Photographs Place Orange County’s Racist History in High Relief

William Camargo, “We Gunna Have to Move Out Soon Fam!” (2019), archival inkjet print (all images courtesy the artist)

As some lament 2020 as a terrible year, others point out that systemic inequities have been woven into much of American history long before. Social media and uprisings have put police brutality, climate change, and political corruption into high relief. 

Artist William Camargo has also been pointing out that systemic racism and gentrification disproportionately affect communities of color — and often start at the local level. In realizing that these histories aren’t taught at schools, Camargo created a photo series centering the Brown community in Anaheim and Orange County, California. 

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William Camargo: Origins & Displacements is a two-part storefront window exhibition at the Grand Central Art Center that continues the artist’s photojournalistic work in its focus on communities of color. These photos, however, are the artist’s move to insert himself into the canon of California photography, inspired by an aesthetic similar to artists like Laura Aguilar. These photos are purposefully staged, each one in rhythm with the other, prominently featuring Camargo in each frame.

Camargo tells Hyperallergic that he uses himself as “a marker or a kind of substitute for the past” and the people whose stories often go untold — “the people that live here and who also worked in the field and who worked making the city what it is today.” 

Orange County has a deeply racist and troubling past: in the 1920s, the KKK had an enormous presence, hosting meetings of thousands of people in Anaheim. In “Damn I Can’t Go On This Side of the Park?” Camargo alludes to this history, standing with a sign obscuring his face and torso that reads “This Park Used to Be Segregated.” The OC Weekly, which Camargo referenced for these pieces, reports that Pearson Park “once kept Mexicans penned up in a segregated section of the park.” Bodies like his would not have been welcome in the park in relatively recent times. 

William Camargo, “Damn I Can’t Go On This Side of the Park?” (2020), archival inkjet print

“Damn, Four of Them Got Elected?!” shows Camargo in front of City Hall holding a sign that reads “In 1924 Four Klan Members Were Elected To The Anaheim City Council.” Although these images draw from historical moments, they collapse the past and present through the artist’s interventions. During a time when the racism and political connections of board members, candidates, and other authorities are being called out, the photograph feels chillingly relevant. 

William Camargo, “Damn, Four of Them Got Elected?!” (2020), archival inkjet print

Essential workers are highlighted as well, with pieces like “Did ya’ll forget we worked here?” — a photo that features a woman in front of the Sunkist Anaheim Packing House. While Camargo expects some pushback from officials and people in the area as he brings up these histories, he’s also been carrying this knowledge to schools in the hopes of creating a ripple effect.

Camargo asks: “What could be done when we do know the history — and how does that help improve situations to communities of color?” 

William Camargo, “Ya’ll Forgot We Worked Here?” (2020)

William Camargo: Origins & Displacements continues at the storefront windows of CSUF Grand Central Art Center (GCAC) (125 N Broadway, Santa Ana, California) and Muzeo Museum & Cultural Center (241 S Anaheim Blvd, Anaheim, California) through December 31. 

Camargo will be doing a performance at GCAC on Saturday, November 7 at 4pm (PST). It will be available for live, virtual viewing; check @begovichgallery for updates. Camargo will also be in conversation with Paul Mpagi Sepuya on December 5 at 11am (PST). You can access the virtual webinar here.


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