Capturing the Mafia

As photographers we often ask ourselves whether or not we should press that shutter button. In street photography that question comes up more times than not, and it takes time to overcome that initial fear.

Questions spinning around endlessly. Should I? What if he sees me? What if she calls the police? What if they simply ask what I’m doing? What will a parent say if you photograph their children having fun in a water fountain?

What if they’re a member of an organized crime clan? What if they exchange me for the police? Will they shoot me? Or politely ask me to remove the photograph? And what if I am shooting with film?

You get the gist.

We ask ourselves these questions, in particular when we’re starting out with street or social documentary photography. We ask ourselves these questions when we are taking candid photos of people.

So I’ve set some ground rules that I know will work for my comfort level. I’ve taken photos of some some shady characters and asked permission with others.

But how do we push our limits? How do we continue to push that comfort zone? I’ve surely made leaps in pushing myself, but I know that I do not want to be in the “Comfortably Numb” state, as Pink Floyd wrote.

It’s not Pink Floyd that plays in the background today though. It is Pino Daniele, an Italian blues singer who recently passed. Listening to his music while reading this post will give more depth to the context.

Naples. Pino Daniele is very well known in Italy, but surely he is a legend in Naples. He is comparable to Maradona, the best soccer player to have played the sport, and Massimo Troisi, a genius comedian and actor, also from Naples.

Pizza, the beach, the good life, Capri, soccer, comedy and much more. These are aspects of Naples; the ones that make it a chaotic city but with Life that is hard to find elsewhere.

Hiding in desolate places, people find peaceful and quiet areas to sunbathe at the Lungomare Margellina, Naples, Aug 2017

Unfortunately for Naples though, organized crime has always been part of the city. The Camorra, the Mafia in Naples.

I don’t have to get into the details of what the Camorra has brought. What I can get into though is how it’s been captured by Magnum photographer Patrick Zachmann and what I’ve discovered through his photos.

Zachmann has been a Magnum photographer since 1990, fourteen years after starting out as a freelance photographer. This article narrates of how Zachmann’s mother, when he first told her that he wanted to be a photographer, called up many photographers and stumbled across Henri Cartier Bresson’s number. Although she didn’t get to Bresson himself, Bresson’s ex-wife told Zachmann’s mother how hard a photographer’s life was.

Can you imagine the coincidence?

Zachmann started as a reporter, but soon realized that he didn’t like it’s high pace. He wanted to absorb the environment more. He wanted to have the time to understand what he was doing. Looking at his photos, I can understand why he was driven in that direction.

At the time, early 1980s, Zachmann recalls in this interview, that many photographers wanted to go to Lebanon because of the war. He though had read in a short article about the Mafia in Naples, and how 400 people were being killed every year because of it.

Without giving away the chef’s secret, I mean how he got access, he continues in explaining a triangle of violence. The Camorra, the police, and the people’s reaction to being photographed.

Naples, Italia, June 1982. Women crying after their sons and husbands are arrested for drug trafficking

I mean, it takes guts to make this photograph. But that’s only the first bit. There are three other elements that for me make it an extraordinary photograph.

The first is the man at the back, adding depth to the photo. The second is the man’s hand on the right, obviously moving faster than the shutter speed could freeze it. And lastly, the boy, in the shadows, holding tight to the lady, and her desperation.

Zachmann speaks about his Naples reportage, collected in the book Madonna! as a way to push his limits.

“After this reportage, I wanted to test my own limits and those of the people I photographed. It’s important to know whether you can press the button of your camera or not in any given situation. Naples has become a learning field for me.”

My wife is from Naples, and together with some work related business trips, I’ve been able to visit the city numerous times. The last time was just this summer, and I wanted to push my limits as well. I did not have the same access, or police backing as Zachmann did, but I figured, well not everyone will be Mafia related.

I wanted to capture its Life.

Castello Dell’Ovo, Naples, Aug 2017
Castello Dell’Ovo in the background, people on the rocks sunbathing, and a gentlemen looking in the distance the other way. Naples, Aug 2017

I sometimes reflect on the fact that that man would not have appreciated being photographed. But if you don’t push it then how will you know?

But I go back to Zachmann for inspiration, while admiring this photo.

Naples. June 1982. The anti-Camorra squad hunting down a white Volvo.

I mean he was in the action; literally in the back seat of it.

Or in these next two, which I find absolutely comical. And a symbol of what Italy is.

Naples, 1982

This is a police officer practicing his shot. I mean who doesn’t practice catching the Mafia with flip-flops, underwear (or extremely short and tight shorts) and sun glasses? Yes, we can talk about the rule of thirds, leading lines, tonalities of grey, but does that really matter when you’ve got this subject?

Naples. June 1982. 6:00 am. Anti-mafia squad in search of a killer belonging to a Camorra clan.

Or here. Some police officers just casually engaging with the lady, with the guns respectfully pointed downwards? And see that hand to the left which adds that detail of them also smoking?

Kinda like SWAT teams huh?

Another photo from his reportage on Naples shows a different environment, when a Mafia Boss was killed.

Naples. June 1982. Funeral of one of the leaders of the “Nuova Familia” clan, Ciro Astuto, alias “The Rebel”.

And from a different vantage point.

And no good Mafia movie doesn’t include speeding boats right? Too bad it’s not a movie. Zachmann added to his reportage’s depth and variety by taking this photograph as well.

Naples. March 1982. The anti-Camorra squad hunts down and threatens cigarette smugglers. These eventually got away, knowing that this policeman could not fire on territory controlled by the sea police.

What have I discovered from Patrick Zachmann? That as photographers we sometimes put ourselves at risk. In another interview he goes on about only being on the back of the police motorcycles was almost life threatening in of itself.

I also learnt that connections can get you access, and after his first time in Naples where he had become close to an officer that had been promoted to the new chief had invited him back. The new chief was unfortunately killed.

I discovered that Zachmann was in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and while photographing parades in the streets, he was shot by the police while turning a corner. Fortunately, they were rubber bullets, and a fellow journalist took his photo before helping him. Apparently this didn’t please Zachmann, but I am curious to know if his photographic instinct would have made him do the same?

While watching a French video on the French photographer, and therefore not understanding the entire dialogue, I observed how Zachmann worked on the field.

While the people all look one way, including the camera man and two photographers, he takes pictures in the opposite direction. Once again pushing his boundaries.

Capturing the Mafia is something we should leave to the Police. Capturing the Mafia is something we should be thankful Patrick Zachmann has done for us.

Here are some photographs I made in Naples and Rome.

Until Next Time,

Street Style