Donato Di Camillo‘s cellmate in prison used to poke fun at him for his fascination with photography. “What — do you think you’re going to become a big photographer and go take pictures in Africa?” he joked. But since being released from prison, Di Camillo’s searing images have stunned people around the world.
Di Camillo, 47, was first arrested at 11 or 12 for stealing a car stereo. He received little more than a slap on the wrist. But in the eyes of some in his Brooklyn neighborhood, he “had graduated.” From there, he embarked on a life of crime, drinking and drugs. In 2006, he was swept up along with 10 others associated with the Colombo crime family and sentenced to 2½ years in federal prison.
During his time there, Di Camillo, who had always been curious about human behavior, had time to contemplate and learn more about the world around him. He spread word among the inmates that he was bartering for magazines. For a National Geographic without too much wear, he would surrender two postage stamps. (Mailing stamps were the currency of his penitentiary, and inmates came up with many ways, like selling lollipops made of melted-down candy, to get them.) He flipped through the glossy pages, analyzing visual storytelling in as many magazines as he could get.
After his release, Di Camillo began learning the mechanics of photography while on house arrest. He found that photographing and connecting with strangers gave him a sense of solace that helped with the anxieties of his life. “I find myself empathizing with a lot of these people that struggle because I myself struggle — maybe in a different way,” he said. “But I see us as mirrors of each other.”
In the recent media coverage of his work, Di Camillo has largely been billed as capturing people on the “fringes,” a characterization he deems not completely accurate. “It’s just about telling the truth,” he said.
To hear more about Di Camillo’s story, listen to more from our interview below: