Film TED Fellows

Voices of violence: Photojournalist Jon Lowenstein captures narratives of violence in Chicago’s South Side

What is the effect of violence on a life’s narrative? TED Fellow and photojournalist Jon Lowenstein has lived in the South Side of Chicago for about a decade — first working as a teacher, photographer and community liaison at an elementary school and subsequently engaging with his African American neighbors to document life in this rapidly changing part of the city. This short film, A Violent Thread, created for the New Yorker magazine, is part of his long-term, multi-pronged work documenting the transformation of Chicago. Lowenstein began this work with a project called “Chicago in the Year 2000,” an effort by more than 200 photographers to capture the city during that pivotal year. (The project was funded by the late Gary Comer, who founded  Lands’ End and grew up in the neighborhood.) Lowenstein has since continued that exploration.  He is now working on a book of still photos and South Side oral histories, of which this film is an offshoot.

“I titled the film A Violent Thread because the reality is that the violence is not just about supergangs, as it’s often portrayed,” says Lowenstein. “Gangs are definitely caught up in it, but violence cuts across generations. Even if it’s a young person that’s killed, that person has a cousin, a brother, a mother, a grandmother. What I found as I’ve talked to people — and I’ve done about 50 or 60 [interviews] for the book so far — I didn’t even ask about violence, but many would start talking about moments of violence in their life nonetheless. One guy in the film, a former student of mine, was talking about the domestic abuse from his stepfather. Another woman I know in the neighborhood had been harassed by kids in the neighborhood right down the street from me, and she ended up shooting one because they were throwing bricks at her and harassing her for more than a year. So this is just a little piece of trying to meld these different stories about the intergenerational impact of violence. I wanted to bring it back to the really personal stories of how violence has an impact on people.”

Lowenstein works extensively with diaspora communities focusing on issues of dislocation, social violence and the direct impact of political, economic and social policy on individuals in our society. He is particularly interested in how social violence manifests itself and how people deal with the emotional and psychological trauma. His long-term projects also cover such topics as Mexican and Central American migration to the United States and the use of inhaled nitric oxide in the treatment of children with malaria. He is a co-founder and member of NOOR, a photographic collective and foundation specializing in long-term documentary photography of contemporary issues.