Camilo José Vergara’s photographic documentation of Americas slums and decaying urbanism is fascinating. A trained sociologist with a specialism in urbanism, Vergara systematical documents places at the point of urban decay.
In this great interview he explains whyhe photographs buildings, people and decay.
VERGARA: Not in the sense that I want them to fill the frame. I want them as part of the city, as part of the block. I want it to be seen that there is someone that’s walking around. Partly to give you scale and partly to show that the places are inhabited, because you know, certainly people still live there.
But the problem with people, on focusing with people, is that they are very demonstrative. And their clothes reflect the time, and their games they play and their expressions, all of that: they’re important from a historical point of view. But the buildings speak more eloquently about the time passing than the people themselves. I mean, what do you see? You see a face?
One of my big surprises was to walk into a room of Roman heads at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I looked at those heads and I said, “These folks lived 2000 years ago.” And they just looked like the folks out on the street, you know? So then what can you say about the city by focusing on faces, expressions, their delight? I mean faces are interesting; I’m not against portrait photography. But portrait photography doesn’t tell the story of a city.
STAVANS: Now very few photographers bring out their work in the fashion that you do. You put the photographs in books, and you editorialize the context in which those photographs came about– or your experience of the place– by creating a narrative that mixes the autobiographical with the sociological-anthropological-historical. And so more than small captions, you have an entire story about it. Is that how you photograph, thinking how that image is going to sit in a larger book?
VERGARA: I photograph thinking that the places themselves are going to tell me a story eventually. And they do. The story needs time so that it can tell itself. And I need to go there frequently enough so that I can get that story.
Now the elements of the story are, on the one hand, the building and whatever is happening to the building: who is using it, for what purpose, what is falling, what’s being fixed, how? Is the City boarding it up? How is it boarding it up? Is it using tin, is it using wood? Who is doing this sort of stuff? Are they putting a fence around it? All of those things.
And then the other element of the narrative is what people tell you about that building: what’s going on inside. How do they perceive it? What’s their idea of the building? See, they are allowed to say that “this is a darn shame that that library is abandoned.” But I’m not allowed to say that.
STAVANS: I see, you let those voices tell the story.