INTERVIEW: “Interview with Camilo Jose Vergara” (2007)

Interview with Camilo Jose Vergara

By Jesse Serwer

What is it about American cities that draws you to document them versus, say, ghettos in other places like your native Chile?

CJV: Here is where I live. I can’t just take the bus and go to Mexico. After a while you become interested in what’s around you. India is fascinating but it’s do damn far. What can you start there? First of all, you have to learn the language. Here at least, with some trouble I understand what folks are telling me. There are some places, like parts of Chicago, where it’s almost like a foreign language but you still can understand.

Are America’s ghettos more tragic than ghettos elsewhere?

CJV: Immigrants seem to do alright. Look at folks that come from India or Latin America. A lot of them are not even going to the central cities. At least half of them are going to the suburbs. A lot of them that go to the cities, go to the surroundings. Like in Camden, if you go to the site, the further you go from the center, then you start getting Mexicans and Vietnamese. Where things are not so bad, where there are at least some organizations. There’s Stone Catholic Church or they’ve got their own churches. The schools are somewhat better. It’s not that the immigrants are…often, their kids have more problems and their grandchildren have more problems, but the immigrants themselves somehow are more resourceful, sink or swim. Some of them go back.

But, by and large, this is a country that has come through for immigrants, and that counts for people just about everywhere. It is the natives, those are the ones that get screwed. It’s the folks that were here that own the place to begin with, the folks that came here as slaves and ended up in the core ghettos and they’ve been there three, four generations. Before that, they were in some plantation exploited by some landowner. It is the ones that get handouts if you want to call it that, because they get access to public housing, access to welfare, some sort of public services that the immigrants are not tied to. So they stay and their kids go to the same lousy schools, their kids get to walk the streets where there is no security and go by the drug dealers. Immigrants are more mobile.

You get a long discussion about France because every once in a while you get some cars burned down. Nothing like the 52 people that got shot in LA in the riots, but a couple cars get burned and they think there’s revolution over there. You look at the population of those places and most of them are native French, they are not of Arab descent. You don’t have the kind of thing you used to have in the projects of Chicago or places like North Richmond in California. Some of them are turning around like Harlem. They color barrier their walls. It is like this: one mile minority people, 10 miles of minority people. In Detroit, it’s like that.

Doesn’t the idea of the ghetto originate in Poland?

CJV: It was the Jewish ghetto in Venice. The Polish ghetto was much later. This was before the 17th century, the Jews lived in a special section of Venice that had some restrictions but also some privileges.

Camden is an obvious choice as a city for you to document on the website, but why Richmond? It’s somewhat suburban, isn’t it?

CJV: A lot of suburbs are becoming really desperate, like Ford Heights in Illinois. I didn’t make the choices, the choices were made by the Ford Foundation—they came to me. I was fine with Camden, because I was doing work there in the late ‘70s, from ‘77 and on. Richmond I didn’t know a thing about. I had been there once but the Ford people wanted Richmond. There are parts of Richmond, to be truthful, that are similar to Camden, but not as bad. The price of homes in Richmond is much higher. You look in some place that’s falling apart in a little plot of land in Richmond, and they say it’s $300,000. In Camden, it used to be that with $200, you could by a home there. Of course, you had to fix it. I don’t know what it is now but I assume it should be at least $10-20,000 but nowhere near $300,000. $300,000 will buy you a palace in Camden.

What was [Ford’s] connection to these two places?

CJV: They have been supporting programs, community development organizations, all over the country. They figured by focusing their efforts on these two cities, bringing out foundation money—not just their own but getting together with other foundations—that there could have an actual impact and things could change in places like Camden and Richmond. And that one important part of change is to have some clear idea as where places are changing from. It does take a long time for a place to change. My next website is on Harlem. You should have seen what Harlem was in the late ’80s. Somewhere along the line there will be all these pictures people can look at, and that will give them a sense of what things were like. Or, conversely, if nothing happens, this will give them a sense of how little has been accomplished. What I do is sort of systematic, which means that you try to cover the whole area. Mix the areas of poverty and all different aspects, so you get a pretty good view. It is a table in comparison to which you can see where you are.

What is unique about Richmond?

CJV: Richmond is not a ghetto in a sense, but it has ghetto parts. And 1/3 is white folks, 1/3 is black folks, 1/3 is Latino folks. It has areas, where tiny homes sell for $600,000 and they look clean with very well kept yards. You can go to the section I call “Modest Masterpieces” and you will see these beautiful little houses with a yard in the back, yard in the front, decent neighbors. I wish I could live in one. On the other hand, there are places where they have shootings regularly, and things are dilapidated and falling apart. There is an air of menace, and there are signs are everywhere saying so and so was shot here, in memoriam of so and so. Then there are the drug dealers, you go to these places and they’re out there, as if it was their territory. The cops come, and they’re still dealing.

Is it in stasis now, or getting better or worse?

CJV: The city is doing it’s stuff. It is tearing down the main street, putting a median in. Target is putting another mall there. There’s two Targets, and they figure they need a third Target. It is a city that has a balanced budget, yet, on the other hand, it has some of the worst schools in the state. It’s full of those contradictions. You see these really beautiful spots, at the same time you want to cry, why isn’t this spreading? It is that kind of a science we have developed here, it’s like compartmentalizing things. We create these little compartments. On one side of the street is a ghetto and the other side is a nice place. If we don’t need to go to a doctor or school, the two don’t have to meet.

How long will you continue the Invincible Cities site for?

CJV: I want to do it until I stop kicking, but it needs support. It is not cheap to do. I hire a webmaster. I have to live somehow. So far I am well taken care of but soon this is not going to be the case. I’ve been able to keep this going for so long. I started photographing in Camden in the ’70s, started doing these sort of building concentrations in 1977. That’s 30 years. Very few photographers work a sustained period of 30 years. With any luck, I’ll be able to do another 10-15 years.

How come you’ve stayed working on buildings and cities, instead of shooting, I don’t know, farms?

CJV: I’m not interested in farms. Besides, there’s so many better photographers for that. Horse racing up on the hill, why would I do that? All these other folks spend a life doing that stuff. It would be suicide professionally. What I do is kind of suicide to begin with, but so far I kind of have the field to myself. There are other photographers working in these cities but they do the people-centric ghetto photography. You see the folks drugging themselves, and the children playing with tires and mattresses—the same thing that doesn’t tell you anything.

Where did the idea of following buildings falling apart and being reborn come from?

CJV: In the ’70s, it was happening so quickly. The Bronx was burning. You could go somewhere one week and the next week there was nothing there. First it was all buildings, second it was all charred structures, folks trying to get their furniture out. The smell of burning stuff was all over the place, and they stayed like that. Then they figured that was where the drug dealing was happening, little girls were getting raped. So then they started bulldozing that, and the place was full of empty lots. Then the empty lots started to be built on, they built all those townhouses. You started to see something get going, but you couldn’t tell from the beginning that this is how it is going to happen. Nobody would have pictured that townhouses was going to be the new wave of The Bronx.

When did Camden first come to your attention?

CJV: 1977 was the first pictures. If you go to the Wikipedia entry under my name, you will see a series of Camden. That was the first time I was there. It was destruction of small buildings but it was similar to the Bronx. In other words, in the Bronx you saw big stuff burned and abandoned. In Camden, you saw these little rowhouses, and you figured you could understand an apartment building because you are just a tenant there, you are out in the little corner of that apartment building. You have no control over what happens in Apt. 1B, you’re in the fifth floor. You somehow can understand how the Bronx got out of control. But in Camden it was individual homes, rowhouses [that were burning down]. You figured there they had some control, but it just happened the same way.

Why has it held your attention for so long?

CJV: It’s not difficult to explain. Why would you get bored—you never know what is coming next? With a lot of other places, it kind of gets predictable, you run out of ideas. But this is not somebody’s plot in somebody’s head, this is a city. And the city has twists and changes, and those don’t follow any plan. They can fool a lot of the plans, and that’s what is interesting. It’s so complex, and I’m interested in so many of the other sides. I’m interested in the graphics that appear, how people talk back—the graffiti. I am interested in religion, how people play. What happens to the trees. It is amazing to see that you’ve got to demolish a building so you bring the machine and there’s a tree in the middle and you just go and knock it down. Some of the most beautiful trees are in the middle of these cities.

There is a Camden section, on 4th Street and Whitman on the south side… if you look at the section called “Vegetation” on the site, there is a canopy of streets you would wish you had in the suburbs. Then every house underneath looks derelict. So what are these magnificent trees covering all this derelict abandoned houses? And then the prostitutes that do their business there. You’ve got this Central Park out there, and instead of having carriages pass by you’ve got dealers, prostitutes and abandoned houses. Then when they demolish these houses, the trees are coming out.

What aspect of Camden have you yet to capture?

CJV: The future. In Camden, if this push along the waterfront continues, I am really interested in the frontier. Where are they going to put the border, because there’s going to be a border. They’re going to say from here on there is middle class mixed Camden and, on the other side, here is the ghetto. How do you consolidate that zone? You do it for one building sometimes, you can do it for the street. You can have security guards, a fenced community. Folks are thinking about it, coming up with their things and I am out there with my camera to look and see what they come up with.

How often do you go there?

CJV: Five or six times a year, for three days or something each time. I stay in hotels in Philadelphia. I am so tired by the time I come back — you want a place that has a restaurant or bar nearby.

How do you find people in Camden feel about their city?

CJV: I stay away from general questions. I just ask really specific things, like what is it like to live near a methadone clinic? Why do you have a camera and a metal door in front of a day care center? The more general you get, people answer those questions in a tired way.

Do people answer your questions or do they say who is this strange guy?

CJV: That is part of it, most of all because I stand on the roof of a car, a brand new car, which they see as a desecration, because a new car means a lot. When you rent a car, they give you a brand new one. I’ll park it in front of someone’s house and take a picture. You take it from the roof so you don’t get any distortion. So the people living in the house will come out and talk to you. Sometimes they get mad, sometimes they’re friendly. Sometimes you tell them something about their neighborhood that they forgot, and then they remember. You start a conversation.

You live in Harlem, right?

CJV: I love the place. I live on 110th, almost on the corner of Broadway. I don’t photograph Broadway. That would be preposterous. That is one of the most expensive areas in the country. What am I talking about? Do I show that there is three Starbucks within 10 blocks? I am particularly interested in issues. Every city has different issues but, to me for Harlem, a really interesting issue is what Harlem has lost, compared to what Harlem has gained. There was a lot of what blacks call down home flavor, which was there very much in the ’70s. Now you get the Kentucky Fried Chickens and the Radio Shacks, and what happened to the down home flavor? They sell Harlem with that and people go in and what do they see? The Gap. I am doing the whole of Harlem, from 110th to 155th, from Broadway to the river.

Do you do go out and shoot every week?

CJV: A lot of shots I need are from high points of view. I need to go to the projects and say, ‘Hey look, I want to go to the Polo Grounds,’ or the Jackson Houses and so on, could you get me an appointment to go with someone to the roof? If I go by myself the cops will come running, thinking I am part of some terror thing.

Do you have other cities you’re planning on including in the Invincible Cities website?

CJV: I want to do L.A., Detroit, Chicago, Gary, Indiana, Newark. It would be my hope, but it would take a lot of time.

You’ve published quite a few books of your photographs, are going to gather the ones from Invincible Cities in a book?

CJV: I think the site is more useful then a book to be honest. What I imagine happening is a lot of people taking the images, teachers using them in classes. I want to do an “Encyclopedia of the American Ghetto” that can be a visual, Internet encyclopedia. But it also can be a book that’s shaped like the bible. I think there are other book plans I have thought more about. I’ve been talking to folks about doing a book on the transformation of California with the Latino influx.

The emphasis of my work from the very beginning has been on lots of images rather then one single series or place. Before the word website existed, I used to think of spiderwebs. They have a center and those lines that circle around. I thought what if you cover a city like with the website where all these intersections point from where you photograph, and what if you continue doing this over time? You’ve captured the life of the city. Of course, you do some talking and interviewing. That was the image that was in my head. Then I came with another way of saying it—picture networks.

When you ask me for one picture that goes against the whole idea because it’s the network that’s important. That’s why there are so many photographers much more famous and important then I am. They get the masterpiece pictures. I can’t tell you my best picture but I can tell you my best websites. The area around Northgate, the real tall building in Camden. That series of pictures taken from the roof, and the ground around that building. Talk about something that places you right at the center of poverty in America, over a period of almost 20 years. The first one is ‘88. That’s really powerful, from my point of view.

You mentioned in the introduction that one of the goals is to encourage people to visit and see for themselves. Have people done this?

CJV: If you really want to end this extreme segregation and concentration of poverty, you’ve got to start creating context and one of the ways is by having, in every school in America or as many as you can, teachers who can pull these images and say this is what Camden is like, and Camden is part of the US of A. A great poet lived there, and big inventions and great records were made there. I think that would eventually create an interest. I don’t think everybody’s going to pack up and go to Camden. But it would be different from what is going on now, this extreme segregation. I do want to make it a force in American education. That is why I put the exact addresses and the real names of people, so others can go and ask for them so the contact can be made. Why make it abstract? Why say, “Mexico City, 1934.” You’re never going to encounter “Mexico City, 1934.” You will never be able to make that connection with a place unless you know exactly where the person who took that picture was.

The amazing thing is that I was able to go to so many places. I enjoy this. Even if it’s bad news that you find, its great to discover things. Even if that beautiful canopy of trees in Camden is going to go down, it is great to be the one that saw it and said, “this is how it happened, and where it happened and you better watch for it somewhere else.”

(Jesse Serwer interviewed photographer Camilo Jose Vergara in early 2007 for this brief piece in XLR8R magazine.)

Jesse Serwer is a freelance journalist and the music editor for Jamrock Magazine. His work regularly appears in Time Out New York, XXL, Wax Poetics and XLR8R.

Camilo Jose Vergara is a 2002 MacArthur fellow whose books include American Ruins and How the Other Half Worships.

(Feature brought to you in partnership by ASX and Jesse Serwer)

Around the WEB: Camilo Jose Vergara

* Invincible Cities
* Wikipedia: Camilo Jose Vergara
* Getty Museum: Camilo Jose Vergara
* NY Times: Harlem in Time-Lapse Photography
* Slate: When the House Next Door is Abandoned
* Artnet: Camilo Jose Vergara
* Smithsonian Magazine: Harlem Transformed

ASX CHANNEL: Camilo Jose Vergara

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