Photographer, writer, and documentarian Camilo José Vergara focuses on things a lot of people overlook: decaying storefronts on neglected streets, boarded-up churches, and handmade signs.
Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1944, Vergara came to the U.S. in the 1960s to attend college, earning a graduate degree in sociology at Columbia University in New York, where he lives now. He began taking photographs in the 1970s, initially in the style of photographers like Walker Evans or Helen Levitt, who focused on people in the urban landscape. Eventually he shifted his focus to the urban landscape itself.
Vergara has photographed humble streets and buildings in New York, New Jersey, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles; he returns to the same spots day after day, documenting how cities change as the years pass and new immigrants arrive and add their marks. Images of Cesar Chavez and the Virgen de Guadalupe are added to murals of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Churches become furniture stores. Business and life go on with remarkable ingenuity and persistence, in neighborhoods marked by poverty and segregation.
Lately, however, Vergara sees the signs of the pandemic all around him. The murals wear facemasks. Building entrances are plastered with signs directing patrons not to enter if they are ill. Restaurants have erected tented dining areas outside, and bus drivers are separated from riders by plastic barriers. Sidewalks have become waiting rooms, and people waiting to see the dentist or doctor find themselves toughing it out on the street in the cold.
Vergara is toughing it out every day, too, photographing the impact of the pandemic on New York and New Jersey, places he can reach by public transportation. His focus is laser-sharp on the virus these days, because, he says, the virus is focused on us.
I recently spoke with him about the physical evidence of the pandemic, some of which is official, erected by the city, and some of which is spontaneous and personal, like graffiti.
Julie Jaskol: I saw the piece that you wrote in Bloomberg recently about graffiti tags of the virus that are popping up. You wrote: “Since the start of the pandemic, I have been walking the streets of the communities hardest hit by the virus and documenting the outward signs of its presence. I photograph changes in the street scenes created by people, businesses and institutions as they try to adapt. Among the subjects that interest me is the way street artists are depicting the terrible power of COVID-19: their fear of infection, the sadness of loss and anger at having to quarantine.”
Camilo José Vergara: Yeah, and it’s one of my missions. People tell me those are kids tagging. All they want to do is to be recognized and then to be the next Banksy or Shepard Fairey and start a brand of jeans. But that doesn’t take away from the originality of their work and the extreme risks they take while tagging what affects their lives. These are obsessed youngsters linked to the zeitgeist. There is anger in those images of monsters.
JJ: Your work is really focused on COVID now.
CV: Well, COVID is really focused on us.
I write in that piece that the business of New York was making money and power. Now the business of New York is COVID. It’s how to take care of it, how to handle it, how to manage it. How to live day by day with the plague until people are vaccinated.
JJ: You’re taking public transportation?
CV: Yeah, yeah. I don’t feel any problem with the subways. I don’t feel a problem with the commuter train to Newark or Elizabeth. I do feel nervous while riding the buses. I get out of the bus when it gets crowded, people make fun of me.
JJ: Where do you go?
CV: Well, basically I had been for maybe five years going to crowded intersections which intensify the urban experience of poverty and segregation. I call those crossroads, around these busy places public transportation systems converge: two or three subway lines, several bus lines and some major institutions, for example a big hospital. The more people around, the more you see what is distinctive to crossroads. How do families walk the streets? Do they hold their children’s hands? Do they walk close together? The street vendors, all the commerce that comes around in those areas. And particularly now with the places that are going out of businesses and the façades painted with graffiti, a situation that changes almost weekly.
I visit the same spot every week to observe how they are changing. Some of those places I’ve photographed thirty-five times since the start of the pandemic.
For instance, people have to go to a dentist if they have an emergency. Where do you wait? Where is the dentist’s waiting room? Often it’s the sidewalk even if it rains or it’s 30 degrees. Seeking relief a person may end up getting pneumonia. A dentist in the Bronx puts these heaters that they use in ski resorts, and others just keep the people there. They’re just standing. They’re freezing. A guy I talked to yesterday who is seventy-seven told me, “I’ve been here an hour. It’s cold.”
JJ: One of the things that I think is so striking about your work is that you document stuff that nobody cares to document. Most people walk by these storefronts or these tags without really thinking twice. They’re almost invisible in our daily lives. Why do you notice them?
CV: Well, I mean there are several different illustrations, images that you see on walls. Some of them are pretty impressive in terms of size—they’re very large. The tags, they’re not so small. Probably the average would be about six feet in length. And then there are so many, you see one and then you sort of get used to see the next one and you want to look for the variations. These tags are about COVID, some expel droplets, others have the number 19. If there was somebody who died and you want to relate the tag to the deceased, they put a halo on or write RIP.
It sort of keeps your interest because the kids are so driven and full of passion and are not part of the art world.
JJ: Can we talk a little bit about L.A. and how it’s different or similar or why you’re including L.A. in your ongoing practice?
CV: I had been to L.A. a couple of times before I was invited to speak at the Getty [in 1994]. I’m fascinated by L.A. Here [in New York], the face of L.A. is celebrities. And then you go there and you see that half of the people are Brown. And a good percentage is Black and a lot of them are Asian. As you go down the streets or you enter a business Spanish is spoken almost everywhere. It’s home for me. I mean the food, too. It’s the food I used to eat as a kid.
I wish I was in L.A. right now. There’s a lot of stuff, street vendors in L.A., that were more popular than street vendors in New York. I was amazed that if you go down Central Avenue or Compton you just see so many street vendors and food, clothing. A lot of places sell used clothing, if you’re poor that’s what you wear.
JJ: Do you develop relationships with the people in the places that you come back to day after day after day? Do people look for you? Do they know you?
CV: Well, sometimes they do, yes. Now I don’t want to take a plane and go to L.A. and then show up because nobody is happy to see you because you may have a companion [COVID] with you.
So, that limits what I do to the area here around New York. I assume that whenever it is available, I’ll take the vaccine and start traveling again and see how all those cities where I have done work and have been marked by COVID. It’s going to take a while to disassemble everything that has been created to soften the effects of the pandemic. And then what’s going to happen to all those businesses that are closed? How are those empty spaces going to be used?
The situation now is that things change so fast that unless you take a picture you don’t remember. For instance, for quite a while the buses here in New York were free. People would sit in the back. Now people pay, but the driver must be protected, so drivers are separated from the passengers by plastic shields. And the driver makes sure that people are wearing masks. And then you have to be behind a certain line which is a couple of yards behind him.
JJ: It is really interesting to think about the impact of COVID on the built landscape. I don’t know that it’s one of the things that people think about first, but when you talk about the sidewalks and the plastic coverings on buses and all these things that we’ve put together.
CV: So, is the imagery. On the one hand, it’s what the kids are creating. On the other hand, it’s the warnings the city is putting everywhere.
And you see the effects of COVID-19 in many forms and languages. The entrances of schools are full of signs in different languages that tell you about distancing, mask use, and testing.
It’s a rich story: the tags, the way people are gathering, the way people are dealing with each other and doing business, going to church, celebrating holidays, and playing.
Sometimes you feel that you are wasting your time because you’re unable to decipher what’s going on. And then all of a sudden the sequences of images enter a new phase. And then you say, “Oh, so this is the way it was going” or “This is what’s happening now.”
With every picture I take, I go check the place in Google’s Street View to get more of a context on what the place was before. For example, if I’m interested in street vendors, whether there were street vendors there in 2019.
JJ: Is it shocking to you to realize that this is your work now? I know it’s shocking to all of us to realize this is our life now.
CV: Well, you just stumble into it. It’s like a love affair or a hate affair. You just go one day and it becomes your mission. In New York City with all the artists that live here, all the photographers, very few people went out. Even the television people were not covering what was going on in the streets.
JJ: Did you ever consider staying inside?
CV: Not really because without a mission I would have gone insane. You’re at the center of the pandemic. I have a daughter who lives in Harlem, not far, and she comes every once in a while, but she is nervous I may have the virus and give it to her so we have to meet outside.
It’s getting colder and colder and we may be together for 20 minutes, half an hour, and then she says, “I’m too cold.” It’s that once a week. On the other hand, you go out, you talk to people, and you see the new world of COVID-19. I just wrote something about food lines and food lines are huge here. They go around the block, hundreds and hundreds of people. So if you want to ask questions, if you want to find out some more, you have to expose yourself.
Camilo José Vergara was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2002 and received the National Humanities Medal in 2012. You can see Camilo Jose Vergara’s work documenting the pandemic in the Library of Congress, which houses his archive.