Murder of an Italian paparazzo: a tale of bunga bunga, blackmail and organised crime
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The killing of Daniele Lo Presti in February has exposed how the paparazzi prey on the rich and famous in Italy – and how these hunters are becoming the hunted
It’s now more than two months since Daniele Lo Presti, a famous Italian paparazzo, was murdered under Testaccio bridge in Rome. Lo Presti had been due to meet friends for a run on 27 February at 5.30pm, and had been jogging along the footpath that follows the river Tiber. He was wearing a tracksuit and trainers and had his house keys round his neck. Testaccio bridge is 32 metres wide, and as Lo Presti ran underneath its grey concrete arches, someone shot him in the head at point-blank range.
The murder made shockwaves in Italy because Lo Presti was one of the biggest names in the murky world of the paparazzi. Nicknamed “Johnny”, he had snapped Brad Pitt in Malta; he had caught Rihanna on camera in Capri; he had taken a famous series of photographs of Sara Tommasi, one of Berlusconi’s bunga bunga girls, performing a striptease in front of a cashpoint. He worked for LaPresse agency and was considered a shrewd, savvy operator, one of a pack of surreptitious snappers who would do almost anything to get a scoop.
The immediate assumption, in the days after his killing, was that Lo Presti had been murdered for invading someone’s privacy. A Chinese neighbour in Via Portuense described hearing an argument, and the noisy moving of furniture in Lo Presti’s flat, as if someone were searching the property, possibly looking for a compromising snap. There were other theories: that Lo Presti was a heavy gambler with large debts. There were rumours that one of the homeless people who lived under the bridge was a key witness.
As the weeks have passed, however, all those initial theories have started to seem improbable: the killing of Lo Presti was a professional hit, and professionals don’t leave witnesses. And, whatever else they do, creditors don’t kill debtors. It doesn’t make sense. Even the notion that he was killed for intrusive photographs was soon discredited: Rino Barillari, the iconic paparazzo who has been snapping stars since the era of the Dolce Vita, was interviewed by the Roman daily, Il Messaggero, and expressed disbelief that anyone would kill just for a photograph. Slowly, and with a sad inevitability, it gradually became clear that Lo Presti was more likely a victim not of a vengeful celebrity, but of organised crime.
Testaccio is a historic suburb of Rome. It got its name from “testae”, the Latin for potsherd – broken bits of ancient ceramics – and the area is dominated by the world’s oldest known landfill site, “Monte Testaccio”. This was where the ancient Romans dumped around 25m amphorae between 140BC and 255BC. Below that “mountain”, actually a small hillock, the bridge where Lo Presti was killed is much more modern and, as you take the muddy footpath down to the river’s edge, it is clearly a seedy side of the city. Shredded plastic bags flap in the willows like Buddhist prayer flags. There are the blankets, broken bottles and dog baskets of the homeless people who sleep under the bridge. The brown water of the Tiber flows past at high speed, and you can see the occasional cormorant diving for fish. On the other side there’s a makeshift campsite of a dozen tents on the thin strip of land between the river and the road.
Lo Presti’s lonely death underneath the bridge was the culmination of a haunting few months for Italian photography. Only a month before the killing, another photographer, Danilo Cerreti, died in an unexplained motorbike crash in Rome; and earlier this year Fabrizio Corona, the so-called “King of Paparazzi” who had been on the run in Portugal, was extradited back to Italy and started a seven-year stretch for using compromising photos to blackmail former Juventus striker David Trezeguet. The game of cat and mouse between paparazzi and stars has always been dangerous (Barillari will proudly tell you he has been hospitalised 164 times in his long career). But never until now has that game seemed quite so costly, even deadly. The hunters have become the hunted.
The career of Corona has become emblematic of that change. From a family of respected Sicilian journalists, Corona was never a photographer, but rather the head of an agency – Corona’s – that ran a pack of paparazzi. Corona was close to hairdresser-turned-agent Lele Mora, who provided the intimate details and movements of Italy’s A-listers. Corona’s agency got scoop after scoop, until Corona hit on a more lucrative scheme: take compromising photographs of stars and then sell them back to the celebrity concerned. Corona called it selling to the highest bidder. Most considered it blackmail.
The scam worked for years: footballers, TV presenters and politicians all fell foul of his prying lenses. He even sold unflattering photos of Barbara Berlusconi back to the Berlusconi family. Many of the photos fetched €40-50,000 and Corona had become, in his own words, a weird version of Robin Hood, “stealing from the rich, to give to myself”.
Erik Gandini’s great documentary, Videocracy, captured that surreal world before it imploded: Mora, an improbable, rotund man who demonstrated his love for fascism with his ringtones, was the circus master of Italian show business. His sometime lover, Corona, was an extrarodinarily vain poseur who oiled his genitals in front of the camera. The pair had become rich beyond their dreams and had the power to make or break not just careers, but reputations.
It all came crashing down when an Anglo-Italian magistrate called John Henry Woodcock began investigating the way certain men seemed to use beautiful young women as counters in the casino of power. The scandal became known as vallettopoli and the great and good of Italian society seemed to be involved: the mistress of a politician was given a TV role to induce her lover to change political allegiance; starlets were passed from politicians to entrepreneurs, who were then wire-tapped discussing their sexual abilities. Young girls, it became clear, were the sweeteners in business transactions.
As Woodcock’s investigation continued, the world of Italian glamour began to appear deeply soiled. Corona was imprisoned, released, wrote a book, started a fashion label, and got involved with Belén Rodríguez, an Argentinian model and regular face on Italian TV who has admitted attending Berlusconi’s bunga bunga bashes. Having been scornful of the stars, Corona had become one himself, posing in nightclubs and chased by the press pack. Mora was imprisoned for fraudulent bankruptcy, being transformed from an eminence grise into the media’s very visible prey. “I created monsters,” Mora now admits.
The word paparazzi was coined in Italy – an invasive character in Federico Fellini‘s La Dolce Vita is called “Paparazzo”, which in dialect means the irritating buzz of a mosquito – and the country has always produced paparazzi in abundance. It has been suggested that there’s something in the Italian character that creates the perfect one: courage, cunning, an eye for an iconic image combined with an iconoclastic, anarchic streak and, most of all, a sixth sense about betrayal. It probably helps that Rome has always been a playground for Hollywood A-listers who want to let their hair down far away from their managers and studios. “The world’s tabloids,” the New York Times once wrote, “can always rely on Rome. Racy pictures and copy pour out of the city in a steady flow.” Ever since the early 60s, when Ava Gardner, Linda Christian and Anita Ekberg strolled up and down the Via Veneto, stars have come to the city to let off steam and, often, find love. Rome was where those scandalous romances that so excited photographers and the public – Bergman-Rossellini, Taylor-Burton, Belinda Lee-Count Orsini – began. It’s no surprise that one of the great novels about a diva and the paparazzi, Muriel Spark‘s The Public Image, was set in Rome.
Times have changed, of course: it’s no longer quite so scandalous for married actresses to have affairs. And stars now have huge entourages to limit the damage of any indiscretions. But the main difference, according to Barillari, is that where there used to be two dozen global stars, there are now thousands of minor personalities, many of whom he only recognises because teenagers are asking for their autographs in the back streets of Rome. Even when irritated by the surprise presence of a photographer, stars now smile rather than attack. He’s nostalgic for the days when punch-ups and scuffles offered the chance to pierce the shell of celebrity, something that rarely occurs now, if ever. Barillari loves relating how he was kicked in the privates by Ava Gardner, or once required four stitches after a punch from Peter O’Toole.
Barillari, like Lo Presti, was originally from Calabria, the long toe of the Italian boot. He believes the secret to Lo Presti’s murder lies in that troubled region, not in his work as a photographer. “He must have seen something down there,” Barillari says. Investigators have so far been very tight-lipped about the case, but it’s known that Lo Presti’s car was torched back in 2009, revenge for the fact that – according to who you speak to – Lo Presti had beaten up someone who was courting his companion, or because he had started a relationship with someone else’s woman.
Lo Presti’s close friends have revealed that, in the days before his murder, he had been talking about a “complicated” situation with a woman he was taking away for the weekend. Many in Rome have speculated that, given the professional nature of the hit, it was a woman whose family was part of the ‘Ndrangheta, the chilling Calabrian version of Cosa Nostra. In the end, it seems probable that a man used to probing into the private lives of others, had himself a tangled private life. And rather than wanting to expose it, someone wanted the story, and the man, to be buried.
via Art and design: Photography | guardian.co.uk http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/08/murder-italian-paparazzo-bunga-blackmail-crime Tobias Jones Thanks for reading Jay
Posted on May 9, 2013, in Photography News and tagged Art and design: Photography | guardian.co.uk, arts, guardian, IFTTT, info, information, journal, news, newspaper, photo, photography, Tobias Jones. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.