Why I document the often violent and traumatic daily lives of others: Fellows Friday with photographer Jon Lowenstein


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 theNew 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.

Just minutes after a double shooting a man lies in an alley near the 7100 S. Rhodes block in the Grand Crossing neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The shooting was in apparent retaliation to a shooting that had happened the previous day. In “Chi-Raq,” more young people have died in the past five years than in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. There still is not one trauma unit anywhere on the South Side, despite the fact that the city leads the country in the number of homicides, with the majority occurring south of the Loop. But to understand what’s at stake, we must look far deeper than the latest crime scene to see the immense waste of human potential that’s being lost with each violent act. The media’s never-ending focus on the violence obscures a larger and far more significant truth: that the wholesale neglect has led to the practical destruction of these communities.

A man poses wearing his mask from the Friday the 13th movies. He stand in front of Jimbo’s Bar, which was a local legendary establishment in the Bridgeport neighborhood. Bridgeport, home to Mayor Richard J. Daley, was known as one of the most brutally racist neighborhoods in the city and to this day has resisted integration by African-Americans, although many Asians and Latinos have moved into the neighborhood in the past few years.

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.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>