When Camilo José Vergara first began taking photos in Harlem in 1970, he expected to document the deterioration of the historic neighborhood. In some ways he has. But over the decades, he also saw changes in Harlem that weren’t so stark — growth, gentrification and racial integration.
His new book, Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto, shows over 40 years of change in the capital of African-American culture.
On working in dangerous environments
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 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.
On the concept of “ruin porn”
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…inhuman maybe. So I’m all for ruin porn.
On his personal background, and relating to his work
I came from a family that was fairly affluent and lost its money, so in a sense, getting (used to) 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, 9 years old, and it stayed, and it made a mark on me. So that’s the only way that really truly interests me. It’s 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.