Book Review: We All We Got by Carlos J. Ortiz

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 3.14.28 PM

Through intimate, heartfelt black and white images, Carlos Ortiz’ book chronicles a culture of violence in America focusing specifically on how it affects today’s youth. Having embedded himself for 8 years in communities on the front line of this problem in Chicago and Philadelphia, his pictures speak volumes about this enduring problem in our society. The photographs are profoundly sad – but rather than just address the violence, they take a sobering look at the aftermath and the loss of youth in these communities that is all too prevalent. The book We All We Got captures funerals, vigils, services, graveyards — but between these Ortiz has also managed to show us moments of joy and resilience— Christmas trees being trimmed, celebrations in memory of those who have been lost, or children just playing on the street or at the beach. These images give us a window into the lives of children trying to make it to adulthood despite the swirl of violence around them. It is evident from the intimacy of these portraits and the detailed captions that the families embraced Ortiz and over the years allowed him access to some of their most private moments.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 3.08.09 PM

Many of the images are haunting – roadside memorials seen through a blurred car window, police searching on their hands and knees with flashlights, stones with children’s names and ages on them. While documentary in nature, many cross the line into fine art, as their meaning goes deeper and becomes as layered as the problem of youth violence. There are images of children and mothers crying and caskets lined up, but Ortiz’s images or message never becomes maudlin or heavy-handed. It is evident that this project has been a labor of love and that the photographer spent countless years in neighborhoods and with families – witnessing their tragedy but also attending funerals and birthday parties and capturing moments in between the violence. Ortiz has followed one boy in particular, who was paralyzed by a stray bullet at age 14, and the image of him dressed to go to prom, after suffering so much, is one of pure joy.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 3.12.51 PM

The book also has several essays: The first is an interview with Ortiz by writer Alex Kotlowitz, which describes the photographer’s own experience with violence growing up in Chicago and his deep concern and compassion for his subjects. Ortiz provides a view into a world that is too often stigmatized as being full of gangs and thugs and humanizes what is often written off as street violence.

In other essays, two mothers describe the pain of losing a child to senseless violence, and a public school teacher and an ethnologist weigh in on what these communities witness on a regular basis and how damaging it is to the psyche— particularly that of younger generation who may grow up alienated and distrustful of the police. The recent events of Ferguson, MO have brought a singular incident of gun violence to the our attention once more, but the insert at the end of Ortiz’ book, which lists hundreds of names of children who have died from gunshots and other brutality in the past 7 years, reminds us that in some neighborhoods, these tragedies simply never stop. Through rich and profoundly moving photographs, We All We Got is a sobering look at urban violence and how it shapes the lives of many American communities.


We All We Got Book Cov

We All We Got
by Carlos J. Ortiz
Red Hook Editions

For more info and to purchase the book:

About Sarah Hadley

Sarah Hadley is a photographer based in LA. You can see her work at She is also the Founder and Executive Director of the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago.

Posted in Photographer | Tagged

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Events by Location

Post Categories