When I wrote my previous post on this artist, I simply took information from the book Il Ritratto Giovanile. When I look beyond the beautiful images and read something about the artist, I usually feel a spiritual connection and the work begins to have a deeper meaning for me. In this case, my own memories of spending time with various families while stationed in Germany gave me some context to understand Chris Madaio’s artistic experiences. After completing that last article, I decided on a whim to try to contact the artist through the internet. I found a strange news item about a Chris Madaio in Alabama being arrested for failure to register as a sex offender. Further digging revealed this was indeed the same artist I had just covered and I could not help wondering, “How could someone who produces work with such sensitivity be capable of such a crime?” I have wisely learned to be skeptical of almost anything in the media and given the grave paranoia about people who work with children, especially in the South, I decided to uncover the facts. I managed to reach him to get his side of the story and give the readers a clearer understanding of his art.
Chris Madaio was born in May 1947 in the Bronx, NY and took an early interest in photography. By age 10, he owned his first camera–taking the requisite photos of landscapes, architecture and people. He was also an avid collector of cameras and got his first collectible at age 16—a 35mm Leica IIIf—continuing to hone his craft while working on the high school yearbook. After graduating, he went to Penn State and earned a degree in Fuel Science in 1969 before enlisting in the U.S. Navy. His tour of duty offered him his first chance to live overseas and he was stationed in Gaeta near Naples in Italy, the homeport of the 6th Fleet flagship. Exploring on his time off and rarely without his camera, he caught the attention of the local people, fast making friends and eagerly learning the language. He began to recognize his skill as a teacher after first successfully coaching the kid’s basketball team then later teaching English and science to the young people there.
Digital cameras are ubiquitous and easy to use now, but at that time, the practice of street photography was still something of a novelty and Madaio made one of his first discoveries: young people love to have their pictures taken. Over time, he realized that having someone take one’s picture is a form of validation that can boost self-esteem. The following comes from a 1976 issue of the Penn Stater:
Most serious amateur photographers don’t venture beyond scenics, muscular sports heroes or glamorous models. It’s the small, unnoticed people and things that also require our attention if we are to go beyond the ordinary and mundane … I feel that everyone has a need to be recognized. During that instant when the shutter is snapped, the subject is important to one other person in this world—important enough to have his or her picture taken.
After completing his tour on active duty, Madaio returned to the U.S. with a strong attachment to this beautiful place. He went back to Italy in 1972 to use his GI Bill and take additional courses in engineering while maintaining his connection to the people and place. Recognized and appreciated for his work, he was published in Long Island Newsday in 1973 and then in the Penn Stater magazine in 1976, the same year he held his first photo show at La Nave Caiattas in Gaeta during a vacation. Shortly thereafter, he had his first major exhibition at Penn State and 10 other Pennsylvania commonwealth campuses. He continued his work as a part-time professional by covering gymnastics, swim and softball teams and capturing important milestones of the adults and youngsters in Maryland and Pennsylvania. His photography also included travel, industrial, wedding and architectural subjects.
Because of his skill in engineering, he had the opportunity to travel throughout the world on one project or another working for Bechtel Corporation and a few other companies. All the while, he made a point of returning to Gaeta every few years to spend time with his friends. In 1999, he became an avid biker and in 2001 trekked from Great Yarmough, UK to Gaeta on a Triumph Trident motorcycle—a 1600 mile journey.
After leaving samples of his work in a bookstore in Amsterdam, Madaio caught the attention of Ophelia Editions and was offered his first chance to publish. The result was Il Ritratto Giovanile (Portraits of Youth) in 1996. As a fledgling company, Ophelia Editions had a necessarily narrow focus, hoping to establish itself in a wider market and that has given most people—at least those who don’t really know him—the wrong impression about the artist’s scope and interest. There were plans for another book, Lo Scugnizzo, covering his work with street boys in southern Italy until Ophelia Editions shut down. In retrospect, the failure to publish the second book may have been a blessing. Scugnizzo translates as “street urchin” and in the English-speaking world, that has connotations of poverty but also of charm due to Charles Dickens’ humanistic portrayals. In Italy, however, the expression has a more pejorative meaning and having his now grown-up subjects—especially those who were not really street kids—associated with that term would belie the artist’s respect for the people whom he still regards as friends.
One of Madaio’s most vivid memories is of a boy who might more properly be called a scugnizzo:
I was hiking/backpacking through Tarragona Spain, on leave from the U.S. Navy (I did that often). I believe it was 1970 and I was 23 years old … I slept in an open meadow that night. When I got up the next morning, Francisco was hanging around. He told me he lived in a trash dump nearby (presumably with his parents), and he had a horse. I assume he told me the latter because it was painfully obvious how poor he was, so I guess that was his way of saying he had something of value. Then we split up and went our separate ways.
This picture appeared in Newsday and the Penn Stater.
After the publication of Ritratto, another major show was held in Gaeta—promoted by the local community—and another at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland shortly thereafter.
Despite his earlier success, by 2003, Madaio had largely curtailed his photography of young people as he noticed a decline in demand and less respect from his former clients and friends about the focus of his work. He attributes this to the rising hysteria taking place in the U.S. that casts a suspicious eye on anyone doing substantial work with youth.
Keep in mind that one of the joys of taking pictures of children is when they actually act like kids and not little adults. Sometimes kids act goofy. It may not be artistic, but the spontaneity is enjoyable and reflective of my attitudes toward childhood … Anything can happen with kids and usually does. This spontaneity can manifest itself either with a street boy skinny-dipping in a public fountain in Italy or little girls cutting up in gymnastics class.
Accompanying the decline in photographic work came a stressful period during his mother’s precarious health. These conditions contributed to what could only be called an addiction to pornography. Despite these setbacks, he continued to get good engineering jobs, the latest in Alabama in 2002 and he moved there. In 2004, he brought in his computer for repair and was reported to the authorities for his images, many which had been exhibited or published. In October of that year, FBI agents from the Huntsville office visited his home without a warrant and inquired about those photos. Madaio did his best to cooperate and turned over his two computers, fully aware that adult pornography would be found and he gave them some of his professional photography as well. He was surprised when over a year later an indictment was handed down from the federal authorities accusing him of receiving child pornography. Madaio had cooperated confident that no such images were present on his computer—only legitimate adult pornography. It appears the prosecutors used his browsing history to help secure the indictment and then stretched the definition of “child” to bolster their case. He was released on pre-trial bond at a January 2006 arraignment. He was not savvy to the ways probation officers gather evidence, so after winning a gun in a company raffle (he is a certified expert marksman), he made sure it was turned in to comply with the probation conditions. They say no good deed goes unpunished and that gun was then used to justify incarcerating him until his conviction on child pornography charges in June 2006. He served 48 of the 60 month minimum sentence in a federal prison. Little did he know his mother would pass away during this time and he never had the chance to see her again.
Regarding the professional photographs that were still being held by the authorities, Madaio filed a civil action under the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 (PPA)¹. However, unable to get any legal assistance from the local or national chapters of the ACLU²—who seemed more concerned about their political image than justice—the petition was dismissed in 2010 on a technicality. While in prison, he taught literacy and GED courses to prisoners and in 2008 began to take paralegal courses so he could defend himself and his fellow inmates more effectively. After his release in early 2010, he was instructed to return to Alabama despite no longer having any ties there—neither a job nor property. Thus began a 3-year fight to convince the U.S. Probation Office to allow him to return to his native New York where his handicapped sister was living. In the mean time, he had to comply with state laws regarding sex offender registration and in the heat of legal negotiations, he momentarily forgot about a new Alabama law that required him to register quarterly. When he did present himself to register, he was arrested and searched, this time by the local Sheriff’s Office. Many items were seized including those that had been returned by the federal authorities in 2010. To complicate matters, a one-time associate of his shortly thereafter had a storage unit raided where child pornography was found and was used as a basis for additional charges issued in December 2012. He was released on bond that same month and a month after that was released from the federal probation restrictions. But he still faces a possible second trial on the state’s charges this February.
Madaio is not claiming to be completely blameless and in a properly functioning justice system, he knows he should pay some kind of penalty for his hapless browsing in 2004. But the tragedy is that because of the stigma of this kind of conviction, he cannot get a fair hearing or a fair sentence and to make matters worse, there is a culture of vigilantism in the South that prevents him from moving on and reintegrating into society. Our society would rather punish than treat a person’s problem and because of these restrictions, he has not held a steady engineering job for more than four years. On the brighter side, most of his own photographs were returned after the original seizure and are therefore still available to us. He recognizes that there are fewer years ahead of him than behind and is making a concerted effort to establish a noble and compassionate legacy.
Legal battles cost money even if one is representing oneself, so any assistance in scraping together some funds would be very much appreciated. To offer your support, order prints or hire his legal services, you can visit his website here.
In reviewing the background material for this article, I realized that the artist’s experiences are a treasure trove of legal and political advice. It would be naive for the layman to imagine that his legal system is just and that he would have nothing to worry about if he were accused unfairly. Therefore, I intend to write an article that will make use of this material and shine a light on our current political situation, its realities and offer some vital practical advice. -Ron
1. The Privacy Protection Act of 1980 [42 USC §2000aa], was enacted into law by Congress to limit searches for materials held by persons involved in First Amendment activities who are themselves not suspected of participating in the criminal activity for which the materials are sought. This is meant to discourage law enforcement officers from targeting publishers simply because they incidentally gathered evidence of a crime.
2. The American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) stated mission is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” The Free Speech Coalition was also approached to no avail.