Sociologist, writer and documentary photographer Camilo José Vergara is the first photographer to win a National Medal of Humanities. On July 10, President Obama awarded 24 National Medals of Arts & Humanities for 2012– Vergara included for his “stark visual representation of American cities” over the past four decades.
The National Medal of Humanities recognizes those who have contributed to the field of American humanities. As President Obama explained at the awards ceremony, the works of the medal recipients “nourish the mind and soul” and challenge us to examine ourselves and our world.
After graduating from Notre Dame and Columbia in sociology, Chilean-born Vergara set out to capture America’s urban communities and ghettoes from New York City to Detroit to East Los Angeles. To capture the effects of time on inner cities, Vergara serially photographs places from the same spot. He even uses the same camera and lens to paint more accurately how urban places have changed over the years.
These time-lapse and other photographs cover America’s poorer neighborhoods like the South Bronx, Newark and Detroit. Vergara writes in a Time LightBox article that he “see[s] photography as a medium that spurs continuous inquiry and thus leads to greater understanding of the spirit of a place.”
His first book, The New American Ghetto (1995), explores the despairing transformations of diverse metropolises. His latest book, Harlem: the Unmaking of a Ghetto (October 31, 2013) is a 43-year culmination of photographing the neighborhood during racial desegregation/integration, ghettoization and ongoing gentrification.
His work has been shown at institutions such as the National Building Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, New York and Chicago Historical Societies and J. Paul Getty Museum. In 2002, Vergara won a MacArthur fellowship.