The Urgency of Memory

Award-winning photographer and filmmaker Carlos Javier Ortiz

Carlos Javier Ortiz

Carlos Javier Ortiz forges strong bonds with the subjects in his photographs, which document the tragic loss of young life in urban communities such as those on the south side of Chicago.

Despite the breadth of his award-winning career—which includes a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship—it's the connections he has made in his Midwestern hometown that have been a recurrent rhythm. His passions drive him to document what he sees, and part of that investigation relies on being a part of the community.

It was the senseless death of Siretha White, who was shot by a stray bullet while celebrating her 11th birthday in her own home, that launched the photo project We All We Got. This powerful collection of photos and essays documents the tragedies, day-to-day struggles and resilient triumphs of people who live in areas of Chicago and Philadelphia particularly affected by youth violence. This project became the film, We All We Got, which premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Although the pictures of mourning in this series are powerful, they only tell part of the story, and Carlos Javier tries to incorporate a larger part of the culture of these communities and individuals into his photo narratives. Beyond embedding, it's as simple, and as profound, as sharing.


That same fullness of spirit is also evident in his teaching. The Photography Workshop class he teaches when he is in the Bay Area gives him the opportunity to work with adults from a broad range of ages, experiences and backgrounds. Initially, Carlos Javier thought, "What was I looking for that I hadn't received through my traditional education?" And that's why he shares real-world tips on how to move from photographic passion to professional practice to his eager students. While working on his upcoming film, Ortiz hopes to mentor photography students who are participating in the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Visual Arts.


Carlos Javier's current project, A Thousand Midnights, is a series of films based on the Great Migration that saw black Americans move from the South to the North in the early part of the 20th century. He plans to use that Guggenheim Fellowship to further develop the ideas that were germinated by his short film, We All We Got. Inspired by the history of his mother-in-law's own move northward, this evocative film sketches what is gained and lost when you uproot a culture and attempt to transplant it in another place.


The beauty and honesty of his photos are there to see, and Carlos Javier's quest for social justice is evident in the projects he seeks out. But his words also get right to the point of his passion. Below, he describes his upcoming project.

"It's a process of going out and seeing what's in front of you. I'll get on trains and follow routes from the south to the north and the north to the south. In the next body of work, I want to revisit the landscapes that are disappearing. What I mean by that are the structures. In A Thousand Midnights, you see houses coming down and schools closing. You see what's happening to the great metropolis of Chicago.


"It's one of those stories in your life that you say, 'I would regret not doing this.' It didn't matter what funding, what accolades you get, it's just something that you have to get down on tape, digital media, or film. You have to get it down. You have to get the words in. It would be sad to miss these stories.


"I remember interviewing my grandfather. I was eight. We still have this tape. And the tape was labeled, Friday Night Mix. Like you're listening to house music and you record it from the radio or the boombox. We didn't have an extra tape, so we had to record over that to record grandpa's story. I'm glad I had that, and I couldn't miss this.


"And A Thousand Midnights is not just for me. It's for all Americans. We don't know enough about these stories of the South."

Thousands Midnights