Finding Jesus In America's Inner-City Alleyways

Mama's Chicken i i

Vergara's photographs capture Jesus in a variety of places, including this billboard advertising chicken and ice cream. Camilo Jose Vergara hide caption

itoggle caption Camilo Jose Vergara
Mama's Chicken

Vergara's photographs capture Jesus in a variety of places, including this billboard advertising chicken and ice cream.

Camilo Jose Vergara
Shopping cart i i

A local Catholic church in Los Angeles sponsored these murals to stem the number of gang killings in the neighborhood. hide caption

itoggle caption
Shopping cart

A local Catholic church in Los Angeles sponsored these murals to stem the number of gang killings in the neighborhood.

Camilo Jose Vergara has seen the face of God all across America — and he's photographed it, too.

The photographer has taken hundreds of thousands of pictures, many of them focusing on the different ways that Americans depict Jesus. Vergara says that it was the variety of the images that initially drew him to the subject.

"It was Christs that were white and blue-eyed, and it was Christs that were African and it was Christs that were clearly Latino," the artist explains. "Some of them were very accomplished pieces of work, and some of them were very rough. And, you know, I like them both."

One photograph in the series shows a giant Jesus of Nazareth airbrushed on a wall, carrying a cross. In the foreground, a homeless man hunches over a shopping cart, pushing with determination.

In another photograph, a flayed Jesus appears on a billboard advertising "Mama's chicken and ice cream."

Vergara found images of Jesus in the roughest urban areas: from Skid Row in Los Angeles to the streets of Camden, N.J.

"Many of those images had been placed in some of the most dangerous places in America by ministers or priests [who] thought that putting the image of Christ there was a deterrent that was going to stop people from committing crime," Vergara says. "You don't mess around with Christ too much. You know, Christ still has power."

Although Vergara does not consider himself religious, religious themes continue to be a strong part of his work. He's best known for his book How the Other Half Worships, a visual study of what religious America looks like. In his travels, Vergara attended services held in a variety of places, from a borrowed basement to an empty lot filled with chairs and a cross.

"The idea that you hear often repeated is that the church doesn't matter," Vergara observes. "What matters is that the people come together and pray to God as a community and as a group of people."

Vergara's exhibit, "Storefront Churches," will be on display at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., in June.

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