…Trying To Document My Lost Adolescence Through The Traumatic Lives Of Others. A Conversation with Valerio Spada on Two New Twin Palms Publishers editions: Gommorah Girl (3rd edition) and I Am Nothing

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Editing room where Valerio Spada worked on video files and stills of police operations

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Gomorrah Girl prints

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Gomorrah Girl first edition

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Gomorrah Girl xerox copies on a wall

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Signed copies from Gomorrah Girl second edition

Mirelle Thijsen (MT):

Twin Palms Publishers just released the third edition, which is a first American edition, of your well-received book Gomorrah Girl, and is releasing shortly your next publication entitled: I am Nothing.  

Both publications are dealing with the Mafia in southern Italy, both photobooks are telling a grim story on a father-daughter’s relationship, one in Naples (Gommorah Girl), the other in Sicily (I Am Nothing). Both titles are remarkable for their outstanding graphic design and bookmaking.   

How did you get involved; what is your relationship to the Mafia, let’s start with the Camorra, the ruling organization in the region of Naples?

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Valerio Spada (VS):

Fortunately I don’t have any relationship whatsoever with the Camorra. I was living in Paris for some years and in that period travelled frequently to Naples; during one of my earliest trips I met Giovanni Durante, the father of Annalisa, who has been killed in a war between Camorra clans in Forcella, and since then I’ve started to change my approach to, probably, my entire life. It was very painful to loose my parents when I was young, but nothing compares to surviving your own daughter… I guess.

 

These details from his story, sections from an interview he allowed me to record, gave me goose bumps. He describes details of the murder; how she died, the location of the bullet impact in her skull. After talking with forensic police I have collected even more details on the murder, like the lock of her hair that was broken off and fell on the street in blood, and many other things impossible to mention here. I got obsessed with the idea how is it possible in today’s world to die in this way, at the age of 14, in Naples. It’s the evidence of absence of the State. And since then nothing has changed really. And it’s sad.

 MT:

WHEN, WHY and HOW did you start to document the mafia?

 

VS:

I started in 2008. I think what intrigues me, are places where it is not safe to live, dangerous neighbourhoods and what life is like in those areas. I was trying to document the beauty of it, and I see it everywhere. The WHY, I think, is connected to the brutal way in which I’ve lost my mother and a few years later my father. Pain and suffering have always been in my life since I was 16. I assume it is a way for me to go back there, to the moment I lost my adolescence, trying to document my lost adolescence through the traumatic lives of others, in order not to loose anything of it once again.

 MT:

 How is it possible that a teenager (Salvatore Giuliano) becomes a Camorra boss at 19 years old?

 

VS:

In Naples it is possible, and not only there. In Naples you have young drug dealers of 10 years old. They start to reason and act like a drug dealer. Well, a few of them. At 13 you manage money, a stipend in fact, that your father collects on an average monthly basis (which is equal to a day fee of a drug dealer), and you do it during the weekend. At 17 you think bigger. And so on. It goes fast there. Any 14 years old girl in Naples is as smart in life as any 40-year-old experienced woman in Milan. They are even faster, better.

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MT:

Who was Annalisa Durante (daughter of Giovanni Durante)? What kind of girl was she? I understand that she kept a diary.

VS:

She was a regular girl. Beautiful. Dreaming of running away from Naples because she considered it dangerous to live there. Rome, for them, is like, for most of us, taking a trip to the moon. And in fact the city of Rome is only one-and-a-half hours from Naples.

 

MT:

On March 27, 2004, more than a decade ago, Salvatore Giuliano killed Annalisa Durante, just after a talk she had with her friends and the young Camorra boss, in front of her father’s store. It was a shot from the second revolver that killed Annalisa. Salvatore still has to serve 14 years in prison, charged for homicide. What happened?

 

VS:

In that year, 2004, 3 women were murdered. It was a one and only event in Naples’ criminal history probably, in recent history for sure. What I often do, is inform myself thoroughly about the topic before going to a location. I spend time in libraries, speak with journalists, with police officers, I read books, literature of all kind of events, and then I go there.

What happened is the following: Two murderers on a motorcycle and with uncovered faces pop out of a side street and open fire. Their aim is to kill Guiliano, who hides behind the car and starts to shoot back at them. The two friends of Annalisa find a getaway on the right side fleeing in a small street, while Annalisa runs in the opposite direction: where the killers are driving away. One of the three bullets fired by Giuliano hits Annalisa in the head, she died after 48 hours.

MT: 

The title ‘Gomorrah Girl’ refers to a colloquial expression?

 

VS:

It refers to the story in the Bible of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’; it refers to a book written by my dear friend Roberto Saviano who lived in Naples as intensively as I did. He was documenting in writings what I’ve tried to document in images. And it’s about a girl. It’s about every girl too.

MT:

Why is adolescence of young women ‘almost denied’ in this crime-ridden area? It seems such a primitive, patriarchal society.

VS:

As I was mentioning earlier, they just grow up faster than anywhere else. The area is dangerous; crime is everywhere. Surveys show a high percentage of teenage moms in Naples, the unemployment rate is very high. Actually there’s nothing ‘primitive’ about daily life there; it’s just an abandoned area due to the total absence of the government and the state.

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MT:

The publication Gommorah Girl is a book within the book: a police report in a cahier. On one of the first pages, the police report is showing the ‘proiettile’ from two angles. What are we looking at? Further on, the caption ‘Ril.12’ is referring to a projectile taken from Annalisa’s body, during autopsy on March 29, 2004, two days after she was killed. How did you get access to this police report and permission to publish?

VS:

My original intent was to present documentary evidence of Annalisa’s murder. That was not possible; you need to be a police officer to do that. So the local police gave me permission to photograph notebooks, reports and photographs containing all the evidence they collected. They allowed me to reproduce their pictures and donated to me some prints of the criminal investigations. I’ve spent a lot of time studying that material; it was a tremendous experience.

 

These police officers are obviously passionate about photography. For instance, the actual seize picture of weapons is made thanks to using a Manfrotto tripod they’ve borrowed me that day. When you look at the two pictures adjacent on a page in the police report [Ril. 1-2] what it shows is a ballistic match to prove that a single bullet at the crime scene has been fired from the murderer’s gun. The work of forensic police at a crime scene is crucial to get justice. It’s so under-evaluated in Italy. We have extensive juridical trails that failed to jail a killer because the first hours after a murder were lost; evidence was collected poorly or important traces were simply left behind. Naples’ forensic police is amongst the best there is in Italy and they work with such a limited budget compared to the amount of money criminals have, that it might even be considered an unfair battle.

 

MT:

The report is interleaved with small size documentary photographs in colour, pictures you took, from e.g. ‘La Scuola’, a former Kindergarten, and now an extremely dangerous place where drug addicts get together. How did you get in? How does this scene relate to the protagonist Annalisa?

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VS:

I can talk forever about the documentaries I made in Naples. I find correlations everywhere that other people might not see at first sight, and sometimes I am not happy to reveal them, maybe they are just in my head. That is a problematic I don’t want to solve; I like things to be untold, I like to credit the viewer’s intelligence. We, documentary photographers, have to leave a space, a gap, between what we document and what a viewer or reader is able to perceive. That gap is vital.

To answer your question: that picture in particular, in my opinion, is the reason why Annalisa was killed. The girl I photographed at La Scuola is shooting a dose of Kobret ( a low-grade form of heroine) in a vein in her arm, she paid 13 euros for the shot. The cheapest price in Europe you pay for that type of dope. That is Camorra’s core business. In Forcella, where Annalisa died, two family clans are in war to define superior strength and to control the area for drug dealing and crime related business. So, according to me, that is the connection between the two. Everytime I see that picture of the girl shooting a dose in her vein, I can’t help thinking that Annalisa died for that same reason.

 MT:

Please tell me about La Vela Rossa (The Red Sail) that looks like a run down apartment building in Naples. Francesca, and her sister (a single mother), and her mother live there. They, and the building itself, seem to be your protagonists?

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VS:

I don’t think there is a protagonist in this book. And if there is one, it is the one you don’t see, and you never get to see there, and that protagonist is the Italian state; how our government is seriously ignoring these problems. As I explained, I tend to approach a new story by thoroughly studying the subject matter. Then I get lost in the subject matter, on location. For months, even years. Suddenly I find myself, and I publish a book. I think the pattern is repeating itself. Certainly at the start of something new. I investigate a lot, conduct interviews, talk to prosecutors, to police officers, and journalists. And it all becomes pretty clear in my mind. Then I go to the area. And everything changes. I get lost. I think I am losing my time. I think I am a loser. I think it is stupid to risk my life… And for what reason? Then photography takes over. And everything changes again.

 

Francesca’s family was really sweet and welcoming. They used to live in Vomero, a wealthier area in Naples, later her parents got divorced and her mother had no money. So they moved to the apartment complex La Vela Rossa in order to avoid paying any rent. Francesca used to go out and work as a waitress in a pizzeria, one-hour drive away from Le Vele and she returned back “home” at 2AM. There are no lights on the run down stairs; she climbs ten/eleven floors up in total darkness, and goes to bed, bringing some money home. How many people do you know doing this?

 MT:

Suddenly a picture from the female prison in Pozzuoli shows up. Why? Later in your publication a woman, detained in the prison, describes the conditions inside.

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VS:

It’s about choices. What I was trying to document was what Annalisa could have become, after growing up. These kids are daily forced to choose between the good and the bad. The bad is there, with one-day cash money that their father, in case he is employed, has raised in three months time. The good is hard to find. It’s probably inside of you, …I guess.

Civilization of a country is measured by the way they treat their citizens in jail, someone once said.

 

Pozzuoli is a female prison. A dear friend in police work suggested to go there and take pictures inside on the living conditions of women inmates. Another policeman, while laughing, was saying, “They are going to rape you”. Anyway, it was a big experience. I remember being accompanied by psychologists guiding me in, and being envious ‘cause I carried all my cameras with me and they were employed for 12 years, and were never allowed to take a picture. I had permission from the Ministero dell’Interno [Ministery of Internal Affairs], it took a long time, months to receive it, but the permit finally arrived, and I’ve spent three days with 19 selected jail inmates. It’s a very difficult situation because very often the guards watching over the female inmates are themselves women that have lost their kids in drug issues. So they are very tough with women in jail, often committed for drug dealing related crimes. 

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MT:

You show other women in the book, young girls in fact: a fighter called Marcianise; an anonymous woman under house arrest and an Italian boxing champion named Viviana, as well as a 13 year old girl on her night out. To what extent do these girls relate to Annalisa?

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VS:

Again, everything I notice in Naples is related to Annalisa. The fact that her father is depicted in the first picture of the book, and carrying the only image of Annalisa on his necklace, doesn’t make that picture more related to Annalisa then the fighter in Marcianise. Viviana, the boxer, is a girl that works out 3 to 6 hours per day during championships and tournaments; it’s her way to counteract to the lack of government assistance or to the kind of life she is forced to live in. Viviana could have been Annalisa, in my eyes. Any of the girls in jail could have been Annalisa, if only Annalisa had been offered the time to make the wrong choices, and she wouldn’t probably anyway. After I had talked to Annalisa’s father, I started to see Annalisa everywhere and anywhere.

MT:

And then there is Sabrina, a ‘Neo-melodic’ singer. What does that term mean? And HOW does Comorra exploit this obscure market? I read that songwriters have been persecuted for paedophilic contents of their lyrics?

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VS:

That subject matter could have been a book in itself. Neo-melodic singers start their career very early, around 7 or 8 years old, and sometimes you have kids at 13, their fame already descending, and getting depressed. They sing at ceremonies, for about 15 minutes, several sessions per day during weekends, get paid cash and move on to the next one. They make quite some money considering their age. In a few cases Camorra abuses these singers to send specific messages incorporated in the lyrics at the end of a performance, in order to ease a conflict between two different clans in Naples.

MT:

Then we end up in the forensic laboratory of the ‘Polizia Scientifica’ [Forensic Police] showing a pile of boxes containing documents and weapons from the Casalesi’s family in Aversa. Who are these people?

 

VS:

Well, the Casalesi family is a smarter clan than the ones that use drug dealing as a main income. They are almost “Sicilians” in my eyes, in the way they run their business. Keeping it low profile and making huge money in construction projects. Although, the war they’ve started caused several executions in Naples. If you take a look at Walter Schiavone’s villa designed in the grandiose Scarface style, after the mobster’s mansion in the 1983 film Scarface, you understand the incredible loop. American movies were inspired by the Godfather’s Sicilian mafia life style, than Neapolitan mafia was inspired by American movies, like Scarface, to create their own image in the territory of Naples. In addition, there are movies about that too.

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MT:

Twin Palms Publishers released shortly a different edition of Gomorrah Girl, after two print runs of this cahier. A case bound edition containing 78 photographs will come out. Why yet another edition, and what is the difference with the first publication?

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cover Gomorrah Girl third edition Twin Palm Publishers 2014

VS:

I consider Twin Palms Publishers to be the best publishing house out there. I like all of it: their profile, their catalogue, their artists, the fact that they publish very, very, few books per calendar year, and for many other reasons. They wanted to republish Gomorrah Girl, in order to introduce my work to the US market, that was before my work in Sicily for the book project I Am Nothing, because the publication was sold out really fast and very few copies of the second edition were left. But still, we are talking about 500 copies of the first edition and 750 of the second edition. The third edition has the largest print run. I think it was a bright idea to have Gomorrah Girl out there NOT just for collectors, prices on the self-published first edition were getting so high, and in this way granting a wider audience to have the book largely available in the future.

 

MT:

Is Twin Palms Publishers making a facsimile of Gommorah Girl?

 

VS:

Twin Palms releases the first American edition of Gomorrah Girl. It’s not a facsimile. It is definitely a first American edition, and it’s the third edition of this book after two self-published editions.

The main differences in design and realisation compared to the earlier editions are:

a case bound hardcover; wonderfully designed by Jack Woody that protects the fragility of the book. What Jack Woody did to the cover design is poetic and cared for without changing the book at all. In the heart of the book, the centrefold poster in the second edition had a letter sent from female prison inmates describing the conditions inside the jail, very cruel and touching. In the third edition, Twin Palms has had that letter translated from Italian to English and over imposed the text on the photograph in order to better divulge the power of the letter itself. So there is no longer the foldable poster I’ve designed for the second edition featured in The Photobook A History Volume III (2014) by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger. The cover photograph is different too.

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cover I Am Nothing first edition

MT:

Let’s move on to your recent publication I Am Nothing. There is an artist’s edition of 500 copies, signed and numbered. A trade edition of 1000 copies is available, again by Twin Palm Publishers. To what extent do both publications relate to each other?

 

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Santa Fe, working with Jack Woody on book layout of I Am Nothing

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Santa Fe, working with Jack Woody on the book layout I Am Nothing

VS:

Twin Palms Publishers edition is a trade edition, they will distribute the photobook to bookstores worldwide; in this way I do not have to deal myself directly with bookstores, which took a lot of time for previous editions. It may seem like a minor thing, but it is not, when you want to create a new body of work. I had a really bad experience with an bookstore in Milan that never paid the original low retail price for several copies of my first edition, while reselling my book for several hundreds euros a piece to their clients. Honestly, I am happy I don’t have to deal with this now. Fortunately, this only happened in Italy; there are plenty of fantastic bookstores worldwide. Twin Palms Publishers is used to dealing with bookstores and have a solid network. If you are self-publishing, there is only one thing you can trust and it’s your website and people that look out for you there.

Jack Woody has designed an additional dust jacket for the Twin Palms trade edition of I Am Nothing. I liked the idea to keep a small special edition of 500 copies as a first edition to sell directly from my website, signed and numbered, for collectors only, and hopefully for the people that showed all that appreciation for the first edition of Gomorrah Girl. Probably the types of buyers are very different, or maybe not, but it’s a good compromise to keep the book quality very high when in print and also to be sure that the book is and will be still available in the Twin Palms Publishers catalogue in case of possible future editions.

 MT:

And, in terms of content, to what extent do both publications Gommorah Girl and I Am Nothing relate to each other?

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VS:

This is a good question, because I presume every photographer ending up closing a chapter of years of work resulting in a book might have the same inner question. Which is: Why am I doing this? Why am I covering this? Will I always work on mafia and adolescence? I tell you that, for sure both books are chapters to me of a long-term project on Italy. I never get tired of portraying Italy. Gomorrah Girl is about the Campania region and specifically the area of Naples, while I am Nothing is about Sicily and whoever wants to rule that part of the country, and the latter is about never losing the focus on who is living there.

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Both projects are very much intertwined. Again we are dealing with an impossible or broken father-daughter relationship. Not that I go looking for that, but it happens to be there while documenting the stories and the areas. They have many things in common; there is a correlation between the two works, but this does not exclude something completely different and lighter in the future. Right now it is hard for me to move away from these stories; I rather do a ‘Gomorrah Girl 2’, if you allow me using such a strange expression, than moving elsewhere. This has nothing to do with the great feedback the book received, or about staying in a comfort zone (not that it is at all comfortable working in those areas) but just because Naples is endless. And so is Italy.

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MT:

I am Nothing is a book about Sicily, about impeded communication and about a hopeless relationship between a father, Matteo Messina Denaro – a most wanted criminal and fugitive – and his daughter, who he’s never met. Please tell me about the small slips of paper, so-called pizzini, mafia bosses use for high-level communication, and what it involves to disappear from Sicilian mafia circles.

 

 

 

 

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VS:

Matteo Messina Denaro has been a fugitive from justice since 21 years. I am not sure whether he is in Sicily right now or not. He might be there while I am talking to you. He has been in Tunis a lot because he can take night trips with fishers’ boats in Mazara del Vallo and still be close to Sicily controlling everything that happens there.

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The “pizzini” is how they communicate nowadays and have been communicating for the last 43 years. Bernardo Provenzano, a previous Mafia boss and Don of the Dons, used this technique, with a typewriter machine, which I had the chance to photograph. He sent of messages including the most violent death orders in Sicily and directed the money traffic in his territory. “Pizzini” are A4 paper size coded messages, folded multiple times and wrapped in transparent tape with a number on it. They usually had 160 people to give orders and to write to. So on the “pizzini” you have the number, which indicates the final recipient. That message will be passed from one person to another: 7 different people in total, before it reaches the order’s recipient. Only for urgent matters Matteo Messina Denaro is using Skype, to talk with his sister Patrizia, arrested last December.

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objects in a Bible which belonged to Provenzano

MT:

You have documented Matteo M. Denaro’s possessions. How did you get to him, and what possessions did you record?

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VS:

I’ve documented a lot of Bernardo Provenzano possessions. I was interested in what you carry with you when you decide to disappear; he had lists of things when he was moving from one place to another. Finally when he was caught, after 43 years on the run, during a massive police operation, they were able to list and collect all his personal objects and I had the chance to record them. Nobody ever had access to these objects before, not even a journalist who specialized in the Mafia and who wrote two books on this boss. When he saw these objects, he was there when I was photographing them, he was really astonished. On the other hand, regarding Matteo Messina Denaro, I’ve made a graphological analysis of the few traces, in terms of letters and documents, he left behind. He is smarter. You don’t really get to Matteo Messina Denaro.

 

 

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