By Camilo José Vergara
February 13, 2013

When I arrived in New York City in 1970, the Bronx was burning. I was photographing New York City during the Vietnam War before it barely escaped bankruptcy and before the Internet. Once-imposing and elegant buildings were derelict; the streets were dirty; parks were semi-abandoned and decrepit-looking schools evoked a culture different and separate from mainstream America. Abandoned buildings decayed. packs of dogs moved in and trees spontaneously took root and grew on their roofs. Squatters forced open doors and made holes in the walls. They removed boards from the windows to allow for light and ventilation, transforming empty buildings into homes for the homeless, places to sell drugs or serve as “shooting galleries.” The diamond-topped clock at Bloom Jeweler on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx had stopped at 6:20.

[time-gallery id="64472"] Updated: April 16, 2014, 6.10 a.m. E.T. At least two people died and nearly 300 more are still unaccounted for on Wednesday morning after a ferry carrying 459 passengers sank off the southern coast of South Korea. A massive rescue operation, including at least 18 helicopters, 34 vessels and special-operations divers, has been working at the scene for more than five hours following a distress signal that was picked up at 9 a.m. local time. About 300 people remain missing—a far cry from earlier estimates when the government announced that 368 people had been rescued. It later acknowledged that there had been an error in tallying up the numbers. The majority of the passengers were students and teachers on their way from Incheon to the resort island of Jeju. An official at Danwon High School, in a suburb to Seoul, said all of its 338 students and teachers had been rescued, but that number could not be confirmed by authorities. Other reports claim that one of the two casualties was a high school student, the other a 27-year-old crew member. Officials say some passengers could have been rescued by private fishing boats, but fears are growing that scores of people could have been trapped as the ship began listing sharply and capsized within two hours. The sea is a freezing 12.6ºC and could potentially prove fatal after more than a few hours' immersion. It is not yet clear what caused the incident, but testimonies suggest it may have hit a rock or another vessel. "There was a bang, and then the ship suddenly tilted over," a survivor identified by his surname Yoo told Yonhap News Agency. "Downstairs were restaurants, shops and entertainment rooms, and those who were there are feared to have failed to escape." The South Korean government has announced that all efforts now are focused on the rescue mission—determining the cause is a secondary priority. A U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship equipped with two helicopters is currently moving to the scene to assist in the effort.
Camilo José Vergara

I was attracted to ghetto neighborhoods because they were gritty, tough, militant places, as evidenced in the large murals painted on the side of burnt-out shells encouraging blacks and Latinos to break the chains of oppression, to be born again, to be free. These were decaying, depopulated, dangerous, mysterious and exciting neighborhoods. The vibrant street life, the rebellious spirit, the absence of white people, the scenes of destruction all around me and the constant fear of being mugged made my visits unpredictable and memorable. In the streets I encountered a level of suspicion, anger and confusion matching my own. People didn’t know where the next blow was coming from.

Sidewalks were an extension of people’s confined living spaces. Men stand against a wall, rolling dice. Churches keep their doors open for ventilation as they conduct Bible-study programs, choir practices and board meetings. Church members sat on the sidewalk in front of their houses of worship. In those days, adults smiled as you photographed their children, asking you to share the photos with them.

Camilo José Vergara

I became an eavesdropper and a voyeur because I believed that the spirit of the ghetto would reveal itself through random bits of overheard conversation. I situated myself near public phones, listening intently to what people said and writing it down. In one long conversation I heard a man describe how his girlfriend had thrown all his belongings out of the apartment window into the street below.

Since I admired the work of photographers Helen Levitt, Aaron Siskind, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Roy DeCarava, I was delighted to encounter street scenes similar to those captured by these masters: black children playing with white dolls, jumping on discarded mattresses, and opening fire hydrants to spray friends and passersby. I photographed people walking up and down the stairs to the subway, men playing dominoes, naïve commercial signs, torn and faded advertisements, and, of course, graffiti. Sometimes I joined family members photographing weddings as they spilled out onto the streets. I went inside tenement buildings to make portraits of elderly people sitting in the dark looking at the street.

I wanted to capture the intimate life of the ghetto with the most sensitive film — my choice was high speed Ektachrome. I carried several lenses with me: wide angle lenses to capture panoramas and a telephoto in order to better record scenes undetected. During my early documentation I neglected to record names of people and addresses of buildings. What was the point of recording such information when the masters of photography themselves seldom included it with their work? All Henri Cartier-Bresson did was label a photograph “Family, Mexico 1934.” Like them, I was simply trying to capture essences that transcended time, personal names and physical space.

Fear was part of my photographic ventures. I learned to walk fast and to cross the street to avoid groups of menacing youths loitering on the other side. Several times I was told to clear out of the neighborhood — otherwise my camera would be taken or broken. Once I was punched in the face. My glasses fell in front of an unlicensed “gypsy cab.” Face on the ground, I watched the cab run over them. On the rare occasion when I encountered a police car on these blocks, policemen usually suspected I was in search of drugs. After asking if I was lost, they advised me to leave, warning me that if I stayed I would be robbed.

For those young people — and their parents — who think that smoking pot in moderation isn’t harmful, it’s time to think again. A study being released this week by researchers from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School has found that 18- to 25-year-olds who smoke marijuana only recreationally showed significant abnormalities in the brain. “There is this general perspective out there that using marijuana recreationally is not a problem — that it is a safe drug,” says Anne Blood, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the co-senior author of the study, which is being published in the Journal of Neuroscience. “We are seeing that this is not the case.” The scientists say theirs is the first study to examine the relationship between casual use of marijuana in young people and pot’s effects on two parts of the brain that regulate emotion and motivation. As such, it is sure to challenge many people’s assumptions that smoking a joint or two on the weekends is no big deal. It has certainly challenged mine. In a piece earlier this year, based on other research from Northwestern on the effects of heavy marijuana use, I suggested that young people should hold off on smoking pot as long as possible because their brains are still developing and the earlier the drug is taken up, the worse the effects. That remains good advice. Yet the truth is, I’ve not only been telling my own 16-year-old son to hold off, I’ve also been counseling him that should he ever decide to use pot, he should do so with temperance. This “everything in moderation” mantra has always struck me as more realistic than preaching total abstinence. Baked into my message, meanwhile, has been the implicit belief that smoking a little weed on the weekends is no worse than having a few beers — a notion that many Americans apparently share. A nationwide NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted last month found that only 8% of adults think that marijuana is the most harmful substance to a person’s overall health when lined up against tobacco, alcohol and sugar. In contrast, 49% of those surveyed rated tobacco as the most harmful on the list, while 24% mentioned alcohol. Notably, even sugar — at 15% — was considered more harmful than pot. The new Northwestern-Harvard study punches a hole in this conventional wisdom. Through three different methods of neuroimaging analysis, the scientists examined the brains of 40 young adult students from Boston-area colleges: 20 who smoked marijuana casually — four times a week on average — and 20 who didn’t use pot at all. Each group consisted of nine males and 11 females. The pot users underwent a psychiatric interview to confirm that they were not heavy or dependent marijuana users. “We looked specifically at people who have no adverse impacts from marijuana — no problems with work, school, the law, relationships, no addiction issues,” says Hans Breiter, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg School and co–senior author of the study. The scientists examined two key parts of the brain — the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala, which together help control whether people judge things to be rewarding or aversive and, in turn, whether they experience pleasure or pain from them. It is the development of these regions of the brain, Breiter says, that allows young people to expand their horizons, helping them appreciate and enjoy new foods, music, books and relationships. “This is a part of the brain that you absolutely never ever want to touch,” Breiter asserts. “I don’t want to say that these are magical parts of the brain — they are all important. But these are fundamental in terms of what people find pleasurable in the world and assessing that against the bad things.” Breiter and his colleagues found that among all 20 casual marijuana smokers in their study — even the seven who smoked just one joint per week — the nucleus accumbens and amygdala showed changes in density, volume and shape. The scientists also discovered that the more pot the young people smoked, the greater the abnormalities. The researchers acknowledge that their sample size was small and their study preliminary. More work, they say, needs to be done to understand the relationship between the changes to the brain they found and their impact on the day-to-day lives of young people who smoke marijuana casually. “The next important step is to investigate how structural abnormalities relate to functional outcomes,” says Jodi Gilman, an instructor at Harvard Medical School who collaborated on the study. This is especially important, she and her colleagues add, in light of the growing push to legalize recreational marijuana use across America. “People think a little marijuana shouldn’t cause a problem if someone is doing O.K. with work or school,” Breiter says. “Our data directly says this is not so.”
Camilo José Vergara

In the early 1970s I witnessed the stabbing of a young black man from the Metro North commuter train platform at East 125th Street and Park Avenue. It was a sunny afternoon, and I never thought of photographing the event. The blood was shinning red on the bare chest of the victim. I remember the assailant carrying the knife, first running slowly away, looking back several times as if not wanting to break his link with his victim, then running faster until he disappeared around the corner onto Madison Avenue.

When I showed my photographs to gallery and museum curators they were disinterested. Among these is the photograph of a black man driving his horse-drawn carriage full of junk north toward Harlem, along what seems to be Park Avenue. Another photo shows an elderly woman sitting on the sidewalk — on the wall behind her is a painted mural of the skyscraper city. Another one taken from the elevated subway platform show a man reading about the Baltimore Orioles.

Eager to be tough, I rejected my beginning efforts as sentimental and unoriginal. In 2013, I am happy my earliest pictures of New York survived. I see these images as fading glimpses of a city that disappeared — unique historical artifacts depicting intimate moments of people who stayed behind and documents of the decrepit buildings they inhabited.

Camilo José Vergara is a 2002 MacArthur fellow whose books include American Ruins and How the Other Half Worships. His newest book Harlem, the Unmaking of a
Ghetto will be published by the University of Chicago Press in the fall. Vergara may be reached at

LightBox has previously featured Vergara’s work on urban murals depicting MLK as well as his photographs of the World Trade Center.

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