July 10, 2013 -- A New York-based documentarian who has dedicated his career to recording some of the poorest and most segregated communities in the United States became the first photographer to receive a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at the White House today.
Camilo José Vergara was born in Chile but has spent decades traveling to the places most tourists try to avoid: Detroit, Camden, Oakland, East Los Angeles.
His goal, he said during an interview after the medal ceremony, is to record things.
"Things change, rapidly," he said, "and a lot is lost."
He photographs decaying buildings and crumbling old churches that others consider an eye-sore, returning again and again to the same site to record the structures as communities shift around them.
"I think of my images as bricks that, when placed in context with each other, reveal shapes and meanings within these often neglected urban communities," he wrote in a piece for Times magazine. "Through photography, I have become a builder of virtual cities."
Vergara was born in Chile and came to the United States to study at the University of Notre Dame. He took an English course for foreign students where he was asked to write poems.
"Your poems stink," his professor said.
The insult turned out to be a gift in disguise. The teacher loaned Vergara money to buy a camera and told him to take up photography.
The rest is history. Literally.
Surprisingly, he's not interested in organizing people to fix up the decay he photographs, or in fundraising or seeking grants. He thinks of himself as a "snooper" whose job is to simply record what he sees.
Over the four decades he's been traveling the nation, some urban centers have gentrified while others, in the Midwest, have dried up. But gentrification hasn't trickled into the most devastated communities, he said. Poverty is deeply entrenched there.
He has mixed feelings about the changes he sees. Schools improve and classic architecture is preserved when gentrification occurs, but then vulnerable populations are forced to relocate, forced out of the neighborhoods they have called home for so long. Still, he's adamant about being a recorder, not an activist.
Vergara isn't overly passionate, either, about the fact that a Latino is the first photographer to receive such a medal. They might have been looking to add some diversity and made a calculated decision to choose him, he points out.
But he is pleased that the Latino population is being recognized, that "Latino issues" like immigration reform are receiving consideration.
He is most concerned with wanting people, not just Latinos, to reclaim the recording of their own histories, instead of allowing them to be told by government entities and corporations.
"Are photographers today leaving the recording of history — and thus the telling of history — to an exponentially growing number of surveillance cameras, to governmental spy programs and to social-media behemoths like Facebook, Instagram and Google?" he pondered in the Times piece.
The White House said his work was selected because it documents the vibrant culture and enduring spirit of the country. His work, and that of the other awardees, which included a dozen Medal of Arts recipients like George Lucas of Star Wars fame and a dozen National Humanities Medal winners like Vergara and writer Joan Didion, challenge us to think.
"They help us understand what it means to be human and to be American," President Obama said during remarks in the East Room. "Their work "let's us speak to people who aren't like us."