“I know photography doesn’t change the world, but it can influence individuals.”

Carlos Javier Ortiz


By bearing witness to urban brutality, former student Carlos Javier Ortiz hopes his 2014 book of photographs and essays, We All We Got, will spark discussions to help curb violence.

Snapshot Beginnings

Growing up in Albany Park, the Puerto Rican-born Ortiz lost peers to violence in high school, and he also witnessed how his friends coped with the aftermath of senseless brutality. We All We Got, his 2014 book of photographs and essays, is the culmination of eight years of documentary work exploring the fallout of families devastated by gun violence in both Chicago and Philadelphia.

With a love for photography that goes back to the Pentax camera he found in his sister’s closet when he was 19, Ortiz studied photography at Columbia College Chicago in the late 1990s under the tutelage of John H. White, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer. Shortly after leaving Columbia, Ortiz landed a job with The Chicago Defender and was among eight photographers commissioned to document the city in a project called “Chicago in the Year 2000.”

Hard to Tell

Ortiz later noticed the same violence, along with its root causes, working in Philadelphia. “I felt like I needed to document it and put it in front of people,” he says. To tell the story of these violent cities, Ortiz approached grieving families and friends of victims “with an open heart” and explained his project. “I got to know people and would hang out with them for long periods of time,” he says. “And I just paid attention to the things that were happening in their lives.”

With more than 20,00 black-and-white photographs taken, Ortiz often catches people at their most vulnerable: mothers at the funerals of sons, the tears at candlelight vigils and the makeshift memorials that arise from the murder scene of a child. But Ortiz insists his pictures are not just about capturing a family’s devastation; they also reveal their resilience. He documented two years of the recovery efforts of a teenager who suffered a spinal cord injury from a gunshot.

Supported by various fellowships and grants along the way, Ortiz took part in both group and solo exhibitions related to his book called We All We Got. The project has received attention from CBS News through the Huffington Post. Ortiz was invited to Yale University to speak at a sociology conference, and he’s even returned to Columbia College to serve as a guest lecturer in photography classes.

Launching Conversations

“Exhibits are great as places to go to look and contemplate,” says Ortiz, who has also documented similar gun violence in Guatemala. “But a book is a conversation starter.”

With the creative end of the book in sight, Ortiz turned to Kickstarter in 2013 to raise $10,000 to take it to publication. He raised more than $12,000. “It was a great platform to help fund the book,” says Ortiz, who recently finished a short documentary film on the same subject. “It also validates that people believe in your work.”

As for the conversation starter, Ortiz hopes the individual connections he made with so many people affected by violence can reach an empathetic audience. “I know photography doesn’t change the world,” he says, “but it can influence individuals.”

Adapted from DEMO magazine, issue 21

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