Camilo Jose Vergara

Berlin Prize Fellow - Class of Spring 2010

Writer, Photographer, Documentarian

American Academy Project: Ruins and Rebuilding: German Post-Industrial Cities and American Ghettos
Current Location: New York


Camilo Vergara is a Chilean-born photographer, writer, and documentarian who lives and works in New York City. Since 1977 he has been documenting changes in the urban landscape, focusing on American slums and decaying urban environments, along the way becoming an “archivist of decline,” a documentarian of walls, buildings, and entire city blocks. His work is noted for picturing the same buildings and neighborhoods multiple times over many years, and in so doing recording the changing nature of the city itself. Vergara’s photographs tell how the American inner city evolved and what it gained and lost in the process. He has published several books, including American Ruins (Monacelli, 1999), The Twin Towers Remembered (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), and How the Other Half Worships (Rutgers University Press, 2005), His book The American Ghetto (Rutgers University Press, 1997) won the Robert E. Park Award of the American Sociological Association.

In 2002 Vergara was awarded a “genius” award by the MacArthur Foundation. His work has been included in solo and group exhibitions at, among others, the National Building Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Vergara also served as a fellow of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers University. At the Academy, Vergara will document the Berlin of the destitute. He will be looking for ruins, defended buildings, institutions designed to house, treat, and reform poor people, and he will photograph immigrant neighborhoods, urban renewal sites, examples of Socialist housing, community organizations, and street art. After documenting ghettos in the United States for nearly four decades, Vergara aims at expanding his purview of poor communities in the US to those abroad, particularly in Germany. He also aims to compare the ruined neighborhoods of the South Bronx and Detroit to those of Germany after World War II — even if those ruins have disappeared from Berlin and survive only in the city’s archives.

American Academy Project

Ruins and Rebuilding: German Post-Industrial Cities and American Ghettos

Lecture Summary

Published in Arts and Culture

From the Hood to the Kiez

So instead of trying to make sense of Berlin by photographing the urban fabric and built environment I turned to taking more or less random street portraits of its inhabitants using a concealed camera. My hope is that my pictures of ordinary people, taken as they accidentally place themselves in front of my camera, will develop into a collective portrait of the city.
In this endeavor I am not interested in global Berlin. I am delighted to find out Berlin is a "celebrity free" city. »