“In the background is the iconic Vele building of the Scampìa projects in northern Naples, a major theater of operations for the Camorra. One of the world’s largest open-air drug markets, Scampìa was also the arena for one of the most brutal Camorra gang wars—the so-called Scampìa Feud, which lasted from September 2004 to February 2005, resulting in more than 70 murders.”
Mario Spada is a photographer from Naples. In 1986, he started to work in his hometown as a photographer’s assistant for an agency that organized wedding pictures. From 1993 onward he documented various parts of life in Naples, from kids in the projects of the Quartieri Spagnoli to microcriminality and street dealers; from soccer hooligans to dogfighting to the Mafia wars of Scampìa. His pictures have since appeared regularly in Italian and international magazines such as Der Spiegel, Libération, L’espresso, and El Mundo. Every project he finished would end up in a metaphoric drawer, to which he’d add other projects in other drawers, until he had to buy a whole new filing cabinet altogether (still speaking metaphorically here, if you’re keeping track), when he found himself with what amounts to a photographic enyclopedia of the last 15 years of life in Napoli. These are the same 15 years that have seen around 2,000 murders linked to the Camorra. Sooner or later, Mario’s pictures will become a gorgeous, powerful art book that you’ll be able to leaf through and impress your friends with, but for now, we decided to publish some of our favorite pictures of his and ask him a couple of questions about his work and his city.
Vice: What made you begin to photograph your city so compulsively? Normally photojournalists spend their time travelling to Burma and Nigeria and Nicaragua and other exotic, dangerous places.
Mario Spada: From the beginning, I have always been interested in documenting my reality. I am very attached to Naples, and the fact that I already knew how to move around here and who to speak to was a good starting point. Another reason was that I just couldn’t afford to leave. And anyway, I have always had it in mind to do a project like the great photojournalists of the golden age, who only documented one place, observing it and watching it change over the years. Like Francesco Paolo Cito. His work on Naples in the 80s is incredible.
What was your first specific assignment?
I don’t think I began with one particular idea. It started as just a series of pictures. Then I narrowed it down to the Quartieri Spagnoli, Naples’s most infamous neighborhood, and other areas that had a similar feel. Then I started to focus on the women who lived inside these hoods, busying themselves with contraband and drug dealing and other criminal activities. This was in 1995.
How hard was it to get access to this world?
It was very easy. The first time I went in with my camera, the women started clapping their hands, shouting at each other, “The photographer’s here! The photographer!” They were happy that there was a boy shooting them. Then some of them did start to ask what I was going to do with the pictures, and I had to calm them down. It’s always like this. They give themselves, and then they pull back. My subjects are all naturally vain.
But how did you gain their trust? I mean, almost all your subjects are criminals.
Well, the fact that I worked as a photographer’s assistant at weddings helped. Many of the weddings we shot were in these neighborhoods, for many, many years, and that helped a lot. The people gradually came to know me. In Scampìa, or other projects, you have to know people, you have to know how to treat them. It’s always a question of talking to people and gaining their respect. But these neighborhoods aren’t that different from the rest of Naples—in the way of dealing with people—or from most of Southern Italy, for that matter. You have to show a certain hardness at all times.
“ I took this on one of the first days I was in Scampìa. This girl lived in a state home. Both of her parents were in jail. That gesture with her hand means: ‘What do you want?’ I was struck by her beauty. She was acting like a grown woman, staring me down, acting strong.”
You shot a lot of work during the Mafia wars.
Yes. That project began in 2004 and ended in 2005. These were the years of the bloody Mafia war known as the Faida di Scampìa. I continued going there after that too, but just for specific occasions. Keeping those contacts alive helps, it’s a way of getting even closer to the people. Actually, the Scampìa project now contains more than 200 images I’m happy with, so it could go beyond the project on Naples. It might have a life of its own.
What do you think about the fact that the only times Naples is in the news or the media, it’s because of crime, or the Mafia, or some other disaster?
Well, Naples is filled with garbage, in every sense, and it has been for many, many years. But the problem is that now people think that a city of 1 million people is made up only of contract killers, thieves, and dealers. That’s just ridiculous. Even if it is true that there are cocaine spots on every street, we have hundreds of thousands of decent people who live amid this shit while holding down two jobs. People who struggle. But there’s not much to do, because if you try to act straight and maybe report a crime, you risk your life. The people who end up being punished are the normal citizens. They are the innocent victims of these wars. In most of the killings I’ve reported on, the victim is the good kid, or the shy one, or the one who can’t use guns, or the small-time dealer. They always hit as close as possible to their intended victim, but they never hit the ones who really “deserve” it.
When did you see your first body?
When I was 13.
And how many have you seen since then?
Around 30, I’d say, if you count the ones where I didn’t have my camera with me.
Do the institutions help the situation in Naples at all? What about the police?
The police do their job. But why do they do it? Maybe because the guy they’re looking for once disrespected them or ran away from them more than once, so they actively try to grab him and put him inside. It’s a personal thing. Of course, there are cops who do their duty, hundreds of them. But so much violence is casual, there is no way the police can help. Maybe you’re walking down the street and a kid shouts, “That’s him!” and you get knifed because you look like someone. People shoot other people in the face like it’s nothing. No problem, they jump off their bike, bam!, then they get back on the bike and go. We’re at an all-time low in Italy. In certain places, the only medium for culture is TV, and our TV is disgusting. Status is measured in big cars, Rolexes, and Dolce & Gabbana.
“This was a police operation in the Torre Bianca part of Scampìa. They had been looking for that specific gun. I don’t know who told them it was there. That day they had to destroy some man-made anti-car barriers that the residents of Scampìa had built to stop the police from entering.”
“Vincenzo Prestigiacomo, nephew of the Camorra boss Giuseppe Misso, was shot dead during a war between clans. He was executed in broad daylight, in the center of Naples, right in front of the eyes of dozens of petrified civilians, on the 30th of October, 2006. A woman who was in the bar right behind the murder scene suffered serious injuries to her legs during the shooting.”
“This was a meat shop in Monte Rosa. The man on the ground was called Antonio Esposito. He was 60 years old and a relative of somebody who was in a Camorra family. He was killed for some faida or another.”
“The street kids on the bike were following a horse carriage with two newlyweds, acting as their bodyguards until they left the projects.”
“Scampìa houses more than 80,000 people. The Camorra’s control over the neighborhood is so complete that the Mafia installed armored doors in its alleys, which can be locked in case of police raids.”
“I had gone to take pictures of a wedding where the bride was the daughter of a family of some very well-to-do loan sharks. The kids in the picture were small-time dealers, and they had come closer to look at the bride. Clearly, I couldn’t take their picture as they dealt.”
“I heard something was happening out the window of my house and I ran to it and shot this picture. This girl had just assaulted an old lady outside the welfare office, trying to rob her of her pension money.”
“This is a junkie that OD’d. The other junkies looked for his money instead of calling the ambulance. He’s shoeless because they thought he kept his money in his socks. They emptied his backpack too. What you see strewn on the ground are cards from that game Magic: The Gathering.”