12 Feb 2013

Welcome to Chicago, where someone is shot every four hours

As Barack Obama makes his case on gun controls, his home city is mired in an epidemic of violence. Last year more Americans were shot dead in Chicago than in Afghanistan.

On a warm October afternoon, I visited the site of a murder down the street from where I live, writes photographer and filmmaker Jon Lowenstein.

Scott “Red” Ingram was 28, had lived in the community and was shot dead in the middle of 83rd St, not far from the now-defunct US Steel site that used to house the largest steel mill in the world. I arrived and found his godmother literally hugging a no parking sign post about 10 feet from where he was killed.

“Red” wasn’t the most upstanding citizen. He didn’t march in the President Obama‘s inaugural parade, but he was one of the 506 mostly nameless faces that were killed in 2012, a 16 per cent increase over 2011.

Throughout the afternoon friends and family arrived to honour his memory. They built a makeshift memorial, adding a bible, flowers and liquor bottles. I photographed slowly and deliberately, not wanting to impose, yet I recognised the need. We would be the only ones to mark his memory and prove that he had lived.

Chicago gun city: Image by Jon Lowenstein

I’ve worked and lived here on Chicago’s south side for more than a decade. During this time I’ve taught photography, helped make a community newspaper and above all attempted to translate – through photography and film – some of what everyday life is like in this amazing yet embattled part of the country that I call home. Some of this time has been spent documenting the impact of social violence on my fellow community members.

I’ve had some of the most wonderful and some of the saddest days of my life here. I have done my best to portray the place accurately with a sincere effort at incorporating the impact of social violence while also documenting the other powerful events going on.

Currently, almost one-in-four children grows up in poverty in the US and there has been no moral outcry about this.

We all deserve the right to a safe community where decent work, housing, education and health care are readily available. This is not the case here on Chicago’s south side. This lack of hope and the reality that inexpensive guns are readily available is a deadly combination. Too often people decide to try to solve their problems violently.

Although I believe that violence is a huge issue that needs to be tackled, I also think that we need to address holistically the other issues of poverty, sub-par schools, lack of employment and hopelessness. These issues accompany and at times cause the violence in our community, and dealing with them is required so that we can create a far healthier place to live for everyone from the youngest baby to the oldest senior citizen.

Read more: Will gun control define Obama's second term?

Making the film and following these issues for more than a decade have shown me that while there are people with good intentions, the United States would rather spend the taxpayers’ money on fighting foreign wars than invest heavily in its most impoverished communities. Currently, almost one-in-four children grows up in poverty in the US and there has been no moral outcry about this. 75 per cent of African-American boys drop out of Chicago public schools. I’ve seen no presidential edict calling for a full-on effort to address the multitude of issues facing America’s poor.

We are failing, plain and simple!

Chicago gun city: Image by Jon Lowenstein

Violence and its aftermath are the most visible ways that people act out. The repercussions are horrible. Families are torn apart and the perpetrators either walk the streets free or, if convicted, go to jail for their entire lives. Ultimately, the result is more human lives wasted.

We need to address the complex and vexing issues of violence and its surrounding problems so we can end economic inequality within our world. Now is the time to fight for a better and stronger community.

I will continue to fight to show what’s going on in our country and to fight for better opportunities for everyone. We all deserve safe and respectful communities to live in and the opportunity to hope for a better world.