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Valerio Spada Talks To Elizabeth Avedon: Gomorrah Girl


In Gomorrah GirlValerio Spada tells the story of the murder of Annalisa Durante, a young woman caught in the crossfire of a Mafia shootout, and the problems of growing up in a crime-ridden area. Bound together through an innovative, book-within-a-book design, are Spada’s photographs documenting adolescence in the land of Camorrah (the name for the Mafia in Naples) and pages detail the police investigation. 

Gomorrah Girl was first released as a self-published edition, with a limited print run and drew considerable attention. It was selected as the Grand Prize winner for Photography Book Now, 2011. Spada went on to receive a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in Creative Arts, Photography in 2013. Twin Palms Publishers will release a new edition early this Fall. 

I spoke with Valerio Spada recently about this project and his next:

Elizabeth Avedon: How did you conceive your original self-published edition of Gomorrah Girl?

Valerio Spada: I had not thought of it as a book. After several years of shooting in Naples and after some fights and threats in the streets that were by far too dangerous for any meaning when you compare the value of your life to a picture, I decided it was time to stop and think about giving a shape to what I was documenting and the book form was there to save me. The book wasn’t ready, but I’d started to be more aware of what I was missing and taking the pictures needed to complete the book became easier.

The idea of self-publishing came from my previous experiences and from the simple fact that publishers are usually eager to delete emails from photographers pitching books proposals. During a great panel discussion on publishing photo books at Le Bal in Paris, there was this big publisher’s representative talking about how boring it is receiving and deleting twenty emails per day from photographers and that nowadays everybody wants to have a book published. It was early 2011, Gomorrah Girl had been printed just a few months before, and I was in the audience listening. Sebastian Hau, a great friend now, pointed me out in the audience saying something like, “Well, we have a self publishing example here that is doing great in our bookstore!” The guy said something like, “Well, you should have come to me with your proposal,” and I was just smiling like, sure.

EA: Did you know the girl who was murdered or her family?

VS: No. I came to know about her during my research, I wanted to meet her father, and so I did. It was a life changing experience hearing a father’s voice that survived his daughter and decided not to move or run away from Naples, but to stay.

EA: Did you live in the area of the shoot-outs? 

VS: Yes, I’ve lived there for some time, and a large part of the time I was living in Scampia and Secondigliano, an area north of Naples that was at the time Camorrah’s core business area for drug dealing.

EA: What captured your attention to create a book around it?

VS: I think crime happened to be in the background of my work, it’s there and almost everywhere. I am always attracted by decay and degradation versus adolescence. This is a common thread throughout my work in Naples, and my recent work in Sicily supported by the Guggenheim Foundation. And I have to say that Italy is an entire country that lives compressed between decay and degradation, and the people trying to make a life in it, that are born in it and sometimes that dream to run away from it. There’s a picture from my newest book “I am nothing” that I am thinking about when I tell you this, it’s the ruin with writing “DUX” on a wall destroyed by Belice earthquake in 1968. It has been 46 years since the earthquake and nothing has changed. You still hear the same window moving with the wind with a weird sound. Nobody is there. No guardians. Nothing. A lot of money has been spent by politicians, on God knows what, with the excuse to restore the area. Even worse, they built a new town, Gibellina, with new sculptures and those very same sculptures are now a magnificent monuments to decay and degradation. This is Italy. And then there’s life in all this. Kids, fathers, daughters, criminals, regular people. Everything to me in the end is on the same level; monuments or people, it’s all beauty to me.

EA: You have created a unique design, binding photographs and documents of the police investigation together in a one-of-a-kind style.

VS: I wish it were me; I suck at designing my own things. I can design everything but my own things. When I was 22 I worked with a great Dutch designer, Swip Stolk, on a magazine concept. The magazine that hired me as Art Director didn’t even know there was a need for a designer, it was a big deal to have them accept that. Swip was in his 60s, I was in my 20s. We were faxing from France to Holland (I think email was not even born) logo designs, corrections, ideas. I have a gut feeling, for any given project, who should be the designer for the project I am working on. For Gomorrah Girl, the only person able to work perfectly with different papers, cuts and sizes was Sybren Kuiper. This story was made for his design and his design was made for my story. He did an incredible job. For “I am nothing” I needed something different and simple. What Seiichi Suzuki did for this new book is outstanding.

EA: How did you arrive at such decisions to make a book designed like this?

VS: The Procura della Repubblica (higher grade than police in Italy) denied me permission to shoot the evidence of Annalisa’s murder; they told me I could take pictures of their pictures if I wanted. They offered me their original notebook with forensic pictures in it and gave me, as a gift, some 4×6” prints, which I’ve found amazing. It was 2010 and the day was depressing, since I wanted to photograph the original evidence from the murder. I was obsessed by Annalisa’s delicate beauty and the bullet that killed her. It was a contrast too strong to handle, but I decided to get to the heart of it. After several months I went back to the photos in the notebook, and began to picture them each as a page and thought, this will be a book within a book. It was like rewriting that history today with girls that are, to my eyes, like Annalisa, never forgetting the background of where they lived their lives.

Having my portraits vertical was Sybren’s genius idea, while all my friends were saying you’re crazy, people will break their neck looking at something like that. In a way it is true, when I lecture and show the book on a large screen projector, I see heads moving like a table tennis match, played on a top of a hill. But there were no other possibility—that was it. And it’s great.

For this edition, Jack Woody from Twin Palms Publishers, did an incredible job. He redesigned the cover to protect the contents, make it stronger for distribution and therefore available to a larger audience. It can be easy to destroy such a peculiar book, so fragile, but what he did for this third edition is gentle and delicate, it’s so poetic.

EA: Have you ever published your work before?

VS: When I was 21 I started self-publishing magazines. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time dealing with printers, advertisers, photographers, all the while still photographing and publishing my own work.

I’ve been publishing a great magazine, Cross Magazine, so great that the last 3 issues, a quarterly, we literally did not have the time to continue our adventure. Fashion designers were giving us front row seats to events and we didn’t have the time to show up – big mistake. The next day they would call saying, “You don’t like our designers?” So we met and asked ourselves if we wanted to stop our careers as artists and dedicate ourselves completely to the magazine.

Cross Magazine started in 2002 with Kasia, Payam and me with a lot of friends around, Cyprien Gaillard, Viviane Sassen, Camille Vivier, Vanina Sorrenti. Kasia was a superwoman from Poland living in UK; Payam was an Iranian living in Texas, while I was living in France at the time. The idea was to mix in artists and friends we loved in applied arts. This is where the name Cross came from. It was pure fun. Interviews were strictly another “cross”, the interviewer did not have to know anything about the person being interviewed. So it happened that famous people, with lets say 35 movies or shows in their past, would be asked something like “is this your first movie?” or “is this your first solo show?” The reactions were great as well as the resulting conversation.

EA: What are you planning next?

VS: I am working on my new book “I am nothing”. There will be an artist’s edition of 500 copies, signed and numbered and a trade edition of 1,000 copies released by Twin Palms Publishers.

It’s a book about Sicily, about impeded communications, about a daughter and her father who happens to be the most dangerous criminal in Italy and a fugitive from law since 1993. It’s an impossible relationship, he has never meet her in person and this is the real pain is his life. As a fugitive he communicates by rare letters, called “pizzini”. The Mafia’s bosses transmit orders through handwritten or typewritten paper sheets, folded eight times and sealed with transparent tape. These pizzini reach the hands of the designated recipient only after being passed from person to person seven times. A “pizzino” hand written from the father, Matteo Messina Denaro, is the cover of the book. It is also a book about what you carry when you decide to disappear. I’ve documented his possessions—clothes, a winter scarf, shirt and velvet trousers, socks, a sweater and a jacket. There are also scissors, glasses, nail file and brush. Election leaflets from Italian politicians Cuffaro, Casini, Ulivo, la Margherita, La Nuova Sicilia and Christian Democratic Socialist Party. Images of Jesus and newspaper clippings depicting men of the Church. A typewriter. A Bible. A handkerchief with an illegible note, burned during a police raid of the hideout at Bernardo Provenzano, Mafia “don of the dons”, on April 11, 2006 and hidden in the sink.

One of his “pizzini” says a lot about the destiny of who decide to reign Sicily as a boss:

“You see, I have known pure desperation and I have been alone, I have experienced hell and I have been alone, I have fallen many many times and I have gotten back up again on my own; I have witnessed pure ingratitude on the part of everyone and anyone and I have been alone, I have known the taste of dust and in my solitude I have been nourished by it […] I am nothing, a loser, but if you need this nothing, I am always here for you, for anything. That is not rhetoric; I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I really love you.

With lasting esteem and love, as always

P. S. When you have read this letter, burn it.”

Gomorrah Girl by Valerio Spada
Twin Palms Publishers
Fall, 2014
9 x 13″, casebound. 54-color plates, 78 pages
First Edition, $85
ISBN 978-1-936611-07-2


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