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Photographer Jon Lowenstein Explores ‘Chicago’s Bloody Year’

Photo by Jon Lowenstein/NOOR.

For the past 10 years photographer Jon Lowenstein has turned his lens to the slow-moving forces shaping daily life for the people of Chicago’s South Side, chronicling the demolition of some of the nation’s largest housing projects, the closure of crumbling schools and some of the deep bonds built in a changing community amid ongoing violence.

Last year more than 500 people were killed in Chicago, a sad marker the city hadn’t met since 2007. Lowenstein decided to focus on the scourge of gun violence in a project called “Chicago’s Bloody Year.” In it he attempts to contextualize the deaths by showing the somber, quiet moments of reflection, complicating the simple picture many have of the South Side.

As the country continues to debate what should be done about guns, Ray Suarez talked to Lowenstein about his project from his home in Chicago:

A transcript is after the jump.

Lowenstein’s now working on a short film about violence in Chicago and on a book about his decade-long project documenting the South Side. To see more of his work, visit his page at NOOR or his homepage, www.jonlowenstein.com.

RAY SUAREZ: Welcome to Art Beat, I’m Ray Suarez.

In 2012, Chicago saw more than 500 homicides, the vast majority of them gang-related. As part of a decade-long look at the people of Chicago’s South Side, freelance photographer Jon Lowenstein spent last year documenting the violence in a project called “Chicago’s Bloody Year.”

Lowenstein’s a longtime Chicago resident who’s spent his career focusing on issues of social justice, poverty and violence, both at home and abroad.

Jon Lowenstein joins us now. What attracted you to this project? Not an easy thing to do, Jon.

JON LOWENSTEIN: Well, I’ve been working on this project for about 10 years, so violence has always been something that I’ve had to witness within the community. When I taught at the school — I taught for five years at a school called Paul Revere Elementary School — some of the students were affected by the violence, and it’s something that kind of runs across generations and impacts the community in really significant ways.

SUAREZ: I spent a big part of my career covering crime on the South Side of Chicago and it’s always there, like a low-grade fever, but now with these latest years has it broken out — is it something that more people are worried about, more people want to know about?

LOWENSTEIN: There’s now a spotlight on the South Side, and this is due to a variety of factors. One: The land is now — people are interested in developing the South Side, so the land is seen as valuable right now. Two: Barack Obama and his rise to presidency, and the fact that he came out of the South Side makes a big difference. And three: It’s just gun violence in general is a big issue now and so people really want to know, why is this happening so much in Chicago?

SUAREZ: Well, when you hit a scene, sometimes they are somber, heartbreaking, shocking, sometimes they have almost a circus atmosphere as crowds of passersby just wait to see what happened by standing behind the police lines. What’s your process? What do you want to show people about what it’s like to be there?

LOWENSTEIN: I try to show the direct impact and then how the space looks and what is the overall impact, the quiet moments that happen afterwards, after the news cameras leave and the police tape gets pulled up. And you come back to the scene the next day and often you find people mourning, people just hanging out next to the memorial scenes where the people, their loved ones have been killed.

I really try to make that connection between the violence, the community, the generations and the impact it has across generations, because every time you have somebody who was killed, someone loves that person. And even if they’re involved in the street life, there’s still someone that loves them and cares about them and there was somebody who really connected to them. And that was somebody’s son or nephew, uncle or cousin. So I really try to show, how does that work?

SUAREZ: Tell us some of the technical details. What kind of equipment do you use? What kind of film?

LOWENSTEIN: So I use a Polaroid camera. It was built around 1968, 1969. And the idea being is to be able to give people a photograph on the street. So if I take a picture — if someone says, hey, man, take my picture — I’m able to actually give them the print right there, and it’s a really collaborative way of working.

SUAREZ: Do you let people know you’re taking their picture? Do you approach them and introduce yourself or is this after the fact?

LOWENSTEIN: People are always aware you’re taking their picture. You can’t hide, especially with this camera, which is big. It’s a big camera so you can’t hide from it. So people — a lot of the time I take a lot of portraits and people really like the portraits because they get to have the picture right there. They get to decide where they want me to take the picture with them.

The violence is only one part of what I’m doing. You know, I take pictures of families, of family events, of school, of life on the street, portraits, houses coming down, projects coming down — all the different things going on that are impacting this city that’s being built and changed in the South Side. So the photography I do with the camera I use is definitely a part of that, it’s a part of my commitment to the community and a way of working that’s more collaborative than just simply popping in, taking a picture and then leaving.

SUAREZ: I think the passersby, the bystanders, the people that are mirroring the action on the street when you take their picture remind us that on any given day most people are just trying to get over, just trying to live their lives. And then there’s a few moments of convulsive violence and the end of a life. And most people aren’t involved in it, most people have nothing to do with it. They may be the downstream victims of it, but it’s not really what their lives have been about until just a few seconds ago.

LOWENSTEIN: That’s the scary thing about violence. It happens quick. It happens really fast, but the repercussions are long lasting. And they tear at the fabric of the community, the social fabric, so when you have, swhen someone gets shot, that creates distance within the community.

So that’s what I try to do. I try to show the impact of political policy, economic policy on individuals and what it looks like to live in a place like this, which is a great community. The South Side has a whole lot of great communities, a lot of great people, but it also has a lot of really heartbreaking and tough things going on.

SUAREZ: Well, Jon, good to talk to you, and thanks for giving us a peek into your process.

LOWENSTEIN: Hey, thank you so much, I really appreciate it. I hope we can make the world a little better.

SUAREZ: Good to talk to you.

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