In the Line of Chicago Fire

Text by Katy McCarthy | Photos by Daniel Shea

A while back I sat down to listen to a radio special on Chicago public schools and was blown away by what I heard. In a little over an hour, I understood that some kids in Chicago kids didn’t join cliques (think gang but smaller, younger, and less organized crime) but were automatically grouped into cliques based on the block they lived on. I learned that getting a gun was as easy as getting a new pair of sneakers and that organizing something as quintessentially high school as a dance was a huge deal in terms of safety.

So earlier this month, when I rolled across Daniel Shea’s photo series on youth violence in Chicago’s South Side, I was sort of prepared, but his photos still punched me in the gut.

In one photo Leon Cunningham, 19, lies in bed at Kindred Hospital. Leon has been shot four separate times within walking distance of his home in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. The last time he was shot he developed an infection in his left leg. It had to be amputated from the knee down.

Daniel is well-spoken, he chooses his words with care, but when talking about the roots of the violence you can hear the frustration and sadness leak into his voice. On the phone, he lamented, “Almost all these kids are really good kids, but they get caught up in bullshit, and it becomes very territorial.”

To give a taste of how space and relations are delineated, Daniel worked closely with a clique called The Blockheadz, who live in Marshall Field Garden Apartments. In an earlier interview, Daniel wrote, “People in The Blockheadz … would interchange the words clique with family. It’s a bond for these guys.” Unfortunately, friction between cliques is often a cause for violence.

Editor’s Update, May 25, 2023: The Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention states, “Homicide is a leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24 and among these victims 86% were male and 86% were killed with a firearm.”

That said, it’s not all bad news: The Blockheadz are working to make a name for themselves as rap artists on YouTube. 

In a couple photos, the aspiring rappers huddle, talk and smoke. There is an intensity to their stances that communicates that they aren’t taking a future rap career lightly. It may be a pipe dream, but they certainly aren’t approaching it that way.

Music is close to the heart of this work. The impetus for Chicago Fire was drawn from an earlier project Daniel did to document rappers on Chicago’s South Side. After that piece, Daniel and his editors at The Fader realized there was more to explore between the streets and the representation of young black rappers in the media. They wanted to “pull back the curtain on the mythology of the universe of hip-hop lyrics” to look at what was really happening in the streets that inspired that content.

For a kid living in a neighborhood where you may be lucky to make it out unscathed, dreams are important to have. An image of a young woman standing on a porch holding a photo of a friend shot to death reminds us of this.

For Daniel, there were endless ways to think about the violence — both in terms of cause and effect. “There wasn’t a convenient narrative scope,” he explained. Ultimately this is what drove him to work with so many different groups — cliques, rappers, and conflict mediators with Cure Violence (an anti-violence, conflict mediation group, formerly called Ceasefire)   — which gives his project such gravity.

“What is happening is extremely complicated and woven into various cultural things, and institutional things, and structural things, there’s no way to pinpoint what causes the violence and keeps it going,” he explained.

As Daniel points out, lots of folks are doing good things to stop the violence. During the project, Daniel photographed and met Chase, 14, and his parents Mike and Latrica, who are fighting to rid their community of gangs and drugs.

Chicago was hit hard by deindustrialization, which played a significant role in the downturn of many of its neighborhoods. In the final photograph, the family stands a strong set of three in front of what looks to be a shuttered motor supply factory. Here, in crisp autumn light and warm clothes, they look very up to the task of turning things around.

See more photography by Daniel Shea


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