As workers in Washington were removing scaffolding from the $120 million Martin Luther King Jr. statue on Saturday, Camilo José Vergara stood on a rickety ladder in Camden, taping images of King to the windows of an abandoned diner.
From each poster, a mural of King painted mostly by amateur artists in some of the nation's poorest cities looked out at a desolate strip of Mount Ephraim Avenue in Camden near West Collingswood.
"It seems this fits King, the King I imagine," said Vergara, a photographer whose photos of these murals commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader's march, set for Washington later this month. "He was a person for everyone. This expands the celebration, the tribute, to other areas and raises questions. You have to look at this and say, 'What happened to the dream in Camden?' "
Vergara's posters of King, who struggled against poverty and segregation, covered the windows of the historic Elgin Diner in a parking lot blanketed in broken glass and litter. A syringe and a dirty diaper lay next to discarded chip bags and liquor bottles.
Vergara, a nationally renowned artist, approached the City of Camden through a friend to showcase his posters, but when he didn't hear back, he opted to take a more independent approach.
"Putting these up in City Hall as posters standing on easels or something like that didn't interest me too much," he said. "The idea was to do this in venues you would not pick for an exhibit."
For 40 years, Vergara has chronicled urban blight through photography; along the way, he has captured hundreds of murals dedicated to King. Last month, Vergara, originally from Chile and now living in New York City, became the first photographer awarded the National Humanities Medal. He's the author of six photography books, and a seventh, Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto, is due out in November.
In February the U.S. State Department commissioned 1,000 posters of his mural photos to be sent all over the world. His mission is to make sure they are also visible in U.S. cities where their message is most relevant.
"You get a very different perspective when you put King in D.C., in Independence Mall, where the focus will be accomplishments in the black struggle, but here in Camden, in L.A., in Brockton [Mass.], in Gary [Ind.] the questions are very, very different," said Vergara, who already has poster exhibits on buildings in the Bronx and plans for more in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Brockton, and Detroit.
Just as dawn broke Saturday, Vergara pulled up to the diner with a friend, Columbia law professor William Simon, who assured him that in the absence of no-trespassing signs their "poster-bombing" was technically legal.
Indeed, Peter Abdallah, Realtor for the property, later said he planned to leave the artwork up until the building is demolished in the next few months. The property is still for sale, but Abdallah said he was in talks with a developer to make it a Family Dollar store.
In about an hour, Vergara's team had covered the front of the diner with mural images of King from a garage in Chicago, an abandoned factory in Detroit, and even part of the "Equal Rights" mural that remains at Callowhill and Second Streets in Philadelphia.
Vergara's photos are in many cases the only existing record of these public artworks.
The representations of King reflect the communities where the murals were painted; sometimes his likeness is Asian or Hispanic. He might appear with Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy, or Cesar Chavez.
Passersby stopped to ask questions. A few hoped the diner was reopening.
Joseph Adams walked by on his way to a barbershop. Adams, 50, grew up in Camden and called the diner a historic fixture.
Despite the deterioration of the city, he pointed out the obvious progress in front of him. "Who knows if blacks could even eat here when he was coming up?" Adams said of King. Then he lamented a lack of leadership to carry out King's dream.
"It's alive, but we still got a long way to go," Adams said. "I think he would have tried to make it better."
Click on this link to watch a video of Vergara's installation: