Jon Lowenstein: School Closings
You’ve documented life on the South Side of Chicago for 12 years. Tell us about the project. I first came to the South Side probably 20 years ago, but really started working on it during the year 2000. When I was at the [Homer Sun] newspaper in the Chicago suburbs in the late 90’s, I did a story on these [step-dancers], Short Ed and Damita Brown. They were really cool people and champions of the world’s largest steppers contest. [Short Ed] lived in a single room occupancy hotel at 75th and Dorchester. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because yesterday I went to a murder scene and that was at 74th and Dorchester. You know, its weird how I keep going over pretty much similar ground, going deeper and deeper into the project.
When I first started I was kind of fascinated by the place and then just kept on doing it, kept following this story. I think it’s important to document the South Side as a part of America that’s been systematically forgotten and often misrepresented.
What is it about the South Side? It’s in my heart because it’s the most American city. It’s got the history. It’s got living history that’s constantly changing, and it’s America in its embodiment. Right now it leads the country in foreclosures, but at the same time you have Barack Obama coming out of the South Side. It’s been so amazing to see these structural changes and how it impacts people’s lives over time. To see the way the whole city changes—it’s fascinating. I probably would’ve been an urban planner, if I hadn’t been a photographer. I’m so interested in what’s going to happen.
Your photographs have a very distinctive look. Talk about how you achieve this and why you chose this technique? It’s like a Polaroid camera; essentially it’s an instant film process. It’s a large format 3 1/4 by 4 1/4 negative and it comes in packs of ten. There are several reasons. One, I could give people the picture right there so immediately it’s this collaborative experience. That’s really good. Second, not only can I give them a picture but I can leave with the negative, which is great. So, I have both a positive and a negative. Third, there’s a tradition of this kind of photography in the clubs on the South Side so people are really familiar with it. It disarms people in places that can be really difficult to work and where a lot of times I’m seen as an outsider. It creates this nice space where we can meet. Finally, the look is just gorgeous. The Polaroid 665 film was magic but they don’t make it anymore. I’m using Fuji film now. It’s a really wonderful process. People are like, “Hey take my picture.”
How do schools and education play into your larger story? You know right now, there’s a big debate over the schools closing. There have been many, many community schools that have been closed—some for the better, but some definitely for the worse. The problem is, how do you address these issues of poverty, of people who really feel like they’re not part of the larger society, and are often treated that way. How do you include a place that’s really been excluded for many years?
I was at this murder [scene]. The mothers were talking about, “Well I lost my kid two years ago; I lost my nephew.” There’s a generation of young men that’s facing a lot of killings. And it’s not only killings, the dropout rate is really high. There aren’t that many jobs. It’s a challenging time in this place—a place that has seen a lot of challenging times. I walk out every day and try to help make it a better community. I have an interest in being a part of it. This is my home.
After winning Magazine Photographer of the Year, you took a surprising career turn working for Comer Science and Education Foundation as documentarian and becoming a photo teacher at Paul Revere Elementary on the South Side. The school I worked at when I first went there, terrible, not that the teachers weren’t trying but they didn’t even have power. When they did get computers they didn’t even have power to run them. Talk about no resources. If you don’t have the power to run the computers, how are you going to have computers? But even though the school was low performing, kids wanted to do well.
Our priorities are completely messed up in this country. We’ve spent trillions of dollars on wars and we won’t put that into [providing] the best schools and the best resources to the places that need them. It’s absurd and heartbreaking. Kids have so much potential but people don’t step up. America used to have the best public education in the world, and now it’s only for people who have wealth. That’s not right. Twenty-three percent [of the population] are now growing up in poverty in the U.S. This is not a situation that’s going to be good for everyone—it’s terrible. The way you treat the most vulnerable part of the population is the way you will be defined at the end of the day. Almost 1 in 4 kids lives in poverty, how is that going to affect the greater issue [of education]? This whole school to prison pipeline, we got to change it.
One of the particularly moving images in your shoot for Education Week was the picture of the memorial for Leonard Truss, a young man who was shot. Can you tell us about the scene? These memorials dot the landscape throughout the South and West side. They mark the murders. I was taking a picture and I saw a dude in the back of the building, kind of peeking out at me. He came up and I said, “What’s going on?” and he said, “That’s my brother’s memorial, my brother was killed over the summer.” I said, “I’m sorry” and we talked a little bit.
I’ve made a real effort not to only photograph the violence on the South Side, but that’s the overall meta-narrative of the project. It’s also important to document what’s going on. You can’t ignore it. There’s a million people that live on the South Side and a lot of them are not caught up in this but it really impacts a lot of the lives in the community. That violence really can cause problems for young people. Somehow, we’ve created a society where you can easily get a gun, we’re in a culture of guns, and kids with no sense of future shouldn’t be running around with a gun. This is the problem.
[In the case of this photo] they were kids from different schools, and they all started fighting, and that boy got killed. Those kinds of fights happen all the time. It’s too much, too much.
How do you balance your portrayal of the South Side? It’s always a challenge with this type of project, because there are a lot of tough things going on. I really do try to balance it, but it’s also a real place. The neighborhoods that make up the vast majority of the South Side are tough. You can’t really sugar coat that. I do think that positive images are important and there are some really positive images in the project.
People of the South Side, once they take you into their world they’re very warm. At first they’re going to test you but once you pass that test, they will really take you in. It’s a wonderful place in a lot of ways and wonderful people. The friends I’ve made over the years are really great. When you’re a photographer you think people want you there because of the photographs. But that doesn’t really have much to do with it. All they care about is I’ve invested my heart in the place. The photographs are just a bonus.
What does the project mean to you and how has it changed you? For me it’s a personal journey. It’s something that’s in my heart now. I have to do this. I have to get this out. I have to document it and I have to do it in a really personal and intimate way. I think that we serve an important role—photographers and artists and writers who choose to fight for social justice, even though that role is minimized by the media, and often ourselves. I just think that we have to bear witness to what’s going on.
Jon Lowenstein specializes in long-term, in-depth documentary projects that confront the realms of power, poverty, and violence. He has spent the past decade documenting and working with people in his community on the South Side of Chicago. Lowenstein was named a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow in Photography. He is also currently a 2011 TED Global Fellow. Recently, he was named a 2012 Hasselblad Master. In 2008 he was named the Joseph P. Albright Fellow by the Alicia Patterson Foundation and also won a 2007 Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography. He also won a 2007 World Press Award and a USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism Racial Justice Fellowship. He won the 2005 NPPA New America Award, a 2004 World Press photo prize, 2003 Nikon Sabbatical Grant, the 58th National Press Photographer’s Pictures of the Year Magazine Photographer of the Year Award and Fuji Community Awareness Award. He is member and owner of the NOOR Images cooperative and photo agency.