Eyewitness: Carlos Javier Ortiz


If gun violence is synonymous with the United States, then Chicago could serve as the nation’s capital. This year’s Fourth of July weekend alone ended with reports of 14 people murdered and another 60 injured by guns. By bearing witness to urban brutality, Carlos Javier Ortiz (’02) hopes his 2014 book of photographs and essays, We All We Got, will spark discussions to help curb the city’s violence.

Members of the Cazares family mourn after their nephew, Juan, 14, was killed. Juan played basketball (sometimes with gang members) at Cornell Square Park in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Family members believe hanging out with the wrong people may have led to the eighth-grader’s death. New City, Chicago, 2009.

TOP: A man looks at a memorial for Jovany Diaz. Jovany was celebrating his 15th birthday when he was shot and killed in his neighborhood. West Humboldt Park, Chicago, 2011. ABOVE: Members of the Cazares family mourn after their nephew, Juan, 14, was killed. Juan played basketball (sometimes with gang members) at Cornell Square Park in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Family members believe hanging out with the wrong people may have led to the eighth-grader’s death. New City, Chicago, 2009.

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 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 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.”

The Bud Billiken Parade, the oldest African- American parade in the country, kicks off the new school year and celebrates black life in Chicago. Washington Park, Chicago, 2013.

The Bud Billiken Parade, the oldest African- American parade in the country, kicks off the new school year and celebrates black life in Chicago. Washington Park, Chicago, 2013.

Balloons are released in memory of Siretha White and Starkeisha Reed during a block party on South Marshfield Avenue and West 69th Street. The girls were killed days apart in March 2006. Englewood, Chicago, 2009.

Balloons are released in memory of Siretha White and Starkeisha Reed during a block party on South Marshfield Avenue and West 69th Street. The girls were killed days apart in March 2006. Englewood, Chicago, 2009.

Girls in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side attend a block party to celebrate the lives of Starkeisha Reed, 14, and Siretha White, 12. Starkeisha and Siretha were killed days apart in March 2006. The girls’ mothers were friends, and both grew up on Honore Street, where the celebration took place. Englewood, Chicago, 2008.

Girls in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side attend a block party to celebrate the lives of Starkeisha Reed, 14, and Siretha White, 12. Starkeisha and Siretha were killed days apart in March 2006. The girls’ mothers were friends, and both grew up on Honore Street, where the celebration took place. Englewood, Chicago, 2008.

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.


“Photography doesn’t change the world, but it can influence individuals.”


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.

“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 about the book. “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.” —William Meiners (MFA ’96)

Info on Purchasing We All We Got

Between 2006 and 2013, Carlos Javier Ortiz returned to photograph the same neighborhoods in Chicago and Philadelphia again and again. He began building ongoing relationships with the communities and chronicling the devastation of violence, and now his photographs have been collected the photography book We All We Got. The book is available for purchase with Red Hook Editions for $49, with a limited special edition also available with a cloth slipcase and poster.