Valerio Spada, the winner of the Photography Book Now competition, spent many months searching for a story in Naples, Italy. He had no idea what he was looking for, just that he was ready for something beyond the fashion shoots in Milan and Paris that occupied much of his time. He eventually found it in the form of Giovanni Durante, a strong-willed man who had lost his 14-year-old daughter to a mafia feud. She had been standing in front of his small store, chatting with a 22-year-old man. It turns out that this 22-year-old man was a mafia boss, due to be assassinated. As a motorcycle approached and opened fire on the young boss, he returned the fire, accidentally killing the young girl as she fled.
“I’d recorded our conversation, and at the same time took a picture with a compact camera with a Kodachrome 64 in it … I got the roll 2 weeks after our talk, and it was clear what I was searching for in Naples,” he explained over e-mail.
Over the coming months Valerio spent his time trying to understand the life of young Annalisa. He wandered her hangouts, pored over police notebooks, and visited mafia meeting places, consumed with the story of a girl he’d never met.
The outcome of this obsession is Gomorrah Girl, a book about adolescence in the land of Camorrah, the name of the mafia in Naples. The book combines pages of police notebooks, photos of people and locations connected to the case, and portraits of other young women from the area. Many of these women are not explicitly connected to the story and at first it’s confusing why they are in the book at all. Presented looking directly into the camera in their loud bikini tops and sparkly shirts, they make it seem as if an amateur fashion shoot accidentally fell into a police file.
The viewer is forced to ask how the girls are related to the documents from the case, and this is exactly what Spada wants. He’s not trying to solve a crime—the girl’s killer is already in prison. He’s trying to make connections between the lives of young women in Naples and the threat of mafia violence that surrounds them. These women don’t know each other, but small details tie them together: The distrustful expression of girl in a decrepit apartment is reminiscent of that of another girl posed by the beach. The pistol tattoo on a girl’s hip looks like the pistol graffiti in on the wall near where Annalisa was killed.
Ultimately Spada’s most powerful statement isn’t about the corruption of adolescence, however, it’s about the continued relevance of photo books. Though something can be gleaned from looking at his images in the gallery above, it’s the jarring juxtaposition of police documents and photos that elevate his work to the next level and earned him the $25,000 Photography Book Now prize, the judges said. In the age of Instagram this is a welcome reminder about the continued value of laying something out creatively on paper. Spada will be receiving his award at the Photography Book Now party this Thursday at the Aperture Gallery in New York.*
Correction, Sept. 14, 2011: This post originally stated that the date of the Photography Book Now party is this Friday. The party is this Thursday. (Return to the corrected sentence.)