RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Camilo Jose Vergara has seen the face of the lord. He's seen it all over America, on the streets, in murals, on storefront churches. He's a photographer, and his series on the passion of Christ is part of an upcoming exhibit at the National Building Museum. Claire O'Neill introduces us to the artist and his work.
CLAIRE O'NEILL: Imagine this: You're in a small, one-bedroom apartment in New York City, and all of your storage is occupied by boxes and boxes of photographs.
Mr. CAMILO JOSE VERGARA (Photographer): Many hundreds of thousands.
O'NEILL: That's Camilo Jose Vergara, and that's how many photos he's taken. Many hundreds of thousands, which is easy to do if you have a digital camera. But he's using film. His photos show how neighborhoods change, how storefronts become churches, and how depictions of Jesus really vary from place to place. He recalls what it was about these images that initially caught his eye.
Mr. VERGARA: It was Christs that were white and blue-eyed, and Christs that were African, and Christs that were clearly Latino. And they all came together and sort of acted the part in different places. Some of them were really very accomplished pieces of work, and some of them were very rough. And, you know, I like them both.
O'NEILL: One photo shows a giant Jesus airbrushed on a wall, carrying a cross. In the foreground, a homeless man hunches over a shopping cart, pushing with determination. In another photo, Jesus looks more like a beefed-up football player ready to break the cross in half. And in another, he's being flayed, but he's also advertising on a billboard for Mama's Chicken and Ice Cream.
What's most interesting is where Vergara finds these images of Christ — from Skid Row in L.A. to Detroit to Camden, New Jersey. He's drawn to tough, urban areas; that's where he keeps finding God.
Mr. VERGARA: I found that many of those images had been placed in some of the most dangerous places in America by ministers or priests that thought that putting the image of Christ there was a deterrent that was going to stop people from committing crimes in that alley. You know, you don't mess around with Christ too much. You know, Christ still has power. That's what I realized. And then as I was putting it together, you know, I realized that Christ still has power in my life.
O'NEILL: He says he's not a religious person and yet religious themes keep showing up in his work. He's best known for his book called "How the Other Half Worships." It's a visual study of what religious America looks like, from churchgoers to their places of worship.
Mr. VERGARA: I once went to a service where there was a minister woman, and her two kids were there. And that was the entire extent of the service. And it was in a basement, and she had borrowed the basement. Sometimes, people put up a cross in the middle of an empty lot in a place like Detroit, and then they put chairs around it. And that's the place where they worship.
So the idea that you hear often repeated is that the church doesn't matter. What matters is that the people come together and pray to God as a community, as a group of people.
O'NEILL: This Easter weekend, Vergara will be back in Detroit. He'll be visiting a nephew and, in his words, most likely photographing. His exhibit "Storefront Churches" comes to D.C.'s National Building Museum in June.
Claire O'Neill, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you can see an audio slideshow of Camilo Jose Vergara's photos on NPR's photo blog. It's at npr.org/pictureshow.
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