Charming Killers: James Breeden Meets Murderous Mafiosos for GQ
There's a memorable line from the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, where, while aboard the accursed Black Pearl, captain Hector Barbossa gives captive Elizabeth Swann (then under the alias Elizabeth Turner) a bone-chilling reality check.
“You best start believin' in ghost stories, Miss Turner,” crows a moonlit, skeletal Barbossa.
“You’re in one.”
Substitute the phrase 'ghost stories' with 'mafia tales,' and you’ve summed up James Breeden’s experience photographing gangsters for a British GQ piece, which details what's become of actual Italian American mobsters and their pervasive crime syndicate.
[Interacting with these people is] absolutely fascinating. You can be utterly disgusted by the crimes they’ve committed and the misery they’ve inflicted and yet be hanging on their every word because they’ve all led the most unconventional lives.
Most of the subjects were very charming, and you find yourself liking them. Then you remember what they’ve done in their lifetimes: multiple murders, stabbings, shootings — the most horrific crimes — and you try to reconcile that with the person that you’ve just had a pleasant meal with. It makes you feel very conflicted.
Breeden, a newly-minted U.S. citizen by way of pastoral England, has accumulated plenty of experience interacting with dangerous criminals. He’s photographed gang members, mass murderers, and even Pablo Escobar’s most trusted hit man.
[This work] really makes me appreciate my normal home life. From the very beginning of my career, I’ve had to learn how to set aside personal opinions and be professional in how I document and make portraits of people from all walks of life. These characters would provoke very strong opinions from most law-abiding people. Being able to set that aside and concentrate on the story is a skill I’m always developing.
For this assignment, James — along with writer and fellow Texas-based Brit Alex Hannaford, who originally pitched the story to GQ — met with four different members of New York’s Italian American mafia: associate Stevie Newell, hired gun John Alite, captain Anthony Arilotta, and banker Salvatore Romano. The pair first met with Newell, who, upon selecting the interview location, served up a Barbossa-esque dose of reality.
He picked a diner where a mobster once dropped a severed finger in a rival mobster’s soup [to prove he had carried out a hit], so that immediately set the tone.
It was a surreal experience, as Newell was about to go to prison on a weapons charge after our interview. I made some portraits inside the diner that felt clichéd, and I wasn’t too happy with them. He went outside for a cigarette, and I made a few more images that I quite liked. Then, after the interview, he told us he owned a scrap yard just across the street, so we walked over there with him.
It was the perfect location. I got a couple of lights out in the snowstorm and started making a few portraits when he picked up an axe that he kept for protection since he’d been busted for owning firearms as a felon.
As James and Alex transitioned to their next subject, they learned one of the maxims of the mafia world: everyone knows everyone and usually not for good reason.
Newell asked who we were going to see next, and we told him it was John Alite, who, it turned out, had shot Newell in the back years ago. Newell asked us to pass on a message to Alite, which we politely declined.
James, who had never even seen "The Godfather" before embarking on this journey, paid a visit to the most Godfather-looking man of the criminal quartet: six-time murderer John Alite.
We met in an upscale steakhouse in Manhattan, and he was dressed head to toe in designer clothing, looking like a million bucks. There was a plush, dark red velour back to the seat of the booth where we interviewed him, and I immediately thought it was a great backdrop for a portrait. Once the interview was over, I moved everything out of the way, set up my lights, and made the portraits.
I knew we had the winner and, indeed, GQ ran that portrait as the opener for the piece.
James and Alex went from Alite and his sinister suaveness to a more timid — but equally intimidating — interviewee in Anthony Arillotta.
Arillotta seemed different. Like some of the others, he’d killed and was still on parole, so I guess he was the most recently connected to the mob. It took him a while to warm up to us as he’d never spoken about his life in the mob before.
He agreed to show us around his old turf the next day. The reticence continued in front of the camera. This was a man who has lived his life in the shadows and was emerging into the public eye for the first time.
Look at that shot again. See that “No Dumping Allowed” sign in the background? Not a coincidence.
That was deliberate. I couldn’t resist it. I’d seen it earlier when Arillotta was giving us a tour of his former turf and, after looking at a few more locations, I decided that was the place and asked him to drive us back there. I loved the tones of the derelict building, the fresh snow, and, of course, the irony of the sign. I’m not sure if he noticed it, but he certainly didn’t say anything.
Cheeky stuff from James, whose final subject, Salvatore Romano, was once a Wall Street-embedded money laundering extraordinaire for the Gambino family.
The Gambinos — who, along with the Bonannos, Colombos, Genoveses, and Luccheses, make up the Five Families of the Italian American mafia — became millionaires in large part because of Romano’s investment banking acumen (read: corner-cutting pump-and-dump schemes). Needless to say, the now-Florida-based Romano looks the part.
Alex and I couldn’t believe the suit that Sal wore to the interview. It was comical. I actually asked him if he could change for the photoshoot.
When he arrived for the shoot later that afternoon, however, he was still in that ridiculous giant suit. I did worry that it could make light of our work — and it certainly caused a stir on Twitter — but, upon reflection, if that’s what he normally wears then I should just document him as I found him.
The suit is a good example of a mobster “living up to the [mafia] stereotype” that is ubiqitous in pop culture. But even though their world is filled with violence, crime, and lengthy prison sentences, many of the interview subjects made note of the mundane elements of the lifestyle.
Most of them told us "The Godfather" was the first film that really portrayed their way of life accurately. It’s not all blood, money, and flashy cars. A lot of the day-to-day work they described seemed banal. Driving around, picking up packages, and dropping them off, that kind of thing.
One of the many conflicting elements of this story is the idea that, by speaking to these people, James is inadvertently glamorizing their way of life. Then again, content consumers around the world can’t get enough of these fascinating felons, as James found out when he worked in Los Angeles.
By the very nature of them agreeing to talk to us and us telling their story, we’re at risk of promoting their agendas. [While] some have book deals or TV/movie projects lined up, some have never spoken before and appearing in a magazine as big as GQ might propel them into the limelight and allow them to start cashing in on their notoriety. Some [of these guys] were playing up to the camera, for sure.
One of my old bosses in L.A. told me that Brits are obsessed with Americana, and it’s true. There is no shortage of stories to tell from my adopted homeland, and I see a correlation between that and the proliferation of narco and mafia shows on Netflix. There’s a lot of public interest, so it's natural that newspapers and magazines will follow [the shows] up with stories and features.
James has also covered Mexican drug wars and the cartels that catalyze them, so he’s cultivated a reputation as a "go-to" for photographing these unsavory characters. Due to his unique work experience and collaborative chemistry with Alex, he was given total creative freedom by GQ's Director of Photography Robin Key and Chief Content Officer Jonathan Heaf, both "champion[s] of long-form journalism."
I think this is the sixth big feature [Alex and I] have done together for British GQ, so they trust us to go off and do our thing. We could never have tried to line this up in advance and plan shoots — we work best when we load up the car and hit the road together, working on the ground as the story unfolds. We also always debrief over a few drinks after a big interview/photoshoot and make sure we’re both on the same page. We work together very well in that regard.
James has learned quite a bit through his in-depth conversations with career criminals. It’s certainly been a wild ride for a Texas transplant from the English countryside.
[This work has] taught me that there’s almost nothing some men won’t do for greed and power. These people end up having it all, and it’s still not enough. Their greed is always their downfall. Mainly, though, it’s taught me that most people are decent folk.
I grew up a quiet, rural area of England where little ever happens, so it’s very strange to have a contact list full of killers messaging me on WhatsApp.
You best start believin' in mafia tales, Mr. Breeden.
You told one.
Chief Content Officer: Jonathan Heaf
Director of Photography: Robin Key
Writer: Alex Hannaford
Florida Assistant: Zak Bennett
Interviewees: Stevie Newell, John Alite, Anthony Arilotta, Salvatore Romano
Background Information: U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York
Check out more of James' work at jamesbreeden.com.
Check out our other great photographers on our Find Photographers page!