“Once I started taking pictures, I couldn’t help but see the work that people have left on the streets and in the buildings,” Camilo Jose Vergara said. His program, entitled “Martin Luther King as Us: The Ghetto Portraits” was delivered in Paresky Auditorium as the keynote speech for the College’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events. As a sociologist and a photographer, Vergara is well known for his documentation of the murals, signs and buildings in the most depressed areas of America, which he documents through a process called the “rephotographic method.” This method involves returning to the exact same spots year after year to photograph the changes to a particular building or mural and, in this case, to document their deterioration.
Vergara’s travels all across the country while employing this method exposed an interesting trend – it became clear to him that “Martin Luther King was by far the most popular subject” of the murals he had photographed. This fact does not seem all that surprising at first – Vergara himself says that the civil rights movement was one of the most photographed movements in history, and many of us can probably remember seeing murals of King on the sides of hospitals and schools. However, Vergara made a point of separating these murals from the ones that he photographed. “These portraits are different than the celebrated murals … my murals are very vulnerable.” He later went on to clarify, “I find a certain liveliness in the images in which I find faults – there is a certain personality in these places that you can’t get away with at a school or hospital.”
To clarify his point, Vergara showed us a series of murals. The murals commissioned for schools and hospitals are generally fairly accurate and uniform, replicas of pictures taken during the civil rights movement. The murals in poor areas, however, are completely different – they are an incredible mixed bag of scenes, colors and faces. In one, King is flanked on both sides by Jesus and the Virgin Mary; in another, he is placed next to Pancho Villa; in another the Pope; and in yet another, he is alongside John F. Kennedy. In some murals, he is surrounded by American symbols like the eagle and the flag, and in others by tropical colors or an outline of the African continent – each conveys a completely different message, a different desire or belief that Martin Luther King has come to represent. Perhaps the most striking differences between each image are the changes to the face of King himself. The changes cannot simply be put down to accidental inaccuracies – in many murals King acquires a slightly Latino, white or Asian quality to his face, depending on the nationality of the painter.
“Martin Luther King has become a vehicle … He has become a talisman, a symbol of security for some and change for others,” Vergara said. In the poorest areas of America, painters find fewer restrictions based on accuracy and more freedom to express themselves and their desires through their unique representations of King. To those who paint him, King can represent anything from an overture of friendship to African-Americans, to a continued desire for freedom, to encouragement for kids to stay in school. Through these murals, Americans are allowed to create the hero they need.
But is this tweaking or romanticizing of King’s character right? Vergara does not pretend to have an answer to this question, but he does offer this piece of wisdom: “I think people have a need to [create these murals] … this is the way you become comfortable in [an impoverished place] – you bring your pantheon, you bring your heritage.” Realistic or not, the creators need the inspiration they derive from their mural-heroes in order to gain fuller control of their lives.