Ota Benga’s Short, Tragic Life As A Human Zoo Exhibit

His family was killed, he was taken as a slave, and he lived in the Bronx Zoo’s monkey house as a human exhibit.

Ota Benga Chimp

Ota Benga on display at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

On March 20, 1916, a 32-year-old African man named Ota Benga shot himself in the heart while being held against his will in the United States. Benga’s short, sad life was shaped by colonial avarice justified by the quack science of eugenics. Through it all, he did what he could to keep his dignity intact despite being subjected to the most degrading treatment imaginable. His story, like far too many tragedies, begins in the Congo, then known as the Congo Free State.

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Executions, Informants, And Flamboyance: The American Mafia In The 1980s

The 1980s mafia operated in stark contrast to the values presented in The Godfather movies. Gone were the bonds of loyalty and the aversion to attention; instead, narcotics — and the money and glamour that came with it — ruled the day.

At the same time, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act gave law enforcement increased powers and resources to combat organized crime. This meant stiffer criminal penalties and more incentive for mafiosos to break omerta, the sacred mafia code of silence. Likewise, with the high stakes of drug trafficking and the rise of a glitzier generation of gangsters, betrayal and deadly internecine fighting became the norm.

The 1980s mafia was in many ways the last gasp of an antiquated criminal empire. Though there was plenty of money to be made, the mafia faced unprecedented pressures from both outside and within, signaling that its glory days were far behind it:

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John Gotti And Sammy The Bull

Nobody embodies the 1980s mafia quite like John Gotti, a member of the Gambino crime family. While his cohorts actively avoided attention, Gotti became known as "The Dapper Don" for his taste in expensive clothes and personality with the media.

Image Source: Five Families of New York City

John Gotti Jr Charles Carneglia Mafia

Walking alongside John Gotti's son (left) is Charles Carneglia. He became John Gotti's most trusted hit man after helping dissolve a neighbor of Gotti's in a vat of acid, allegedly putting the victim's finger into another mobster's soup.

Image Source: Daily Mail

Bergin Hunt And Fish Club

John Gotti and other members of the Gambino family, photographed by FBI surveillance outside of the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club in Ozone Park, Queens.

Image Source: Daily News

Paul Castellano

The one man that stood in Gotti's way was Paul Castellano, the head of the Gambino family. An old school don, he strictly forbade his family from selling narcotics.

Image Source: HISTORY

Paul Castellano Murder Scene

The release of government surveillance tapes in December 1985 revealed associates of Gotti discussing the drug trade, which Gotti determined would give Castellano enough motivation to murder him.

On the night of December 16, 1985, a hit team waited for Castellano and his bodyguard outside of Sparks Steak House in Midtown Manhattan.

Image Source: Mental Floss

Paul Castellano Body

With Gotti observing from across the street, the hitmen shot Castellano as he exited his car in front of the restaurant. Two weeks later, Gotti was made the new boss of the Gambino family.

Image Source: Pinterest

John Gotti

Gotti was brought to trial on three separate occasions in the late 1980s but was acquitted each time, thanks in part to intimidating both witnesses and jury members. This earned him the nickname of "The Teflon Don," because no charges seemed to stick against him.

Image Source: Daily Mail

John Gotti Corthouse 1992

Even in his final days before incarceration, Gotti was a celebrity. Here, supporters await Gotti as he comes out of a federal courthouse in Brooklyn.

Image Source: Daily Mail

Sammy The Bull

The ultimate undoing of John Gotti would come at the hands of Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano. After hearing surveillance tapes of John Gotti disparaging Gravano as well as pinning several murders on him, Gravano became a state witness against Gotti.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

John Gotti 1990

After evading prosecution for most of the 1980s, Gotti was found guilty in 1992 on racketeering and murder charges after Sammy Gravano testified against him.

Sentenced to life in prison, Gotti spent the remainder of his life in effective solitary confinement and died of cancer in June 2002.

Image Source: HISTORY

Carmine Galante Murder Scene

Those that didn't go to prison often ended up dead. After becoming head of the Bonanno family, Carmine Galante commanded the largest drug-trafficking operation among the Five Families.

However, his cornering of the narcotics market drew the ire of other New York crime families, resulting in his assassination at Joe and Mary's Italian-American Restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Image Source: Everything2Stroke

Nicholas Guido

With such frequent violence, bystanders also suffered the mafia's wrath. In a case of mistaken identity, Nicholas Guido (above) was killed on Christmas 1986 when he was confused for the would-be conspirator of a mafioso's murder.

Image Source: Daily News

Edward Garofalo

As violence escalated and more mafia members became informants, paranoia set in. In what is regarded as John Gotti's last hit, Edward Garofalo (above) was gunned down in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn because he was suspected of cooperating with government officials.

Image Source: Daily News

Ice Man

Of all the mafia's hit men, no one was as infamous as Richard Kuklinski. Nicknamed "The Iceman" because he froze victims to conceal their time of death, Kuklinski worked as a contract killer for the New York and New Jersey families in the 1970s and 1980s.

After being found guilty of two murders in March 1988, Kuklinski would later admit his involvement in over 200 for-hire killings.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Vincent Gigante

Known as the 'Oddfather' by the press, Vincent Gigante was the head of the Genovese family in the 1980s. Gigante had feigned insanity since the 1960s in an elaborate ruse to avoid government prosecution. His most public act of fakery involved wandering Greenwich Village in his bathrobe.

Image Source: HISTORY

Danny Greene

Mafia violence and activities weren't just confined to New York, however. In 1976, over 36 bombs went off in Cleveland, Ohio during an escalating war between Irish and Italian crime organizations.

In the above photo, the founder of the Celtic Club -- an Irish gang -- was assassinated using a car bomb after he left a dentist's appointment.

Image Source: Cleveland.com

Angelo Gentle Don

Other mafia strongholds in North America included Philadelphia and Chicago. In 1980, the head of the Philadelphia family, Angelo "The Gentle Don" Bruno (above), was murdered outside of his home in South Philadelphia.

Things did not end well for his conspirators, including consigliere Antonio Caponigro (aka Tony Bananas), who was soon murdered by the New York families for not seeking their permission for the assassination.

Image Source: Mental Floss

Family Of Angelo Bruno

The family Of Angelo Bruno, moments after his body was interred.

Image Source: Wikiwand

Philadelphia Mob

Members of the Philadelphia mob, photographed by FBI surveillance as they congregate outside of a social club.

Image Source: Wikiwand

Nicky Scarfo

Following the death of Angelo Bruno, Nicky Scarfo (center) became boss of the Philadelphia family in 1981. Known for his ruthless behavior, Scarfo also helped the families of New York dominate business in Atlantic City.

Image Source: Pinterest

Michael Matthews Atlantic City

Mafiosos weren't the only ones to get caught in federal investigations. Michael Matthews, the then Mayor of Atlantic City, was tried and convicted for working with the Philadelphia mob in extorting businesses and city officials.

Image Source: philly.com

Leland Beloff 1987

Philadelphia councilman Leland Beloff was also tried and found guilty in 1987 for working with the Philadelphia mob to extort bribes from developers.

Image Source: Courier-Post

1980s Mafia Harry Hunchback

Standing only 5'1" and weighing just 136 pounds, Harry "The Hunchback" Riccobene was nonetheless a respected elder of the mafia in Philadelphia. A mobster since the Prohibition era, Riccobene was finally brought to justice when he was convicted of a murder during the internal Philadelphia mafia conflict of the early 1980s.

Image Source: Courier-Post

Lucchese Racketeering Trial 1988

Not all prosecutions ended so well, however. In neighboring New Jersey, after an almost two-year long federal trial culminated in acquittals for 20 members of the New Jersey Lucchese family in 1988, defendants and attorneys celebrate the innocent verdict in a Newark bar.

Image Source: Los Angeles Times

1980s Mafia

Given broad powers under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the federal government started to infiltrate the ranks of the Mafia in the late 1970s. The most famous infiltration was by FBI agent Joseph Pistone (left), known as Donnie Brasco while operating undercover in the Bonanno crime family.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Donnie Brasco

As a direct result of Pistone's undercover work, there were over 200 indictments and 100 convictions of mafia members. The Bonnano associates who unwittingly accepted Pistone into the organization also suffered a heavy price: each were executed within a month of the revelation that Donnie Brasco was an FBI agent.

To this day, a $500,000 contract remains open from the mafia for the murder of Joseph Pistone.

Image Source: Neon Magazine

Rudy G

Leading the charge by law enforcement in New York was Rudolph Giuliani. Speaking as a United States Attorney in Manhattan in 1987, Giuliani described the efforts against organized crime to The New York Times:

"We keep making gains and they keep getting moved backward. If we take back the labor unions, the legitimate businesses, eventually they become just another street gang. Spiritually, psychologically, they've always been just a street gang."

Image Source: HISTORY

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Nathan Bett: Learning to Disappear

We live in a world of constant documentation: our meals, our travels, our friends — if you have as much a smartphone, all of that likely exists in some pictorial form. But just how do we document the relationship between the photographed, and those doing the photographing?

Nathan Bett answers that question in his 2015 series, “Learning to Disappear.” In it, Bett, a Brooklyn-based photographer and artist, makes subtle digital composites of the reactions he received while doing his street photography around NYC. Through this series he questions the relationship between the photographer and photographed, as well as street photography’s place in the art photography world.

Originally from Marquette, Michigan, he spent time after college doing commercial work for automakers in Detroit before moving to New York to get his MFA from Parsons School of Design. He received the National Photography Award from The Camera Club of New York in 2011.

We spoke with Bett on his formative years, as well as his philosophy on the ethics of street photography and the “stink eye” he often received while shooting “Learning to Disappear.”

Bett’s responses are excerpted from Scrapped Magazine’s upcoming issue. All photos below were taken in New York City.

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Learning to disappear

"I started off by just taking a lot of classes that I thought sounded interesting," Bett said. "I was in a black and white photography class and enjoyed it. My professor and I connected, and he seemed to think I was a good photographer.

It just kind of made sense to me to stick with it. It’s just something that I fell into. I don’t think I owned a camera until I was probably 21 years old, a Nikon FM 10 fully manual."

Bett Disappear

"Detroit actually used to be one of the biggest photo markets in the country. During the 1970s and 1980s, Detroit used more 8x10 film than anywhere else in the world. Because the auto industry is there, and the auto industry spends more money on advertising than all other American industries combined. I worked for a studio, pretty much the last of the big Detroit studios. Our biggest clients were Ford, Chrysler, General Motors, Harley Davidson."

Ltd Towers

"I was working in a million-dollar playground in Detroit. The studio had a couple of hundred thousand square feet of studio space and every piece of equipment. When I wasn’t working, I could come in and build a set and use their lights and $60,000 digital camera backs.

But when I got to [Parsons The New School For Design], I didn’t have that million-dollar playground anymore. So, I thought, what are the resources that I have at hand? I have the city of New York. I guess I’ll use that because that’s what I have. So, I had to adopt a new working strategy. I think, in the end, this propelled my work forward."

Nate Bett Mannequin

"[My work now] is less contrived. Now, even when I’m manipulating my images, I’m responding to the real world. Aesthetically, my work shares a lot with street photography, but it’s not traditional street photography. For example, when I first started making my composite images I had a different idea in mind, but then I started noticing all these people in my images giving me the stink eye.

At the time I was really timid about shooting people on the street even though that’s what I was interested in. So, on a whim, I cut all these people out and put them together in one image so that the viewer is surrounded by them. And it just hit me like, 'That’s what it feels like! This is the anxiety that I’m feeling. It feels like this!' I discovered something about the way that I felt that I didn’t understand until I had visualized it. That, to me, is what art making is about, self-discovery and emotional expression."

Coney Island

"And that’s why it’s hard for me to make that work today because I don’t give a shit anymore. I’ll walk right up to somebody on the street and stick my camera in their face. I don’t care if they give me a dirty look."

Nathan Bett Gate

"I don’t think I ever felt like I was doing something wrong. I had anxiety about it because people were openly hostile to me."

Chinatown

"In fact, if I don’t encounter a certain amount of [hostility], I feel I’m not trying hard enough. Pushing the boundary of acceptable social interaction, I guess. Getting the shot I want regardless of how the subject may feel about it. Capturing the world as I see it, sometimes at the expense of someone else’s comfort. It’s hard to articulate in words."

Ltd Many People

"Paul Graham expressed this in an essay called 'Unreasonable Apple.' His point was basically that the art establishment doesn’t know how to talk about street photography. It’s really easy to look at Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall or Thomas Demand, these people that we think of as artists using photography, and say, 'This is what the artist did: She put on a costume,' 'He recreated a moment,' or 'He built a model.'

It’s a lot harder for the art world to talk about [street photographers] like Stephen Shore or Gary Winogrand. Did they just stand on a corner and push a button? I mean, you and I know that that’s not true, but the art world at large doesn’t know how to talk about it. I think it’s a genuine form of art."

Puddle

"I want to get at what life is about. At least, as I see it. People treat that phrase 'the meaning of life' really strangely I think. I think they give it too much reverence. I find meaning in life every day.

What is a photograph of a woman standing in front of a hot dog cart and blocking her eyes from the blinding sunset? It doesn’t mean anything, exactly. It’s just a beautiful moment that is gone as soon as it happens. And that’s what life is. That’s all it is."

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What We Loved This Week, Feb. 21 – 27

Top picks from two of the world’s top photo contests, how kids in North Korea have fun, haunting abandoned locations near New York City, and some dumbfoundingly good photo mashups.

Astounding Photo Mashups That’ll Make You Look Twice — Or Thrice

Light Bulb Egg

Image Source: Bored Panda

The genius of Stephen McMennamy‘s photo manipulations surely lies in their simplicity. When McMennamy brings two photos together, it hardly even occurs to you that that’s what he’s done. It must be very difficult to make it look this easy. If you want to see excavator become an ice cream scooper, a toothbrush become a cupcake, or milk become rope — all positively seamlessly — visit Bored Panda.

Car Banana

Image Source: Bored Panda

Fries Cigarettes

Image Source: Bored Panda

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