Beyond Photography: Studs Terkel, Meet Camilo José Vergara

Studs Terkel (1912-2008)

Studs Terkel lived to witness most of the last century and the dawn of this one, chronicling what he saw along the way. He began as a writer in the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and later became legendary as a broadcaster. For all the fame he gained in radio, interviewing the likes of Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan, he never stopped being a writer. Terkel’s many oral histories covered subjects as diverse as the Second World War to the state of race relations in America. 

He was also blessed with that rarest of all gifts: the good sense to get out of the way to see what his subject had to say. It was a talent that served him well, since often as not, those chronicles weren’t in his own words, but in others’. Their strength lies in the extraordinary stories he drew out of ordinary people. Those stories come from a diverse lot – riveters, sharecroppers, hoboes, office workers, shop girls and others of that ilk. It’s very nearly like seeing another America, except for the fact that this is the land that’s been beneath our feet all along.  

Trees in the abandoned Camden Library; photo by Camilo José Vergara

Like Studs Terkel, Camilo José Vergara’s early love never left him. He bought a camera while still a sociology student at Notre Dame, and his training as a sociologist informs his work behind the camera — which, in turn, takes his sociological explorations in new directions. Based in New York, Vergara’s work has taken him from coast to coast, covering everything from the architecture of, and customs behind, cemeteries to the homes, houses of worship, and people of the inner cities of New York, New Jersey, California, and several points in between.

 Vergara, like Terkel, has turned his attention to what’s too often neglected. Where Terkel concerned himself with the stories of largely forgotten or overlooked people, however, Vergara instead teases stories out of the forgotten corners of the city itself. This isn’t just history; it’s a mirror, or a magnifying glass, held up to the way we live now.

Another thing that Terkel and Vergara share in common, in addition to the way the different facets of their life’s work inform one another, is an interest not so much in the broad sweep of history, so much as its gritty, quotidian details. What both have done at their best — and both men, to be sure, are very good, very often — is to stop us dead in our tracks to pay attention to something we would otherwise have disregarded or written off as mere background noise.

As photographers or storytellers we find that these narratives, whether of everyday people or of the spaces they inhabit, aren’t just self-referential. If we take the time to listen, they also have quite a bit to tell us about ourselves.

More to Explore: Click to visit Studs Terkel’s official website, his Wikipedia entry or his page on Amazon (affiliate link). Also explore Camilo José Vergara’s “Invincible Cities” or his work at the Getty Museum, view photo essays from Slate here, here, or here, read his Wikipedia entry, or check out his books on Amazon (affiliate link).