From A Prison Sentence To Street Photography Stardom

Winters in New York can be bitter and trying, some more than others. For Donato DiCamillo, the winter of 2006 meant staying warm, sitting on his hands, and awaiting indictment. DiCamillo and ten associates were staring down a string of charges for racketeering and conspiracy — with potential sentences ranging from five years to mandatory life. On a particularly cold morning in early December, the indictment and the sentencing were officially released. DiCamillo received a maximum of twenty years, ultimately serving three years behind bars in Petersburg, Virginia, sandwiched between two years of house arrest.

For plenty of Americans, prison has proven destructive, the end of the inmate’s “era of potential.” For DiCamillo it meant reflecting on his days watching his uncle paint in Brooklyn, and honing his appreciation for light and composition. The house arrest years were spent poring over the pages of National Geographic, Magnum, and Time Magazine. Donato’s passion quickly became so insatiable that his family pooled their resources and bought him a camera with a macro lens. Bound to stay within 100 feet of his house, he spent days and nights photographing spider webs, droplets of water, and anything else that caught his eye.

Now, DiCamillo is back on the streets, taking photos, and there’s suddenly a whole lot more to photograph than bugs and rain drops. His street photography is reminiscent of Bruce Gilden or Wayne Lawrence, not entirely unlike Rineke Dijkstra. The work is bright, contrasty and, although hauntingly honest, there’s also a warmth to it. Which leads one to wonder if DiCamillo’s photographs are taken in defiance of the cold shadowy years of his past or as an appreciation and homage to the lessons those years taught him.

I recently hopped on the phone with DiCamillo to ask about his life in seclusion, his influences, and rediscovering his creativity.

Were you always creative?

Yeah, I was always interested. I was exposed to art early on. My uncle Dominic, he was an art director for many years before the computers took over. He was also a painter. He still is. He’s more like a Renaissance painter. We grew up in a four-tenement home, you know, so it was a close-knit family. So I would always see what he was up to. And my father also paints, but not as much as my uncle. So I learned the basics from him, I always observed, you know. He would talk about the direction of light and the like.

Did you photograph much in that era?

Never, not at all. You know, I didn’t photograph at all up till, uh, probably 2013. I would say 2014 is when I started seriously photographing. Around then I told myself that I’m gonna push it a little bit, try to create my own style of work, rather than just copy everybody else’s. So my style is really derived from some of the street photography work of Diane Arbus and Elliot Erwitt. A lot of the old timers…

Frank, and all those guys?

Robert Frank was unbelievable. He paved the way for a lot of street photographers. But it’s a different time now for me or anyone else that think they could capture that type of photograph in these times. It’s foolish to think that way. We live in a different time, so my approach needs to be a little different.

That’s the way I see it, anyway.

Different in what way?

Different meaning, years ago, it was much easier to photograph a child playing a park. People were more open. There were children playing in the street. Now a lot of kids are home playing on their computers and PlayStations. You don’t see a lot of social interaction like I did years ago. This is what I observe, anyway. And so, because of the amount of strange abductions, parents are very leery of who’s taking photographs in any circumstance. A lot of people take shots with their cell phones now. But I’m not that type of person. I’m pretty up front in the way I photograph. I don’t like to sneak around or anything like that.

Of course. A lot of your images break that personal space. You’re right there in a lot of people’s faces. What’s your approach? How do you make that happen?

I’m always being asked to teach people how to approach people and a lot of people are shy, so there’s a whole slew of questions like this. They all ask how do I get close to people, and how do you get them to do this, and how do you get them to do that? I think it’s just loving what you do, and showing that energy, you show that in your body language and in the way you approach people.

Also a lot of my street instincts kick in, in certain situations. I’ve still got my street smarts, so I’m able to navigate around certain situations better than most. I believe, because of being on the streets for so long — one of the main tools of survival is to create some type defense mechanism. With that, and with me specifically, I learned to read people, it’s kind of a psychological thing. You can tell just by the way a person is walking or the way they’re looking at you if they’d be open to a photograph. Some are receptive. If a woman, like, moves her hair behind her ear and I have my camera in my hand, a lot of times, these are like sale signs, if you will. I take advantage of those moments.

And then there’s some kinds of people, who are reluctant to have their photo taken and sometimes I just take the shot anyway because I feel that I want the shot. I feel that it’s important for me to grab the shot.

If you do take a shot the person isn’t receptive to and they call you out, how does that go?

I would say I’m sorry. But in the same token, I’m not bugging a person for a photograph. I’m not… I try to be as respectful as possible. If they have something to say afterwards, I approach them and I tell them, “this is something that I love to do. I snuck this shot because I really love what you look like, if you want me to delete it, I’ll delete it right in front of you.” I don’t have a problem with that. I tell ‘em, “There’s a million other people. It’s not that big of a deal.” I kind of also know how to defuse situations as well, and that came from the street too, you know?

You become a mediator of sorts. When certain tensions arise in the street, you had to be able to defuse situations quickly. But the street is, is something that excites me, you know, there’s so many different personalities and so many different, uh, multiple layers of things to shoot. It’s endless.

Where have you been photographing mostly? Just in New York, or have you been traveling?

No. I haven’t been traveling. Like I said, I haven’t really been shooting that long. Probably been a few years now. Probably about three, four years tops. But uh, it’s mostly Brooklyn area, I don’t search. I don’t wait for the light to be right. I’m not that type of person.

That’s one of the best lessons I think I was ever taught in photography. If you see a shot, don’t worry about the light, don’t worry about the time of day, don’t worry about anything like that. If a moment strikes you, just take the fucking picture.

I mean, for crying out loud, I don’t have the luxury of waiting for the sun to come down at a certain angle. I don’t want to wait. I’m an impatient guy when it comes to capturing images.

I feel a certain gratification after capturing something that makes me feel fulfilled and that image could possibly make someone else feel fulfilled as well. I don’t want to wait for that to happen.

Did you study photography specifically at any certain time, or did you get out and take to it?

I was on house arrest for quite awhile. Before I went into prison, and after I want into prison. So before I went in, I was on house arrest and it was really important to keep my mind busy. It was very trying, at times. I didn’t know if I was looking at life or 20 years or what, so I had to defer my thoughts to something else. So I’d read mostly about photography. You know, Magnum? I bought Magnum, National Geographic, all those books. I would sit and read, but I didn’t really have a means, or the ability, to get out and shoot yet.

Through my family, who were all gracious enough to help me out with my first camera, because I was pinned up against the wall. I really couldn’t afford anything financially. So they helped me out with my first camera and a couple lenses, and I shot macro stuff around the house because I thought that was the coolest thing, you know?

I totally understand.

And still, I like it today. I just don’t have the patience to pin down a tiny little object.

And to get the focus just right, man? That’s a hell of a process…

Some of the images are mind-blowing, you know? The way they stack them and layer them, and get that fine focus. It’s beautiful. And I couldn’t leave, so I was just playing around the house. Whatever I could find. Spider webs, plants, rain drops. It could have been anything. That kept me busy and taught me the manual functions of the camera.

Going from that, what was the learning curve like once you had a camera in your hand and you were walking on the streets?

The learning curve was… I had anxiety because I was supposed to be a contributing member of society. I was supposed to be walking a straight line and doing everything right. And it was kind of intimidated because all my life, I’d led this, this on-the-edge type of lifestyle. I had butterflies because I had just came out of an institution, and now I was on the street. I was free, so it was still kind of weird. I felt like an alien around people. It was an interesting time. But I looked at it like, if I could do what I did on the street, I could easily take pictures of people on the street.

Would you say that having a camera with you sort of helped reintroduce you to society?

It gave me an opportunity to reach out to people and make contact. Yeah, I was slowly getting my feet wet through photographing and meeting people and talking to them, you know, until I was more comfortable and I was back to my old self. It helped me get to a point where I could do things without too much fear.

Are you creatively satisfied with what you have made?

No. I’m not. Am I satisfied with my work? I like my work. Some of the pictures I think are good, but I’m probably like most others who are always striving to be better, you know? I could never say that I’m satisfied with my work completely. If I was I would never give myself room to improve. I think it’d be foolish for anybody to say that they, they’re 100% satisfied with anything they do. That gives us less room to move forward and improve.

Did you ever get advice as far as photography or creativity that really stands out and stuck with you?

The advice came from the first street photographer that I actually met up with on the street, Bruce Gilden. He just told me to be myself and shoot what resonates with me. At the time, I didn’t even know what the word resonate meant, you know?

“What do you mean, resonate? What do you mean by that?” He just basically told me to be myself and shoot what I know. So far it seems to be working.

I’ve been labeled as this guy that takes pictures of people on the fringe. I made that statement one time because I do identify with a lot of people that deal with adversities. But, my style, it’s not set in stone. I’m just attracted to people ‘cause I identify with them. I identify with people that have been through struggle. To say that I only photograph the fringe…there’s a bit more soul to it.

I photograph everything. I love photographing. A lot of people say, “oh, the fringes.” It’s just, it’s just photographing life. I photograph, the truth. That’s it. That’s all there is. For better or worse, I photograph the truth. That, what I do.

The Mad Ones is a reference to a famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ”

Watch this series for interviews and profiles with people doing big, wild, bold, creative things with their lives. #TheMadOnes