Camilo José Vergara

Camilo José Vergara


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.




Zabeleen: building on waste

Zabeleen: building on waste


Zabeleen is a community in Egypt that shows how people can self organise to manage their own waste. At first glance it can seem like a chaotic place ewith the community living in what looks like a garbage dump. But a deeper look reveals well organised and highly effective waste management system for Cairo.

Cairo like many cities around the world is going through a massive urbanisation with governments struggling to keep up with infrastructure developments. What has developed in Zabeleen is a decentralised, participatory and low tech approach to Cairo’s waste management which also provides a livelihood for the community. They have been collecting and recycling Cairo’s waste for over 70 years without little acknowledgement from the state or secure land tenure.


Cairo’s waste management system is a mix of formal and informal systems. They governments policy since the early 2000’s has been a focus on privatisation, limiting their involvement and involving citizens in the cost of paying for the services. Local authorities manage the solid waste collection and contracts are aware to private companies for the collection and transfer of waste. Composting is mostly managed by the formal sector whilst recycling is managed by the informal sector.


The Wahiya and Zabeleen are the two cultural groups that manage the informal waste system. The Wahiya are Moslem migrants from the Western Desert oasis of Dakla, who arrived in Cairo about 100 years ago and entered into contracts to receive a monthly fee for collecting and disposing of waste. The Zabeleen arrived in the 1930/40s in search of employment and discovered they could make a living by renting garbage routes from the Wahiya.
Their system of waste collection has ended up being both more efficient than the state run or private systems and has provided employment for many people. However the community and their livelihoods are under threat as the government seeks to encourage privatisation of its waste service.


The community live in makeshift structures on the west and northern fringes of the city. They process more that 6000 tonnes of garbage a day, recycling 85% of them through micro enterprises. The waste is sorted into 16 categories like tin, glass, rags and plastic which can be sold. Organic waste is fed to the pigs they breed. The pigs are central to the their livelihood strategy and come from the rural tradition of owning a pig yard. Every family owns one, usually adjacent to the sleeping quarters, and they use this space to sort and store domestic waste. The meat from the pigs is then sold to hotels for good profit. This creates a cyclical economy where the waste activities generate further employment for people in other neighbourhoods.


The settlements have continued to grow over the years. Growing vertically in a sort of haphazard manner. The flat roof terraces are increasingly being used to sort garbage and rear the pigs, creating a colourful messy aesthetic. This highly localised method of recycling has a low carbon footprint, reducing the need for transportation, landfilling and compaction. Their recycling system is cited as one of the best in the world with the highest material recovery at 30% of the total waste generated. It is a high efficient system reducing the demand for transport, collection and disposal as the scale and organic shape of informal settlements are not designed for large removal trucks.


Zabeleen is an interesting example of how communities can develop appropriate and local methods of successfully managing their urban spaces and it would be a great shame to see this thriving ecosystem impacted as the governments privatisation of waste disposal threatens to do.

New Glasgow Society_ the power of a cause

New Glasgow Society_ the power of a cause

I attended the committee meeting of the New Glasgow Society last week. It’s an organisation that I have always been curious about as I always pass their shopfront nearby.

It was fascinating to meet the members, who are a mix of people  Some have been there since it started in 1965. They spoke of the Wee Green Book and how it inspired many of them to protest the large urban reconstruction projects that were happening in Glasgow at the time.  They spoke of the archives of the newsletters which showed proposals, many of which were never built. It all just reminded me of the power of a cause and the power of individuals to make positive changes in their environment.

It is fascinating and I definitely want to find out more and keep involved. This year will be the 50th anniversary so keep an eye out for the wonderful series of events that will be happening throughout the year! 🙂