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Eight Forty-Eight

Photographer Carlos J. Ortiz: Too Young to Die

As the new school year approaches, many in Chicago are remembering just how violent a year it was for families of Chicago Public School students.

Throughout the summer, we here at Chicago Public Radio have been shining a spotlight on youth violence with our occasional series Losing Our Children.

Since last September, more than 30 kids have died from violence – most from gun shots.

And Carlos Javier Ortiz is among the many people still trying to figure out why:

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ORTIZ: It still puzzles me after you know all these marches the mayor coming out to talk about it..the governor getting involved…it's still happening why?  And that's what keeps me working on this project is why are kids killing kids.  It just puzzles me.

In a search for answers, Carlos has turned to the tool he knows best:  his camera. 

Carlos is a freelance photographer whos been chronicling the aftermath of youth violence on and off for 7 years.

The result is the photo-documentary project called 2 Young to Die

His black and white images are shocking in their tragedy and tranquility.

One shows a pair of hi-tops and gym shorts from a murdered gun shot victim, laying just behind the yellow tape of a police crime scene.

Another features a woman – an aunt to be exact – mopping the blood of her nephew off the sidewalk after he was gunned down in front of her apartment.

But of all the crime scenes his visited, few have stayed with him as much as 13 year old Schanna Gayden's.

On June 25th, Schanna was sitting in the playlot immediately behind Frederick Funston Elementary School in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood.

She had just purchased some watermelon from a nearby fruit cart when one gang member on the east side of the playlot started shooting at a rival gang member on the other side, less than a few hundred yards away.

Schanna was caught in the cross fire.

Carlos was home at the time, listening to a police radio scanner he'd purchased to track such incidents.

When he heard about the shooting, he grabbed his cameras and headed to the scene:

ORTIZ: When I got here to the park after it was all over after police opened the crime scene you could still see the watermelon on the floor and the blood.  it was kind of eerie feeling.  You see the air bags the paramedics used on her and the tubes from the airbags to give her oxygen and parts of bandages on the ground.  None of that was cleaned – and it's a school yard, you know?

It's hard to imagine such a scene at the playlot today, as a group of kids gleefully frolic on nearby slides and swing-sets.

Less than 10 feet from where Schanna was killed, a sign in front of the lot reads:

Welcome!  This play area has been designed for children 5-12 years of age.  Adult supervision is required.  Play it Safe.

50 candles and dozens of teddy bears now line the curb below.

Large stuffed animals, a Tweety Bird and a Spongebob Squarepants are stuffed into two narrow trees on each side.

And in front of the fire hydrant is a shrine of sorts.

It consists of a few plastic flowers, a pink plastic jewel-encrusted cross, a faded poster of the Virgin Mary with a Cubs sticker on it and some ceramic figurines. 

In the middle is a 5 by 7 photograph of a smiling Schanna.

Carlos has returned here today, nearly a month after the shooting, looking for images and insights that might help him understand what happened here:

ORTIZ: I try to come up real subtle on things; if its something that just happened and I got to the scene and I gotta shoot I'll just shoot shoot shoot.  But when it's something like the aftermath I'll approach it subtly and start talking to people to find out what happened.  And start talking to people.  Sometimes I don't make a picture at all and sometimes I start asking questions and people start to tell you what happened. It all depends on what it feels like, you know?

ORTIZ:  Hey you live around here right?  You were out here when it happened?
DA:  No I was actually on Palmer and I so 4 or 5 narco cars and 4 or 5 blue and whites flying this way, then I heard the fire trucks and I ran because I thought something bad had happened.
ORTIZ: You felt really distressed about it
DA:  It's hurting it's a little girl. I knew her since she was real. It took a coward to take her life, summer's over for central park. She was the summer. It's messed up.

Carlos's pictures reveal intimate details of a family's funeral, and quiet moments of rememberance and grief.

During the past several years, Carlos has taken the time to get to know many of the familes of these young shooting victims. 

And he says his photographs are his own small way of helping them cope with their loss:

ORTIZ: Giving these families these pictures of their family really means a lot to them too, so that helps me because they know they want you there and if you give them. You know it sounds kind of strange, but they let you in because of that, because they want to have something to hold on to and something to remember.

On our way out of the playlot, we passed the same fruit cart where Schanna purchased her watermelon on the day she died.

Carlos Ortiz walked up to the proprietor Epiphania Alvarez and struck up a conversation as we walked past.

ALVAREZ/ORTIZ Translation

EDWARDS: Why does this topic and these tragedies matter so much to you that you'd spend so much time and go to such lengths trying to document it?
ORTIZ:  The reason why I do it is because it gets a blur on the news, it goes away but the problem is still there. I'm not saying that I can change the world, but (Kids interrupt), that's why I do it right there. We need these kids they're our future and hopefully I can open the eyes of other kids and let them see what senseless violence can do to their peers and their community.

Photographer Carlos J. Ortiz. 

You can see pictures from Carlos' photodocumentary project Too Young To Die by visiting his Website.

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