Carlos Javier Ortiz was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and raised in Chicago. As a teenager, his love of photography led him to work at a traveling carnival to save money for photography equipment and college tuition. Carlos Javier has focused on documenting society’s most vulnerable communities across the United States, Mexico and Guatemala. Carlos Javier is a contributing photographer with “Facing Change: Documenting America,” a non-profit photography project covering the under-reported aspects of America’s most urgent issues.
His photographs have been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world and he has been the recipient of many awards including the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights Photography award for “Too Young To Die,” his multi-year, comprehensive examination of youth violence in the United States and Central America. We recently spoke to Carlos Javier about his “Too Young to Die” project that appears in the latest issue of LFI.
Q: It seems from your images and website that you consider yourself a documentary photographer. Is that correct? If so, what attracts you to this type of photography?
A: Yes, I guess I am a documentary photographer, although labels are difficult for me.
Documentary photography for me means freedom of expression. It helps me understand and show the injustices of the world we all live in. I believe that documentary photography can change individuals and push forward a new way of thinking about issues we cannot comprehend.
The style of documentary photography by Eugene Richards, W. Eugene Smith and Dorothea Lange have inspired my life and the way I take pictures.
Q: What sparked the idea for or inspired “Too Young to Die?”
A: I have known about the topic of youth violence for a long time. I started covering marches and protests led by community organizers and families who were victims of gun violence and advocated against the slaughter of black youth who are mostly the victims. I didn’t really take this project seriously until I moved back home to Chicago from Philadelphia. I had lived in Philadelphia and worked in a small newspaper. Philadelphia is also affected by youth violence and social disparities like Chicago, Los Angeles and basically places where we have neglected to invest in education and jobs for all people.
In 2006 after two young girls named Starkeshia Reed and Siretha White were killed eight days apart from each other, I felt obligated to really take this important topic seriously. Starkeshia Reed was the victim of a stray bullet as she was preparing to go to school on a cold winter day. A bullet from an AK-47 pierced the window of her home, struck her and killed her instantly.
Siretha White was 10 years old. As she and her friends enjoyed a birthday party at her aunt’s home, a stray bullet hit her in the head. After encountering these two incidents so close to each other I became involved. I started knocking on doors and surprisingly was accepted by their families. Seven years later we are still friends and stay in touch with each other.
Q: The “Too Young to Die” series was a multi-year project. How long did you work on it?
A: I have been working on my “Too Young to Die” documentary for seven years. I’m basically finished with the project. At the moment I am working on publishing a book and a traveling exhibition of the project.
Q: You were born in Puerto Rico, but raised in Chicago. What was it like shooting in your own backyard so to speak? Did growing up in Chicago affect your perspective or approach?
A: Growing up in Chicago has actually helped me understand the topic of youth violence. I grew up knowing some young people who were affected by gun violence. Working in Chicago as a photographer at a small African-American newspaper called the Chicago Defender actually connected me to the black community. I worked there for two years and became deeply involved in the community. During my time at the Chicago Defender I spent lots of days on the South Side of Chicago.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced shooting this series? Was there any trust you had to build with your subjects to open up about the violence facing them? If so, how did you gain their trust?
A: Most of the challenges for me are interpersonal challenges which take a long time to figure out. For me, focusing on an issue, which is very difficult to grasp, has made me a better photographer. The families that have let me into their lives have always been honest, open and kind. Gaining people’s trust is something I try to do every day. It is a practice that only comes with being open and kind to people, animals and the environment we live in.
Q: What do you hope to achieve by bringing attention and light to the violence that is affecting the youth in Chicago?
A: The topic of youth violence is a complicated issue that has been ignored for far too long until recently. My mission is simple: I hope that people can look at the pictures and empathize with the situation presented in front of them. The photographs are a learning tool for all of us. I believe that we cannot be in real peace until everybody lives in a peaceful environment.
Q: The feature in LFI focuses on the violence on the streets of Chicago. Have you focused on the violence facing young people in other cities or countries?
A: Yes. I have also focused on gun violence in Central America, particularly Guatemala. Guatemala is a country that still suffers from the scars of a 36 year civil war. Today a different war is taking place. A silent war is killing young people in Guatemala, just like Chicago. The crisis is fueled by poverty, a lack of proper education for all young people and the war on drugs which has no borders. Poor young Guatemalans are suffering the consequences of a failed state. The northern triangle of Central America is one of the most dangerous environments for young people anywhere in the world. I recently received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to document and highlight the crisis of gun violence on youth in Guatemala and Chicago.
Q: You shot this series with both a Leica M9 and the Leica M Monochrom. What drew you to using the Monochrom? What about the black-and-white medium appeals to you?
A: The Monochrom is just an absolutely beautiful camera. The files are amazing and look and feels just like black-and-white Tri-X to me.
Q: Our previous interview with you focused on your work as part of Facing Change: Documenting America (FCDA). Can you tell us a little about that organization and how you got involved in it?
A: FCDA was influenced and inspired by the FSA Project. Founded in 2009, Facing Change: Documenting America is considered by the Library of Congress to be “a contemporary counterpart to the work done in the 1930s and 1940s by photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration.”
As the economic problems of the last decade have grown across America and have affected people from all walks of life, FCDA was formed as a response to those issues. We brought a handful of talented photographers, from many backgrounds and styles, together to tell some of those stories.
I have worked on several issues that highlight problems such as “50/50 Against The Odds of Graduating.” This essay focused on the difficulties that high school students in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago face as they try to graduate. I am proud to say that Leica has sponsored many of our projects.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next few years?
A: In the next five years I hope to finish two other projects, which I’m working on at the moment. The goal is to publish the projects into books and exhibitions around the world.
Thank you for your time, Carlos Javier!
– Leica Internet Team