Harlem In Photographs: Troubled Neighborhood To Source Of Pride : Code Switch Camilo José Vergara says documenting a "world of losing ... a world where things diminish" is "awfully good training for life." His new photo book, Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto, shows the neighborhood's transormation over 40 years.
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Harlem In Photographs: Troubled Neighborhood To Source Of Pride

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Harlem In Photographs: Troubled Neighborhood To Source Of Pride


Decaying cities and blighted neighborhoods have become a draw for photojournalists in recent years, especially. Ruin porn, as it's sometimes called, focuses on abandoned buildings and vacant lots - often used as a metaphor for failed urban policy. And that could've been what happened when Camilo Jose Vergara started taking pictures in Harlem in 1970. He expected to chronicle the deterioration of the historic capital of African-American culture. But over the decades, he found himself witnessing a transformation in the neighborhood that brought prosperity and revitalization for some while it pushed others further to the margins. His new book of photographs is called "Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto." And Camilo Jose Vergara joins us from our studios in New York City. Welcome to the program.

CAMILO JOSE VERGARA: Thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.

HEADLEE: You say in the book that your reason, I guess, or motivation for taking the photos changed a bit as the years passed. What did you mean by that?

VERGARA: I would say my approach changed. My motivation was always the same - a sort of a fascination with things that fail and trying to get to the bottom of how they fail. Why they failed escaped me often, but I just wanted to know all the details of how that happened. My first approach was as a documentarist. That means a street photographer. So I photographed people as they hang around corners - street corners, as they sat outside in porches and entrance of buildings, as they went to stores and that sort of thing.

And then my interest became more the buildings themselves because I figure - surprisingly enough 'cause it's usually the other way around - that the buildings were going to last a lot less than the people because so much, particularly in New York, was disappearing then. You know, the idea of the Bronx is burning, the Bronx is burning, you know, is one way to express it. But so was Brooklyn, and so was Harlem. There was a lot of things that were disappearing, and they were disappearing in a very short time. So my interest then became the buildings themselves and how to photograph buildings and how to photograph them as they change, you know, from one year, to the next, to the next, to the next as long as I could. My interest was in stories.

HEADLEE: You're originally from Chile, and I wonder, you went into - when you first started taking these photographs, you were going into some very rough, dangerous neighborhoods. Were you ever afraid for your own safety?

VERGARA: Well, I've been blessed with something, which is basically that I get afraid afterwards. In other words, in the moment, when dangerous things happen to me, I'm very calm. And I think the people who are trying - maybe thought of harming me, or stealing stuff were surprised, you know, because of how calm I was. But five minutes later, I was falling apart. So because I could deal coolly with the situation, I managed to avoid most of the really dangerous encounters that I had.

I managed to avoid being harmed. And then again, the draw of doing this thing is so strong that it just doesn't matter that it's dangerous. You do it anyway. And of course, war photographers do it all the time, and it's much more dangerous.

HEADLEE: I wonder how you feel about this, I guess, sort of, section of photography that we now refer to as ruin porn. There's been photographers who've flown into places like Detroit and taken photos that the residents of Detroit felt were exploitative - that exploited the people there or didn't show their true story. You have not gotten those kind of complaints although you've photographed some very rough places. Some very - what you call in the book the book, ruins. How does somebody avoid exploiting their subject matter?

VERGARA: Well, I think, on the one hand, when they realize that you are really wedded to those places, you know - I don't just photograph the Packard Plant once or the train station in Detroit once or buildings in Harlem, like the corner change bank once. But I stay with it.

So then, you know, it's not exploitative. It's a relationship. I mean, I think all photography has some element of exploitation because it's the world that is outside of us, and that's what we mine in some way. But if we didn't mine the world around us, we wouldn't know anything about it. We wouldn't start dialogue. We wouldn't create interest. We would live lives of mollusks, you know, inhuman maybe. So I'm all for ruin porn.

HEADLEE: When did you develop this kind of relationship that you describe? Did you feel that bond from the beginning, or at some point did Harlem and the streets and the buildings of Harlem become closer to you than you dreamed it would be?

VERGARA: You see, I came from a family that was fairly affluent and lost its money. So in a sense, getting used always to lesser, to a lesser and lesser status, to a diminished material world around you, to circumstances that are completely unpredictable, was part of my life when I was 8 years old or 9 years old. And it stayed, and it made a mark on me. So that's the only way that really, truly interests me - is the world of losing.

It's a world where things diminish. And it happens to be the world of everybody because you get old and your world diminish. And you diminish, and you become less. And it's an awfully good training for life, you know, to do it. I found, in the American cities, an echo of my own personal feelings about life and the human destiny, if I could say so. And then, you know, I got a passionate interest in what was happening. The buildings became metaphors for people - the playgrounds, the buildings, the things I found in them. And, you know, I just can't stop from doing it.

HEADLEE: Is there a place in Harlem that still looks like it did when you first began taking pictures in 1970?

VERGARA: Yes, yes, you can - it's actually - "The Unmaking of a Ghetto" was never a complete unmaking of a ghetto because there are parts of Harlem - and if you today go to the Polo Grounds houses or the Ralph Rangel houses, which are on Frederick Douglass and 155th and go north of that, you will see. You will find yourself, first of all, in one of those traditional ghettos that were created after World War II, where the population was 95 or 96 or 98 percent minority. And that is there today because I was there last week and I saw it.

So there you find the traditional ghetto. You find it in public housing because the people are selected because of their income, and they are selected - also because for a white person, even if they were very poor, it's very difficult to live in an environment that is 100 percent minority. I mean, they'd be very reluctant to move in there. Some of them marry minorities, and then they live in there. But that's more or less the situation. So, yes, if you go there, you find the traditional ghetto still functioning in Harlem. I can show you other examples, too. I can tell you other examples. There's one around Lexington Avenue and 125th Street. So if you put a radius of three, four blocks from there, you'll find all the shelters. You'll find methadone clinics. You'll find public housing projects. You'll find all those things that were created to serve mostly a poor minority population.

HEADLEE: Well, the book is really stunning. And it's a big book for a very big topic. It's called "Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto" from photographer and writer based in New York City, Camilo Jose Vergara. Thank you so much.

VERGARA: It was a pleasure to talk to you.

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