Too Young to Die
A war is underway in the United States today, with the nation’s youth suffering its most devastating consequences. It is an undeclared war, but it is as real and savage as any of the wars that claim the lives of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. The casualties of this war come from a thousand bloody battles being waged nightly on the neighborhood streets of cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, and Los Angeles. Some victims are gang members; some are elementary school children—innocent bystanders walking down the street or intended victims. This undeclared war stems from a long history of gang, drugs, poverty, despair and gun violence.
Too Young to Die, addresses the lingering wounds of conflict, which differs from declared wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere only in the conspicuous absence of formal recognition by the state and society. Too Young to Die seeks to redress this lack of recognition by illustrating the consequences of urban, often internecine, war.
One of the most important battlegrounds of this war occurs on school grounds. Going to school in the Chicago Public School system, I witnessed violence first hand and saw its impact on my community. I recall the discomfort of realizing how many students did not come back to school after summer break because they had been killed, wounded, or incarcerated as a result of gang activity. Today, both the perpetrators and the victims of these crimes have gotten younger. Tragically, on average, sixteen youth between the ages of 10 and 24 are killed in the United States every day as a result of gun violence (CDC, 2009). This is more than the number of American servicemen lost each year in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Chicago in 2010, nearly 700 children were struck by gunfire, an average of almost two a day. Sixty-six of these children died (NPR, 2010).
In addition to the tragedy of losing so many children to violent deaths, children and families who survive are left with the psychological burden witnessing violence. A recent study of a sample of Chicago high school and elementary students found that nearly 40 percent had witnessed a shooting, more than 33 percent had seen a stabbing, and 25 percent had seen a murder (Chicago’s Community Health Council). Tragically, these numbers have only grown in the intervening years. Studies strongly suggest that when young people live in neighborhoods plagued by violence, even if they are not primary victims of violence, they are considerably more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety, and are more prone to behavioral problems and academic underachievement.
Too Young to Die is a long-term documentary photography project, now in its fifth year, which seeks to enlighten the public about the effects of youth violence on young victims, their families, and society as a whole. It is an effort to shake the country's conscience in a way that most mainstream media—hyper commercialized and celebrity obsessed—no longer do. My interest is to get beyond the headlines, beyond the fear and sensationalism, and create understanding of the true costs that are borne by the victims of this violence, and, in the final analysis, by all of us. The purpose of my project is to personalize the stories of youth, families, and individuals who live in the aftermath of violence. Although many survivors live in fear, their stories are also about hope, love and resilience.
Carlos Javier Ortiz was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and raised in Chicago, Illinois. As a teenager, his love of photography led him to work at a traveling carnival to save money for photography equipment and college tuition. He studied photojournalism at Columbia College Chicago and became a staff photographer for Chicago In The Year 2000 (CITY 2000), a yearlong project documenting the city and its inhabitants. Since that time, Carlos Javier has focused on documenting society's most vulnerable communities across the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Israel and West Bank. As a result of his commitment to addressing social problems, Carlos Javier won the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights Photography(2009) award for Too Young To Die, his multiyear, comprehensive examination of youth violence in the United States and Central America.
He was also a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography (2008). In 2010 Carlos accepted an invitation to become a contributing photographer for “Facing Change: Documenting America,” a non-profit collective of some of the nation’s best photographers and writers covering under-reported aspects of America’s most urgent issues. He has taught graduate photojournalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and has been a guest lecturer at numerous other colleges and universities. In 2011, Carlos Javier received the Open Society Institute Audience Engagement Grant for his continuing work on Too Young To Die.
Carlos Javier has also received the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship for his coverage of youth violence as a public health issue (2012). Other grants
Too Young to Die Lesson Plan
The 10 images in this section explore the aftermath of violence in Chicago and Philadelphia as seen through the eyes of Carlos Javier Ortiz. To frame these photographs in terms of the Aftermath Project, Sara Terry introduces them by asking viewers to consider the following questions: “How do you memorialize violence in an urban setting when you are not making a statue to the person who went off to war? How do you remember the people who have been killed, the people who suffer? How do we identify the stories of those who are left behind? How is the violence perpetuated? How does imagery continue the cycle of violence?”
In viewing these images, it is also critical to recognize that the context of the violence is complicated; a cycle of violence should not be dismissed as endemic to a particular group or urban environment. It may be helpful to keep the following prompts in mind as you view and discuss the images:
• What story—or whose story—do these photographs tell? What would you like to ask the people pictured, and what might they say? What do you think the photographer wants us to do with these images? How might he want us to react?
• How do these images confront or counter media representations and stereotypes of urban youth?
• How can these images impact the way we talk about violence in our cities and among urban youth today?
• What does the title of this project, “Too Young to Die,” suggest to you in relation to the content of
Eternity Gaddy, a 13-year-old bystander struck by a stray bullet during a suspected gang shooting, she was pronounced dead at 9:22 a.m. Monday, September 3, 2008. Eternity was shot in the head early Sunday. The young resident of Allentown, Pa., and her mother had been spending the summer in Humboldt Park, the sometimes-violent a neighborhood from which the family had moved years ago. They were hours away from leaving when Eternity-standing with her mother, cousin and others outside her aunt's apartment in the 3400 block of Potomac Avenue was hit with a bullet fired by men emerging from a nearby alley. Before she was born, Eternity's family hoped a move to Pennsylvania would be an escape from gang violence in Humboldt Park.
• Why do you think the photograph is titled “Bystander”? How does the title relate to the image itself?
• Many people see themselves as bystanders—individuals who lack the power and influence to make a difference. Others are convinced that there are no limits to what people can accomplish if they join together with those who share their vision. What do you think? To what extent can people stop violence around them and regain control
of their community?
Families pray together on the West Side of Chicago to remember a young girl who was raped and killed. Parents who have lost children to violence often come together here to support other families who have experienced the same tragedy.
• What emotions do you think the photographer was trying to capture?
• What did the photographer want to communicate about the way this community is responding in the aftermath of violence?
Darius Mitchell, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was shot and killed at a house party after a fight in 2007. Darius Mitchell’s friends show off their T-shirts, which refer to him by his nickname, D’Man.
• What do you see in this image? How do the subjects, friends of a shooting victim, present themselves to the photographer?
Murals memorializing fallen youth in North Philadelphia are reminiscent of the murals for activists in Palestine’s Gaza Strip. In Philadelphia, more than 80% of murders are shooting deaths, versus 70% nationally.
• One way in which artists respond to violence is to create murals in honor of victims. What role does public art play in the aftermath of violence in a community? What does this mural express to you?
Kids jump off of a trampoline during a block party in Chicago, Illinois, in 2008.
• Why do you think the photographer included this image in the series? What message was intended?
A snapshot shows a 21-year-old man who was killed at a birthday party on Chicago’s West Side. In the photo, the young man stands next to a painting from the movie Scarface.
• What could be the intent of the photographer in juxtaposing these images within the photograph?
Albert Vaughn was the neighborhood guardian, an older teenager who would play ball with the younger kids and try to keep them safe from trouble, friends said. “If he was guilty of anything, he was guilty of always protecting these kids,” said Trualanda Fields, a neighborhood mother who was among the 50 people who gathered on South Throop Street in Chicago to pay tribute to the 18-year-old they called Lil’ Albert. They wept, sang, and chanted “Say no more,” a phrase Vaughn often used in response to someone’s request for help.
• Describe what you see happening in this image. What purpose might gatherings such as this one serve?
Thirty-two pine replicas of caskets, each topped with a black cross and flowers, sit in the playground of Sabina Church in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. The caskets, made by teenagers, represent the 32 Chicago Public Schools students who died from violence in 2008.
• These caskets are not part of a funeral. Instead, they were displayed to send a message. What message do you think the wooden caskets were meant to send?
• What choices did the photographer make in shooting this image? How do those choices impact what you see as well as the message he hopes to send?
• What projects and people make life better in your community? In the nation? Around the world? How have you learned about these people and projects? What role does the press play in telling these stories? How else do we learn about them? How important is it that we know about the good things happening in our communities as well as the bad?
A woman cleans the blood of Jalil Speaks. The 16 year-old teenager was killed in front of Strawberry Mansion High School in North Philadelphia in 2004. Jalil Speaks was shot outside the school shortly after classes let out.
• Without the title, caption, or any knowledge of the “Too Young to Die” project, this photograph could be seen as an image of something quite ordinary. An image tells only a piece of a story. What story is being told here?
• What can you imagine occurring outside of the frame of this image? What are we not seeing?
Fakhur Uddin was found dead on August 20, 2008 at 11:30 am. Uddin was bound with duct tape and shot in the head in the back room of the East Germantown gift and sundry store he was minding for his ailing father. The murder occurred almost exactly seven years to the day Mr. Uddin came to America from Bangladesh. Mr. Uddin’s mother sits in front of the store crying over the death of her son as Philadelphia police work the crime scene.
• What is happening in this photograph? What do you imagine happened before the photographer captured this image? What will happen afterward? How do people carry on with their lives after experiencing violence or tragedy?