Social violence in Guatemala, Mexican and Central American migrant communities in the United States, the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, children with cerebral malaria in Uganda — for the past decade, photographer Jon Lowenstein has been documenting the often violent and traumatic daily lives of individuals and communities living at the edges of society, both around the world and on his own doorstep in the South Side of Chicago. At times raw and riveting, at others poignant and impressionistic, Lowenstein’s work captures human experience on an intimate level, no matter the circumstances. Most recently, he was in Chile in the run-up to the November 2013 presidential elections, working in partnership with his brother Jeff Kelly Lowenstein to document Chile’s people 40 years after the coup overthrowing President Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet. Images were live-streamed on the New Yorker’s Instagram feed, and the brothers posted a series of three articles, titled “Enduring Rifts,” in the New Yorker’s Photo Booth blog.
Here, Lowenstein talks to the TED Blog about how he carries out his work and how he connects with his subjects, and takes us deeper into the worlds behind his powerful images.
How long have you been documenting Chicago’s South Side?
I started on a photo project involving more than 200 photographers documenting the city of Chicago at the millennium, called Chicago in the Year 2000. From there, I was hired by the founder of Land’s End, Gary Comer, to teach at his former elementary school, in the South Side neighborhood where he grew up. This neighborhood had changed dramatically over 50 years from a mostly white, ethnic neighborhood to a black neighborhood in the mid-’60s. In the ’70s and ’80s, after most of the factories closed, crack came in in a pretty hardcore way, and like many post-industrial neighborhoods on the South Side, it hit much harder times. Gary had decided to help rebuild it, and I worked for several years teaching at the school, Paul Revere Elementary. This led me to do a project about the South Side, documenting the post-industrial community from where the meltdown happened to when Starbucks came in, which is where we’re at now. There’s a real pressure to redevelop and repackage these neighborhoods and sell them, essentially, to a more wealthy clientele.
I’ve chosen various ways of telling the story. At the school, I did a two-year project called “The Voices In the Hall” to challenge the stereotypes of the failing inner city school. This led to the South Side Project, which involved photographing the community with a Polaroid in a collaborative fashion. I’ve also started to do more experimental documentary filmmaking — featured in the New Yorker as “A Violent Thread.”
Most recently, I launched a space in my building called the Island. This experimental art space converts several vacant apartments in our cooperative into unique spaces to create conversations, art and ideas for social change.
What is your ultimate goal with your work in the South Side?
My long-term goal is to examine the impact of the post-industrial meltdown on Chicago’s most vulnerable communities and come up with new solutions, and to consider why the United States continues to ignore our most impoverished people. During the past decade, the city has lost in excess of 250,000 African-Americans. For a place that was one of the epicenters of African-American culture during the 20th century, this is a monumental change that’s getting little attention.
One example of this is the wholesale destruction and displacement of Chicago Housing Authority’s public housing projects — some of the largest in the United States — came down in the past decade. You see this kind of change going on all over the world.
Where do the people go?
All over. They came to places like my neighborhood, they go to other cities in the Midwest. Iowa City, Champaign, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Indiana, Gary, you name it…they go there, but mostly places which will accept Section 8 vouchers. About 100,000 of Chicago’s poorest people were displaced during the CHA’s Plan for Transformation. My issue is that the city is consistently privatizing public services. During the past decade, Chicago has destroyed the public housing system, privatized the parking meters, oversaw the largest single school closing in US history and leads the country in murders. We are not addressing the basic needs of the most vulnerable people and finding ways to include everyone.
The issues are difficult, but the plans need to include holistic approaches to community and to creating better, more viable options for our citizens. This includes affordable housing, high level schools that encourage independent and innovative thinking, safe neighborhoods where young people don’t have to worry about being shot, good jobs at all levels of society and a functioning and powerful healthcare system that serves all strata of the population. Right now, I see mass foreclosures, wholesale school closings, murdered kids, no trauma unit on the South Side, which consistently leads the country in homicide numbers.
How do you get access to places and people? Do you approach them directly?
It depends on the story. Sometimes I write official letters requesting access. I read the newspaper. Sometimes it is word of mouth, and on the South Side I live in the neighborhood, so I walk around, and go to the crime scenes. When I was covering violence a lot, I’d just go to the murder site and start talking to people, or do ride-alongs with the police. Sometimes the victims themselves reach out. There are lots of ways to find stories, but most important is to keep your eyes, ears and heart open.
I tell them I’m a documentary photographer, and I’m working on a book, or a film. People want to know why you’re there. They want to know, “What you care about?” I’m most often seen as an outsider so often my presence is questioned, but if you are honest and speak clearly from the heart, most people will accept you.
You make it sound so easy.
It’s definitely not easy. But it’s just what I do. I’ve been doing it for a long time and believe in it. I believe I should be there to witness what’s going on.
Do you consider yourself an art photographer, documentary photographer, or journalist?
I consider myself a photographer and artist and journalist. I guess those labels can sometimes kind of rein you in to a certain way of working that can be good because it creates a structure — but it can also confine you, and confine the way you think about things.
When you work within a certain construct — such as a journalism construct — there are all these rules. Then as a documentary photographer, those rules become a little different. Then as an artist, there are no rules. Right? So I think I’m going more towards no rules, because I ultimately believe that you should be able to communicate the truth, and your own vision of what you see and believe in. My way of storytelling is not literal. My approach is a little more on the artistic and interpretive side. I believe much more in sharing the way I experience things. When people look at my books or films, it’s meant to be more experiential than didactic.
There’s an intersection between these worlds I love to work with, and I’m exploring them in different ways. When I work within a journalistic context, yes, I do follow journalistic ethics. I really enjoy checking out the world as it is. I guess that’s where the documentary side of me comes from.
You’re interested in seeing the world as it is — yet you work a lot in black and white. Why?
Black-and-white lets you kind of capture the feeling of a place. I try to choose the technique I use dependent on what I’m trying to communicate. So sometimes I choose black and white, sometimes color, sometimes digital, sometimes film. But it’s always a question mark that I consider before I start and keep exploring while on the project. In the Shadow Lives project, for example, I started out in black and white, but the people I was photographing were asking why I didn’t use color. So I started shooting color. But then the pictures really changed. They just became too much, too literal. So I went back to black and white.
But then in Guatemala, where I was covering the impact of social violence on the local working class and poor populations, I was seeing this really intense violence. It was so close and personal. I was able to walk into the crime scenes and there was absolutely no filter at all. I thought maybe in black and white was abstracting it too much. I wanted it to be very real, very in-your-face, a palpable experience. So I worked in color. It’s really just a visceral experience as you’re shooting, like, “Oh man, this is working.”
With the South Side project, I used Polaroid for very specific reasons. First of all, I could be on the street (in 2003, 2004, it still wasn’t common to have camera phones) and give my subjects the pictures. It would create this kind of really nice bond, a sense of trust, a little bit of giving back right away. It’s much more collaborative. Additionally, the Polaroid camera occupied a really special place within nightlife scene in Chicago: at the clubs, you’d have these guys who’d go around and sell Polaroids to the patrons. So there was a certain level of nostalgia about the Polaroid. It harks back to a time when people were coming to Chicago and starting a new life, and there was a sense of hope and freedom and escape from, in a sense, the Jim Crow South. So the technique is a way to connect the past with the present, to bring memory and history into the reality of where we are today.
You’ve been using your iPhone and Instagram in your work in Uganda and now in Chile. What made you embrace these new tools?
I love trying new techniques. I’m kind of old school with a new-school twist. When I was in Uganda working on the “A Few More Breaths” project with the Massachusetts Center for Global Health and the Mbarara University of Science and Technology, I was documenting the impact of a medical study which is testing the impact of inhaled nitric oxide on children with cerebral malaria. It’s very serious and intimate work, and I had to make sure I was respecting everyone involved, from the nurses, doctors to above all the families who were coming in with their dying babies in their arms.
Even after I’d been on the baby ward for some time, the doctors and nurses still couldn’t get used to my big camera. With the iPhone, it was silent, and people would just let me take the pictures. So the whole project grew out of that. Big cameras represent a different world, a place that many of the patients had no access to.
In Chile, I brought film and all the larger digital cameras, but I had a feeling of connecting visually to the sense of how the memory of the coup plays into present day society. Memory and trauma are powerful and stay with us, especially when there’s no way to deal with them and find resolution. My brother and I interviewed a woman whose father was disappeared 40 years ago. When she started to talk about it she broke down, and it was as if it had happened last week. She had only begun to deal with the emotions. That was a powerful lesson to me about trauma. People had told me that trauma stays in the body, but witnessing it is another thing entirely.
I’m just starting to find my place and what I want to do with Instagram. Again, the technique has to go with subject, which has to go with a concept of communication. Just simply posting random pictures on Instagram is fine, but it’s not what I want to do, you know? Each tool I use must have a purpose, to get work and ideas out, and to spark a conversation. I’ve seen some really cool people doing amazing work on Instagram. It’s a conversation that, when done well, spreads worldwide.
With the Island project, are you trying to offer a sort of a foothold for gentrification not to happen?
It’s another way to think about a place that, for the most part, most people don’t want to go. So my question is, how do we bring people to this place and start to make them feel it’s cool, and give them a different way of being here besides development and gentrification? It’s to bring community together and experiment with art and having a conversation that’s both about the community, but also expanding the concept of what the community is.
It’s also bringing different classes of people together in the community. Middle class people don’t want to move here because the neighborhood has few services, high levels of violence and also because of certain prejudices about the community. In the midst of this, my building is a 1928 cooperative on the national register of historic buildings, right on the shores of Lake Michigan. I walk out my back yard and I’m swimming, yet I walk out the front door and one block over young folks are hanging and shooting one another. It’s a trip. It’s like the past and the present all in one. Many people in my building don’t really associate with the more poor and working class folks in the community. They moved here because they saw it as a bit more upscale. It’s gorgeous. And at the same time everyone’s growing older and the building is falling apart around us. So people in the building call this place the Island. This of course has positive and negative connotations.
What will you be doing in the vacant spaces?
In December we’ll invite artists and community members together to talk, and there’ll be music, art, photography and food. We’ll break bread together. Then in the winter, we’re going to set up a 1860s wet-plate lab in the building, where we’re going to photograph and interview the residents of this building, most of whom are elderly.
Last year, I was just photographing the impact of social violence in the community for years — but I’d come home, and my neighbors were dying. Amazing people who had lived powerful lives, doctors, lawyers, social activists and educators. I didn’t know them well, but I’ve just watched them slow down and die. My next door neighbor had a stroke, the other one in the apartment across, his wife passed away. She was 93. At the same time, on the street was seeing these young folks being killed prematurely, killing each other. I was thinking about how can we bring these seemingly disparate conversations and generations together?
So it’s an art project, an architecture project, an oral history project — and also a way to preserve stories of people who really have had an influential impact in the community over their lifetime. Above all I want it to be fun and a place to get together and get to know each other. Safe places to share, brainstorm and create are too far and few between here.
Tell me about Shadow Lives, your documentary project following the migrant trail from Central America and Mexico to the US and back. How is it different from other immigrant narratives?
This narrative is more often told in a very linear and circular sense. You leave home, you cross the border, you come to the US, and maybe go home, get deported or whatever. My experience of this is much more disjunctive, and what I’ve tried to do in the book I’m putting together is to get across that feeling of never quite being comfortable or feeling at home again once you leave your native land.
My friend Willmer Cabrera’s mother just died the other day in Guatemala of kidney failure. Willmer’s undocumented and lives in Chicago. I worked very closely with his brother German in Guatemala for more than two years; he helped me gain access to most of the violence pictures I took in Guatemala City. I helped German get a five-year journalist visa, and he came to the US and lived with me for a year before moving out. Then Willmer came up, but he crossed the border illegally.
When their mother died, Willmer couldn’t go home. Rather, he could, but then he wouldn’t be able to come back, and then he couldn’t provide for his family, right? So instead of being able to fly home and bury his mother, he’s seeing these pictures of his mother sick and dying on his smart phone. And in a way, both sides are trapped and separated. This distance is profound. The separation and disjunctive reality of that experience is not really communicated very well in a lot of reports that I’ve seen. To me, that is the essential experience.
Being this guy, all alone on the South Side of Chicago trying to make a living and totally isolated from his family. What does that feel like? How do reconcile those worlds, those experiences, the love, the hate, the political impact of the border, of the violence, of the space between intense poverty and the dream of something better? The book I’m now editing of this work is portraying this experience. I’ve worked for more than a decade so I cab get inside the skin of the story and then translate it. It’s a very intimate, personal, life-changing experience that millions of people have undertaken. This is the largest trans-national migration probably in world history.
You often dive into humanity’s most intensely dark themes — poverty, violence, social injustice, disease. Why?
I definitely have, over the last decade, spent a lot of time in some pretty difficult circumstances. But the reason I photograph these themes is because these are people and places that are systematically ignored, right? For example, migrants, undocumented folks who risk their lives and put everything on the line to come to the United States to work, often in the service sector, and are shunned. These are stories people don’t want to hear. I believe this is stuff we should talk about. Their stories are just as valid as my story or your story. It’s amazing how, in a place where the majority of people who live in the United States come from somewhere else, there can be so much anti-immigrant sentiment built into our fabric. There’s a self-hatred of ourselves in the xenophobic hatred of “the migrant.”
My father’s family escaped Nazi Germany, which wasn’t all that long ago. That could happen at any time to our family again, or it could happen to your friends, or it could be your friends who are currently fighting to survive and not be deported. So when people say, “Oh, you’re photographing the black community, you’re photographing the Hispanic community,” I say: “These are people.” Yes, of course there are issues of identity, race, and representation. But at the end of the day, we’re all humans. Community is community. You want a safe place to live. You want to have opportunity to educate your child. Decent healthcare. All people want to be safe, to have a roof over their heads, to have food, and to have freedom to express themselves.
When you’re putting yourself in these incredibly dark environments and situations, right in the midst of people who are suffering unspeakable things, how does that affect you, coming back to what is essentially a much more comfortable life? Is it difficult, sometimes, to leave behind?
Sometimes the hardest thing about it is making a choice and you never know what you will witness. A couple weeks ago, I was driving home about ten at night, and saw police lights. And I had a choice: do I just drive home and avoid it, or do I go see what’s going on? And then I got to the scene, literally like down the street from my house, of really unspeakable pain. Three people were killed that night.
And there’s a young man walking down the street screaming into a phone. They killed him. This brother’s twin was killed just moments before, and he’s screaming, and the cops are sort of corralling people trying to control the crime scene and crowd. And this young girl, like six years old, whose older brother was lying on the ground shot, is trying to get across the police line to her mother. She is screaming, and she makes a dash for it. The police officer grabs her, throws her back, and she’s sitting there screaming, “I hate you, I hate you!” The cop’s like, “Why do you hate us?” “You killed my brother, you killed my brother!”
You know what I mean? Coming back from that, it’s just … what do you do, you know? What do you do? That imprint will stay with her forever. And that’s right down the street. That’s not some foreign country. These are my fellow community members. Everyday folks just trying to find a way to survive and stay alive.
I try not to let it affect me too much. I try to give myself time away from it. What gets me down, what pisses me off, is the stupidity. Like, man — why? Why? Why do people hate each other so much, when they’re really from the same circumstances?
How would you sum up what you do?
What I think about more than anything is the power of narratives. In the South Side community, for example, I ask, “What are the narratives that are really important? What are people allowed to think about, for their lives?” The narrative of the young gangster, gang-banger, for example, is really appealing to young kids. For adolescent males, the narrative of being tough and bad is just really appealing.
But if those are the only narratives for young men, then that becomes really difficult. I was interviewing some 10-year-old boys at a local boxing ring. I said, “What do you want to do?” “Oh, I want to be a rapper. I want to be a basketball player. I want to be a rap star.” These are the narratives that are available to these boys. We have to create spaces for new narratives, so that people can visualize their own lives in a different way — which is half the battle, I believe.
And as I continue to witness the reality of life in our world, I am increasingly thankful to have been given the chance at immense possibility. This is a gift. So I feel it’s important to use my time for something that can, hopefully, have some good impact.
Stay up to date with Jon Lowenstein’s latest work. Follow him @jonlowenstein on Instagram.