started in Chicago in 2000 in a way, in my mind— you know, you have certain aspirations in life to work on things. It didn’t take to fruition until I lived in Philadelphia in 2004. Then I seriously started working on it when I returned to Chicago in 2006.
How did you gain the trust of the families who are covered in the book?
I always say they chose me. People just opened their hearts to me. We have this bit of arrogance to say ‘I chose these people,’ but they really choose you. By knocking on doors, people see your face and people invite you into their lives and want you to be there after a while—they get mad when you’re not present.
You were often photographing very heavy moments like crime scenes, funerals but also capturing joyous moments—what was challenging about working in these places?
It wasn’t the place, you get used to being in a place. The funerals are always devastating, but then the prom and the graduations are another beginning. You are always being pulled back and forth. You are photographing devastation in a way, but you are also photographing moments of peace and joy.
How did the Chicago neighborhoods in which you were working change throughout the course of the project?
Chicago has gone through a big change. The biggest projects in the United States came down from 2013. Last year was the biggest closing of schools in American history. The power changing from one mayor, Richard Daley, who had been in power for decades, to Rahm Emanuel. The historic election of Barack Obama. Maybe people don’t notice it? The neighborhoods I worked in on the South and West Side have actually dilapidated even more, black folks have been moved out.
Was there a turning point in the project, a moment where people started paying attention?
I think after the election of Obama people started noticing Chicago. After he became president the press really started paying attention and coming into Chicago to do stories, but before that it was barely in the Chicago Tribune. The story that got out is, ‘all these people are killing each other,’ but it is more than that. It is the war on drugs, long-term poverty, all of these things fall together and the last part of it is the explosion of violence.
What would you say are some of the common misconceptions about gun violence in urban areas?
The story of black-on-black crime—black-on-black crime and brown-on-brown crime exist because the neighborhoods are segregated. No one said that Sandy Hook was white on white crime, the school shootings, no one is highlighting and saying why are white people killing each other? I think that is one of the biggest misconceptions of it.
What do you think are the benefits of this style of slow documentary story telling?
The benefit is being able to see and not see the resilience and how people live and survive. Seeing Siretha White’s family be resilient, but also seeing their ups and downs. Wondering what she would look like when she was 18, at her 18th birthday party, seven years after she died. Part of the project hopefully brings people together to empathize, volunteer and bring something to this topic. There is this myth about photography changing the world, but I look at it as photography changing individuals to move and to change the world.