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Camilo José Vergara  

b. 1944 Santiago, Chile
photographer
American

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The ghetto poses urgent questions I feel compelled to respond to, not with solutions but with explanations and tangible records. I am driven to publicize and preserve the memory of these environments.
--Camilo José Vergara

Camilo José Vergara has spent more than thirty years documenting poor, urban, and minority neighborhoods across the United States. His projects emerge from what he sees as one big archive--thousands of images he has made since 1977, and continues to make, of the nation's largest ghettos, where at least forty percent of the residents live below the poverty level. His exhaustive research has taken him to Camden and Newark, New Jersey; Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; Gary, Indiana; Maine; New York; and Los Angeles.

Vergara himself experienced the specter of poverty as a teenager in his native Chile. He was born into a wealthy family whose fortunes declined precipitously by the time he was fifteen. Concerned relatives provided a home for him and sponsored his education. " I have never forgotten the places of squalor I once seemed destined to inhabit," Vergara has written. In 1965 at age 21, he went to college in the United States and was stunned by the contrasts in wealth and lifestyles he saw. He bought a camera before graduating from the University of Notre Dame with a BA in Sociology, and made street photographs in New York for several years. Although he enjoyed it, he realized he was retracing the steps of other documentary photographers. He decided instead focus on the "built environment" as a reflection of urban life, and returned to school while continuing to photograph. After earning an MA in Sociology from Columbia University in 1977, he developed a methodical approach to photographic documentation by researching his subjects, and systematically documenting them over time.

Vergara takes his camera to places plagued by the drug trade, neighborhoods chosen for the location of homeless shelters, prisons, and drug treatment facilities, "fringe" streets flanked by railroad lines, expressways, cemeteries, and industrial corridors, and areas of gentrification. He is a prolific photographer who continues to live in New York City. His best-known publications include: Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (1989), The New American Ghetto (1995), American Ruins (1999), Unexpected Chicagoland (2001), and How the Other Half Worships (2005).


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St. Rest M.B. Church / Vergara
St. Rest M.B. Church

American, 1980

First Steadfast / Vergara
First Steadfast

American, 1987

St. Rest M.B. Church / Vergara
St. Rest M.B. Church

American, 1997

First Steadfast / Vergara
First Steadfast

American, 2001