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Jon Lowenstein

Documentary Photographer

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Jon Lowenstein

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Documentary and freelance photographer and filmmaker.

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Shadow Lives USA
? – present
Millions of Central American and Mexican migrants have moved to the United States during the past two decades in the largest trans-national migration in world history. It is an exodus of biblical proportions that shows no signs of abating. Though they may not realize it, these migrants enter a hostile and ominous shadow world the moment they set foot onto the treacherous path north. Their precarious state begins in Central America, continues through Mexico and does not end once inside the United States, a nation whose businesses have an insatiable appetite for migrant labor but whose laws define them as criminals. How the world’s wealthiest nation integrates the estimated 12 million undocumented Latino immigrants in their midst will define the future of this country for decades. The shadows have lengthened in recent years. Since the U.S. government’s failure in 2007 to pass comprehensive immigration reform, migrants have been subject to an unprecedented coordination of state, local and federal law enforcement agencies pushing them deeper into the darkness. Making matters worse has been the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Despite this climate of fear and a series of ever increasing obstacles, these resilient immigrants have contributed greatly to the economy and are transforming American culture in communities across the nation. In this polarized environment, migrants’ stories and voices are a critical element in the formation of a humane national immigration policy. Although many agree that the current immigration system is not working, few can find common language or understanding to forge effective solutions. Since 2000, the national conversation about immigration has moved in a more punitive direction-a movement that culminated in the recent passage of S.B. 1070 in Arizona. This state law follows in the footsteps of many punitive and increasingly draconian laws throughout the United States including the 2007 passage of H.R. 4437, or the “Sensenbrenner Bill.” This bill made it illegal to employ undocumented immigrants and criminalized employers who do so. Shadow Lives USA is a series of photographic stories woven into an ongoing essay about those who have become known as undocumented immigrants and illegals. The ultimate goal of Shadow Lives USA is to bring their stories out into the light, providing a platform for people who are consistently left out of the immigration debate. This project attempts to transcend the political bickering and to humanize, in a highly intimate fashion, the experiences and lives of the men and women who are living as undocumented residents in what is still the wealthiest nation on earth. The work also seeks to transcend borders in an effort humanize the political, cultural and economic impact on individuals caught up in this complex social space. Ironically, undocumented people are allowed to own homes, maintain bank accounts, pay taxes and at the same time constantly fear the daily threat of forced removal by law enforcement officials. Increasingly, undocumented people all over the United States are being arrested, harassed, legislated against and attacked as a systematic right wing, anti-immigrant movement seeks their wholesale removal from the United States. How American citizens justify the systematic marginalization of more than 12 million people living in their midst, is one of the most pressing questions of our time. Shadow Lives USA highlights the blatant and pervasive human rights violations that are consistently perpetrated against a people simply because they do not have ‘legal’ status. Collectively, this body of work questions, at the most basic level, what rights we have as human beings. This issue has consumed me since 1993, when I taught English as a Second Language to Mexican migrants on Chicago’s West Side. For more than a decade I have traveled, studied, and documented the experiences of undocumented Latin Americans living throughout the United States. This has led me to follow the migrant trail from Central America, through Mexico and throughout the United States in an effort to document the real stories of the men and women who make up this epic migration. Through these experiences and my ability to speak fluent Spanish I have developed connections with a broad network of immigrants and activists. To complete the project I will complete 6 individual photo-stories and undertake an ambitious but achievable distribution plan to be completed over the next year and a half.
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the Island
? – present
the Island is the South Side’s newest collaborative art space. Housed in a vacant cooperative apartment on the shores of Lake Michigan this space is exclusively dedicated to creating dialogue and social justice through documentary photography and film, using a unique combination of cutting edge and analog processes. the Island is Jon Lowenstein’s latest iteration of the long-term South Side Project. He has spent the past decade engaging his adopted community on Chicago’s South Side. The South Side Project is a true, integrative expression of a uniquely American time and place that opens new dialogues and physical spaces in which to engage both the local and global community. This extensive body of work challenges accepted notions about community, wealth inequality and the legacy of violence and segregation.
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South Side
? – present
Chicago is the crossroads of global order, fulminating at the core of our civilization. It was the potential location of the 2016 Olympics, the home of a new world leader, and for those who call it home, a hub of complex communal interconnectedness, irrepressible fluctuation, warring schism, and often turbulent change. Tracing the history of the city, Chicago’s South Side has been the original port of entry for so very many who journeyed from far-flung lands and arrived here seeking industrial opportunity in the years` after the late-nineteenth century “Great Fire”. As those hordes dispersed to outlying portions of Cook County and America proper, towers loomed as a result of their toil, and newly migrated arrivals found “ends” on these blocks between I-55 and the Calumet River, where those who had moved on had found “means”. Thereby, the South Side took on connotations born of cultural rot, economic marginalization, and human corrosion: Chicago’s South Side became emblematic of the stratified American city of the U.S. federal government’s 1968 Report on Civil Unrest: appropriately known as “The Kerner Report” for then Illinois Governor, Chicago’s own Otto Kerner. Today, the South Side is shifting proverbially beneath the feet of its residents and has given birth to a host of vital questions: What is a people’s attachment to space? What is an old space when its’ faces change, its structures shift, neighborhoods are destroyed, while others are born? In 2012, Chicago’s South Side trembles on the precipice of what was, what is and what will be. As a long-time Chicago South Side resident I seek to transcend the traditional depictions of a sullied urban milieu. Since the year 2000 I have spent much of my time documenting the South Side’s living soul, capturing its vibrant vicissitudes on film. I expose the gazing critical eye to the history of the South Side by offering a vital means of observing a city whose people are alive and powerful, to the extent that I live amongst and create from these shifting surroundings. I accomplish these aesthetic objectives through engagement: entering into communities, interviewing and sharing moments with resident citizens and then writing in the lyrical voice of the South Side and capturing experiences through Polaroid instant film. The book will be completed with extensive oral histories from South Side residents and a personal narrative crafted from my diaries, reflections and personal journey through this land. What emerges is an embattled yet exuberant community, existing both in the present and as a living embodiment of an earlier moment, survivors of a dismantled industrial model, and bearers of an all new cultural flame that smolders with untold potentiality. Today, the South Side is a socio-cultural force of a pragmatic historic functionality. This portion of our civilization acts as mediating lever between new and old, east and west, north and south and all such Manichean binaries. Hence, Chicago and its stony South Side isle, is America in its microcosmic midland form. It shifts to meet the new contours of its inhabitants, sometimes gaping awkwardly before it resituates itself. Even as the global gaze beams down in its attempt to define this place as wellspring of a world leader for time immemorial; even as the project towers of world-class impoverishment crumble into the ether on behalf of a gentrified landscape; even as those who live far a-field of the South Side have been conditioned to fear the community in light of headlines depicting unyielding violence and heartbreak; even now, I work from within the South Side to offer my own interpretation of what this portion of our civilization means.
Project Website »

Escondido en Escondido (Hidden in Escondido)
07/11/2013 – present
Jon Lowenstein will partner with the Trans-Border Institute , part of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, to provide local faith leaders and religious youth groups in Escondido, California with tools to mediate escalating tensions between new migrant and native-born communities. For this project, Escondido en Escondido, experts from both partner organizations will conduct a workshop with religious leaders about issues surrounding immigration with the goal of fostering community integration and cooperation. Lowenstein will run a photography workshop with religious leaders and local youth using images from his book, Shadow Lives USA, as a way to spur dialogue around the immigrant experience and talk about the dangers of border crossings, living undocumented in the United States, and deportation, among other issues. Participants will then interview and photograph one another and Lowenstein will publish the resulting work in newspaper format, which will be distributed by those involved to the rest of their larger communities. In conjunction with the newspaper, Lowenstein will utilize the augmented reality browser Junaio to allow readers to use their smart phones to access additional images and information about the project. Lowenstein and his partners will share their project’s outcomes with local political leaders as an example of how to address immigration stereotypes by mediating and creating connections between various groups within the Escondido community.
Project Website »

? – present
Documenting the efficacy of inhaled Nitric Oxide on children with Cerebral Malaria in Uganda.
Project Website »


JON LOWENSTEIN – DOCUMENTARIAN Jon Lowenstein has been a professional photographer for more than ten years. He specializes in long-term, in-depth projects that confront the realms of power, poverty, and violence. As a documentary photographer, he strives for unsparing clarity, and believes images make a critical contribution by revealing the subjects of history that lack voice. At the core of the work, and by his own admission, is a lighted love of people. An equally intractable believer in the art, he asks those who consider photography unessential to picture a world with no pictures. For more than a decade Jon Lowenstein has traveled, studied, and documented the experiences of undocumented Latin Americans living throughout the United States. Shadow Lives USA follows the migrant trail from Central America, through Mexico and throughout the United States in an effort to the real stories of the men and women who make up the largest transnational migration in world history. He has also spent the past decade documenting and working with folks in his community on the South Side of Chicago. This project asks important questions like what does South Side mean? Told by the community with fewer filters, more raw, real, honest and still with an aesthetic that’s a personal collaboration between himself and the community where he lives and works South Side becomes a true integrative expression of a uniquely American time and place. This participatory media project seeks to open a new dialogic space in a place that Jon has been documenting for more than a decade. Lowenstein was recently named a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. He is also currently a 2011 TED Global Fellow and was just named a 2012 Hasselblad Master. In 2008 he was named the Joseph P. Albright Fellow by the Alicia Patterson Foundation and also won a 2007 Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography. He also won a 2007 World Press Award and was named as a USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism Racial Justice Fellowship. he 58th National Press Photographer’s Pictures of the Year Magazine Photographer of the Year Award and Fuji Community Awareness Award. His international assignments include covering elections in Afghanistan to the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to social violence in Guatemala. Most recently, he began a project about the impact of cerebral Malaria in Children in Uganda. He is member and owner of the NOOR Images cooperative and photo agency. Lowenstein’s work can be seen at www.jonlowenstein.com.

Fun facts

Favorite meal:
I don't have one favorite meal, although I love to cook and eat. There are so many amazing foods in this world and I want to try them all. The craziest food I've eaten is probably Mpani worms in South Africa. They were fried up so they actually tasted quite good. Not sure I'd want to eat them again though.

A funny story about me:
I think one of the funnier and crazier moments I've had was last year when I was in Kampala, Uganda with TED Fellow Sanga Moses. He took a left turn and saw passed a motorcycle cop and then we realized we were going into two lanes of ongoing traffic. His little car was racing headlong into the cars and we both just kept our cool as cars avoided us at breakneck speed. Finally, he drove onto the sidewalk and we neared the end of the mile long road, both happy to still be alive. Ahhh TED...

Vital Stats

Fellows Class
TEDGlobal 2011
Living in
Chicago, United States
Working in
All over the world.,
Born in
Boston, United States


www.cs-ef.org/ www.jonlowenstein.com www.noorimages.com pulitzercenter.org/projects/south-america-chile-coup-dictatorship-shantytowns-presidential-campaign www.gf.org/fellows/17087-jon-lowenstein afewmorebreaths.org/ www.opensocietyfoundations.org/about/programs/documentary-photography-project/grantees/jon-lowenstein

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