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Book Review: We All We Got


Book Review We All We Got By Javier Carlos Ortiz Reviewed by George Slade A dead body, laid out on the ground where and when life left it, is a small thing. Under a sheet and across the street or seen through the frame of a police car’s window, the recently deceased looks desolate, bereft of context, a bit of jettisoned material adrift on concrete.

We All We Got. By Carlos Javier Ortiz.
Red Hook Editions, 2013.
 
We All We Got
Reviewed by George Slade

We All We Got
By Carlos 
Javier Ortiz
Red Hook Editions, 2014. 179 pp., black & white illustrations, 7½x9½".

A dead body, laid out on the ground where and when life left it, is a small thing. Under a sheet and across the street or seen through the frame of a police car’s window, the recently deceased looks desolate, bereft of context, a bit of jettisoned material adrift on concrete.

If we could approach the dead body, to see it as something besides a horizontal clump, it would gain presence in the photograph; we could see the face, clothes, and other details that gave this person character. We are, however, held behind the police tape. Respect, safety, a semblance of caution in preserving a crime scene. Carlos Javier Ortiz is not the forensic photographer; his mission is to scour the community that caused the death, not to look in the dead’s eyes. We must learn of the deceased from those who stand as witness.

We All We Got. By Carlos Javier OrtizRed Hook Editions, 2013.

We witness a lot in this book. The people Ortiz photographs have witnessed too much. While he stands at the shoulders of mourning parents, observing the trials of loss and anguish that are too regular in these Chicago and Philadelphia locations, and amidst groups of young people caught up in adult concerns before their time, he finds that these deaths have become, literally, details of the built environment. The markers are everywhere, in formats ranging from graffiti on walls and custom t-shirts to bottles, balloons, wheelchairs, and candlelight. And faces, hardened and bereaved, losing life as we watch, evince what might be called grief fatigue.

We All We Got. By Carlos Javier OrtizRed Hook Editions, 2013.
We All We Got. By Carlos Javier OrtizRed Hook Editions, 2013.

Death is undeniably part of the fabric of life. But funerary markers belong in cemeteries, and bodily fluids of recently dispatched beings are most appropriately cleaned off of butchers’ floors and slaughterhouse walls, not sidewalks in front of neighborhood stoops. Death is far too present in these places; the veil between life and afterlife a bit too permeable. When an 18th birthday cake for “Nugget,” decorated with frosting-jet images of her from childhood up, also bears the curlicued words “In Memory Of,” it’s almost too much.

We All We Got. By Carlos Javier OrtizRed Hook Editions, 2013.

And, if a single death doesn’t move you, open up the foldout attached inside the back cover. There you’ll find the names, ages, gender, cause of death (roughly 95% gunshot, the rest stabbings, arson, “trauma,” assault, and strangling), and race of those “lost” between 2007 and spring of 2014. If you are wondering why urban demographics might indicate a shortage of mid- to late-twenties black men, here are some answers.

Now, what to do?—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant. He can be found online at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/


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