He flipped through magazines such as National Geographic, Time, and Smithsonian for hours in prison, looking at photos.
Donato Di Camillo always believed pictures captured the essence of people and it's defined a large part of his life. It also proved to be his salvation. He was inspired to pick up a camera while he spent time in prison for a federal crime. More than 10 years later, he is now an accomplished New York City street photographer, and what makes his work stand out are his frames and subjects. He prefers clicking pictures of places and people that aren't generally subjects of the usual photographer. He likes to take photos of everyday people and rather eccentric individuals. It's not the traditionally 'beautiful' photo that attracts him.
"I grew up on the streets of Brooklyn and the streets were home to marginalized people," Di Camillo told Upworthy in an interview. "Everybody is human. I could easily connect with them. They have children, fathers, and mothers just like anyone else," he adds. He found beauty in their lives, in their stories and it's one of the defining qualities of his work.
Di Camillo had learned to be street smart pretty early in life to survive the streets which he described as an unforgiving place. He was sentenced to 36 months in prison in 2006 in connection to crimes associated with members of the New York City crime families. When he ended up in prison, he had magazines for company. He would admire the images printed in magazines such as National Geographic, Time, and Smithsonian.
He just knew he liked the pictures and the idea of taking them. "I had no inclination to be a photographer, I never thought I'd be one," he said. During his time in prison, Di Camillo read a lot about human behavior and psychology, only to realize that he had unconsciously observed and acquired that knowledge from the streets. "These tools I acquired taught me to navigate around the diverse characteristics and personalities which came in handy when making photographs later on,” he told The Huffington Post.
After he was released from prison in 2011, he spent an additional three years on house arrest and probation. It was during this period that he learned from photography tutorials on YouTube and blogs. He honed his craft by taking photos of insects, birds. He first had the chance to take pictures of the outside world, and New York streets, in particular, in 2014—and has been doing so since. Di Camillo felt like he was exploring the world through his lens. He learned how people lived in other worlds, through his camera. Being in prison also taught him not to judge people easily. He never looked at the people in prison as the "bad guys." He saw everyone as human. Circumstances forced some people to make bad decisions and some to not, said Di Camillo.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, Di Camillo started documenting the tragedy. There were too many bodies to count as the virus raged on. It was also the early stages of the pandemic and there was a lot of misinformation going on. "We didn't understand what was going on. We had no idea," he added. After a while, Di Camillo decided to take a break. He tried to take images of what was happening but people wearing masks really limited his expression. "I spend some time away," said Di Camillo, before adding, "Now, I'm starting to get back into it."
He is currently experimenting with the video format — a short film. He believes social media has carved out space for more video content. He plans to continue taking pictures of those who remain unseen, ignored, and on the fringes of society and bring them to the forefront. He wants to reverse what the world considers ugly and make them the center of his work.