Ride Along With New York’s Bail Bondsmen and Bounty Hunters
Games of cat-and-mouse, played out in the shadows, photographed by Clara Vannucci
Italy doesn’t have a bail bond system. If a suspect is not remanded in custody he or she is released on good faith until their trial. For Clara Vannucci, an Italian photographer living in New York, therefore, the “BAIL BONDS” and “FIANZAS” neon signs in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn were an intriguing but confusing sight.
“I always wondered what they could be but I couldn’t find all the information I wanted,” says Vannucci whose photography has orbited around different aspects of criminal justice in both the United States and abroad.
In her young career, Vannucci has embedded with an Italian prison theater troupe, and she was the first photographer to go inside the special wing for battered women on Rikers Island Jail. Yet, Vannucci did not foresee that those glaring signs were prelude to another foray into the hidden corners of criminal and social control. Until she met Bobby Zouvelos.
They met in a TriBeCa bar. Vannucci was sipping cocktails with friends, when Zouvelos — a burly, wise-cracking Greek American — sided up and introduced himself. Bobby Zouvelos worked for his brother, George Zouvelos, a bail bondsman and bounty hunter based in Brooklyn.
“All my series are all connected. Sometimes accidentally. Every experience basically brought me to the next one,” says Vannucci.
“After few minutes,” Vannucci recalls from that night, “we both realized that we could do something together — I’m a photographer working in the Battered Women Section at Rikers Island, and he works with bondsman and bounty hunters.”
“Bobby told me everything I needed to know,” says Vannucci of that first chance meeting. She knew the world and the work of the bail system would be her next focus. That was December 2012.
Bail bondsman and bounty hunter George Zouvelos demystified the bail bond industry’s numbers, paperwork and the protocol. He welcomed Vannucci to follow his work and that of his employees.
Suddenly, the flashing neon BAIL signs made total sense. The series Bail Bond was born.
If Vannucci expected a slow introduction into George Zouvelos’ world of debts, stakeouts and manhunts she was to be disappointed. The very next night, Zouvelos calls to take Vannucci to some project housing in East New York to look for a defendant with a couple of bounty hunters.
An hour later, she and Zouvelos are meeting a bounty hunter in a parking lot under a bridge in Queens. He’s a huge man — bigger than Zouvelos who’s a hefty guy himself. On the drive out to Jamaica, Queens, the bounty hunter hands Vannucci a bulletproof jacket. She starts shaking.
“Those housing projects appear to me like scenes from some dark, futuristic drama. This is the grey part of New York City — real and present yet somehow ignored. As soon as we get into a building to look for a defendant I try to take pictures, but I find it really hard since is dark and I’m still shaking.”
That night, what Vannucci lacked in usable images she made up for with an understanding of the work ahead.
“I knew the photos would dramatic and important,” she says. ‘[But] I realized I need to go back many times. I wanted to go deeper, and to try to understand this world so far from mine.”
For over a year, the research was constant and the long nights of manhunts frequent. Vannucci put in the hours.
“We spent a lot of time in the truck on stake-outs, in front of a defendant’s or indemnitor’s house — studying the case, eating shitty food, listening to hip hop music and basically waiting for something to happen.”
Sometimes nothing happened but when the bounty hunters decided to get into the building Vannucci followed, propelled by adrenaline, she says.
“The corridors are long and usually empty. When we get into a defendant’s apartment the lights are off, there are just the bounty’s flash lights. You don’t have any clue about who could be behind the door. You get into people’s apartment at night when they are more vulnerable, scared. You never know what their reaction could be. Sometimes they cry because you want to find their son or brother or girlfriend, and sometimes they lie because they don’t want you to find them.”
Frequently, the scenes were chaotic and emotions, understandably, flailed. Having anyone, for any reason, invade your home in the middle of the night is beyond unpleasant. And Vannucci was the invader.
She found herself delaying her feelings of guilt until later when she returned home. They’d only get in the way of already bizarre circumstances.
“Taking pictures in these situations is really hard and to ask for releases for that is even harder.”
Being Italian helped. If her camera and diminutive frame didn’t distinguish her from the large men whom she followed through doors hanging off hinges, then her accent did. Quickly, fugitives or those associated with them understood her explanation of the project.
“They were really surprised when I told them that there is no bail in Italy,” she says.
The ride, and ride alongs, were rapid and ever-changing. Vannucci could never put her finger on it, quite, but she always trusted George Zouvelos completely. The respect he commanded transferred to Vannucci and she quickly became one of the group.
The bounty hunters and bondsmen were, at first, giddy at the coverage. The photographer running in their shadows confirmed the value and risk they attached to their work.
“People in the streets wondered what I was doing with those guys,” says Vannucci. “If i had the chance to explain it, I would.”
But as time passed, Vannucci felt the novelty wearing off. She thinks many got “bored” by her attentions but had to keep working in order to get the images she needed. At best, Vannucci was just another moving part in a workplace; at worst, a liability.
“I can understand. I was following them, at home and at work, every single step and in every moment,” says Vannucci. “I would try to be invisible but it was really important for me to get the best pictures.”
Putting a face to the people subject to the bail bond system outside of her reportage of manhunts was necessary. To provide a different side to the same story, Vannucci made close up portraits with a ring-flash of defendants in Zouvelos’ office.
Vannucci deliberately asked her subjects to keep glasses, hats, jewelry and accessories on for the shoot. Prisoners are stripped of these items prior to any booking photo.
“I didn’t want them to look like mugshots,” she says. “Since they’re out on bail, they are out of prison, they are just accused of something, but not yet convicted.”
In New York City, and America generally, one cannot talk about law enforcement without talking about race. The bounty hunters — mostly former bouncers or wrestlers — were of all races. The defendants on the other hand were disproportionately minorities.
“From what I’ve seen, it is definitely is a matter of race. Most of the defendants were Black or Latinos,” says Vannucci. “Just a few white people.”
By transporting the viewer to a lesser-seen and largely ignored part of our society, Bail Bond: Defendants, Bondsmen & Bounty Hunters does what great photography should — it illuminates.
Vannucci reveals the fraught interactions played out in our cities, under cover of night, in the name of justice. Bail Bond is an important contribution to the urgent conversations about race and policing in which the U.S. is currently absorbed.
There’s no other recent body of work like it and so it is understandably that it has been packaged for posterity, also, as a book. The midsize soft-cover teams with a dense, hectic layout of images. Vannucci riffs on the impressive and oppressive nature of the bail bond industry. Zouvelos provides the text and inside opinion.
Initially, Vannucci planned to self-publish a book, but mid-way through shooting Bail Bond she met Enrico Bossan, a creative director at Fabrica, which is the research centre on communication of the Benetton Group and home to COLORS Magazine. Bossan knew the project was strong and would make a great book, but journeys still lay ahead. He encouraged Vannucci to go back to New York, to keep shooting, and to later join him and his team in Italy as a Fabrica artist-in-residence.
The book Bail Bond: Defendants, Bondsmen & Bounty Hunters was released in 2014. It provided a closing chapter for the project and pushed Vannucci on to other subjects. The trials and tribulations of the subjects in Bail Bond are less resolved. The book packs a well-edited punch, but it was not easy to make. Still, she owed it to George, Warren and the others.
“I learnt that you need to finish something despite all the troubles you can meet,” says Vannucci. “I learnt you can tell a complex story through images.”
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