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Davide Sorrenti Models Suck SeeKnowEvil
Photography Roxanne Lowit via @see_know_evil

Reframing the life and work of pioneering 90s photographer Davide Sorrenti

New documentary See Know Evil chronicles his short life, and proves there was much more to him than ‘heroin chic’

When you think of the name Sorrenti, it’s likely photographers Mario or Gray that spring to mind. One Sorrenti you might not be so familiar with, though, is Davide – something filmmaker Charles Curran is on a mission to rectify with See Know Evil. The feature-length documentary chronicles the charismatic photographer’s brief, eventful life, as told by his family, his closest friends, and his collaborators.

Born in Naples in 1976, Davide and his family – mother Francesca and brother Mario, both photographers, and sister Vanina, a stylist – moved to New York in the early 80s. By the time the 90s rolled around, the teenager had established himself as one of the most exciting photographers in the business, having spent his adolescence lensing the city’s vibrant youth and sneaking on to his family’s shoots to capture inventive, intimate portraits of some of the world’s most sought-after models.

Before long, he was booking his own jobs, with fashion houses enamoured by his raw, untouched images and his aversion to the glamour and perfection that permeated the industry at that time. In Davide’s photos, the likes of girlfriend Jaime King and Milla Jovovich are captured almost candidly, with their hair unkempt and their faces bare. Alongside brother Mario, who famously shot a series of (now iconic) stripped-back photos of then-girlfriend Kate Moss, Davide pioneered the gritty, so-called ‘heroin chic’ look of the era.

“I think of him as a really heroic figure, because he knew he was sick but he didn’t give up; he just thought ‘fuck it’ and decided to really go for it. He wasn’t afraid of anything” – Charles Curran

Sadly, the young photographer’s career was cut short in 1997, when he died aged just 21. Despite his groundbreaking work, his reputation was tarnished by salacious reports inaccurately claimed he had died of a heroin overdose. While he had become involved with the drug, in reality, his death was caused by Cooley’s Anemia: a rare blood disorder which saw him confined to a hospital bed on a regular basis throughout his tragically short life. The press chose largely to ignore this in favour of a more sensational headline. Instead, the label plastered all over his legacy – ‘heroin chic’ – overshadowed his story to the extent that his family refused to license his unpublished work in the years following his passing.

Now, over 20 years later, See Know Evil peels back the layers of inaccuracy and reframes his work through the lens of his lifelong illness, and the passion it sparked within him to maximise his time on earth. From his iconic ‘Models Suck’ tee to his haunting portraits of Jaime King, Davide’s life and work are pieced together to tell his story; the results are inspiring and occasionally hilarious, but ultimately heartbreaking.

Ahead of the film’s release, here we sit down with Curran to talk Davide’s youthful creativity, the beauty of his work, and the media’s willingness to demonise him without fully exploring his story.

What inspired you to make See Know Evil?

Charlie Curran: I started working on this when I was 20, which was the same age Davide was when he died. I stumbled on his work by chance when I saw a book – if I remember rightly it was Fashion, Desire, and Anxiety by Rebecca Arnold – open at a page on his work, so I dug into it; I was shocked that someone of my age could make images with that gravity, that kind of teenage angst. As I started looking into it, I realised the media had done him this huge disservice by stigmatising him because he was young, there were drugs involved, and it was fashion. He became the poster boy of ‘heroin chic’, so his family cut off all license to his unpublished work. I decided I was going to try and figure it all out.

Was it difficult getting access to everyone you interviewed, given the controversy?

Charlie Curran: I just emailed Mario telling him I had never made a documentary before, but that I wanted to make a student film about his brother. I was stubbornly persistent. Eventually Davide’s mother Francesca told me to come sit down with her, and I told her I thought it was a really important story for kids with a similar past to see. When she saw where I was coming from she made a list of like 25 names and said: ‘If you’re able to interview these people, you’ll have the real story.’ So, not knowing any better, I did it – I was using my uncle’s air miles, because he works for an airline, to try and knock out one interview at a time. Eventually I had all the names crossed off.

There’s an implication at the start of the film that the fashion industry is less willing to take a chance on young talent now. Do you think fashion’s relationship with youth has changed?

Charlie Curran: I don’t mean to be bleak (by insinuating fashion can’t recapture the 90s spirit), but I think the 90s were exceptional. A young photographer could hustle an interview with a creative director; they could bring their prints and get a commission, now everything is mediated through social media and these new ways of gatekeeping. I hope (the film) presents an opportunity for people to look back at the 90s and see that was a really positive aspect of the time. I hope the industry tries to emulate that or bring those ideas back into the fold.

“Davide followed the tradition of people like Bob Richardson, Richard Avedon, and Nan Goldin in the sense that people told me he considered himself a reportage photographer, not a fashion photographer. He was much more interested in that” – Charles Curran

There’s a clip of Anna Wintour calling heroin chic a ‘pathetic moment’ for fashion and another of someone saying it was about cutting through glamour. Do you think the aesthetic has been misunderstood?

Charlie Curran: I think there are positive and negative aspects – there are definitely shades of grey, so I try to present the different sides and let the audience draw their own conclusion.  Personally, I think it was about a rejection of the ostentatious, commercial 80s. In the 60s and 70s, there was real countercultural potential and revolutionary thoughts, but then the 80s came along with their hyper-commercialisation of most aspects of life. I think the 90s was a natural recalibration of that, and it’s been going back and forth ever since. I do think we’re coming back to that 90s mentality now.

There’s also a clip of Jaime explaining that the photo described as the ‘image of heroin chic’ was really just about exploring the idea of somebody dying before their time...

Charlie Curran: Definitely, and viewing that in the context of Davide’s history and his illness makes it all make perfect sense – you can see why he’d be interested in people that died before their time. The press was so eager to cherry-pick an image where they could paint this narrative, and then it spread to The New York Times. But (the controversy) also speaks to how powerful fashion and image-making are, especially when they’re combined. It’s almost like dynamite. It can be good or bad – but we only hear about the bad.

What do you think Davide’s influence on the fashion industry was?

Charlie Curran: Davide followed the tradition of people like Bob Richardson, Richard Avedon, and Nan Goldin in the sense that people told me he considered himself a reportage photographer, not a fashion photographer. He was much more interested in that.

At the same time though, he was born into this royal family of fashion, so I really hope we see the release of his work because his archive is huge! It captures this moment in time, and you can see so many forces in it that shaped that intersection of youth culture, nightlife, hip hop, and fashion. I think he was trying to document that last genuine youth movement in New York history before (former mayor) Giuliani sanitised it. New York is kind of an adult Disneyland today, so (Davide) was cognisant enough to recognise how special that moment was.

The ‘Models Suck’ tee was worn by the likes of Naomi Campbell and Milla Jovovich. Why do you think it became so iconic?

Charlie Curran: I think it’s to do with the era – it was kind of anti-commercial. In terms of image-making, there was a rejection of that intersection between fashion and commerce which is so amplified now, and models weren’t just models – they were personalities. I think that’s why a lot of them rocked that tee. It seemed self-aware and self-deprecating, but I don’t think it was saying ‘models suck, and you suck because you’re a model’; I think they wore it to say ‘we’re not just a name, or a board at a go-see. I’m not just a model’.

Despite the pretty heavy subject matter, the film feels celebratory. Was it a conscious decision to pull through that thread of positivity?

Charlie Curran: That’s what I see in his work. I think of him as a really heroic figure, because he knew he was sick but he didn’t give up; he just thought ‘fuck it’ and decided to really go for it. He really wasn’t afraid of anything. If you’re forced to face your mortality at such a young age then really what’s the worst that could happen? The way he oriented his life is positive and inspiring; I don’t know if I would have been so brave or bold as to live life the way I wanted to in his situation. That’s what I hope people see in this work – how he chose to use his short amount of time.

“I hope people find that ten seconds of courage they need to do something they’re unsure of by looking at how Davide chose to live life. I think that’s the most inspiring thing” – Charles Curran

How important was it to clear up the misinformation around Davide’s death with the film?

Charlie Curran: I think we always overestimate how media-literate the public is. If people don’t know him they just see that he’s young, he’s in fashion and he died of a heroin overdose, so they jump to conclusions really quickly. Most media outlets aren’t incentivised to research; they’re driven by selling papers, so the more scandalous they can make a story the better. All those forces created this narrative, but then the media is so quick to move on, so his family is left with that. They were going through this while they were trying to mourn, so they just didn’t want his work out there to be appropriated in the culture wars of the time. Now, I really hope we can represent his work in an alternative way, because (that lack of archive) is a real disservice.

What did you learn about Davide through making See Know Evil? What do you want audiences to take away from it?

Charlie Curran: I didn’t really have any perceptions going into the project, I was just really floored by his images and wanted to figure out how someone that was just 20 years old could make them. For me it was an adventure to piece his story together, so what I’ve learned I hope I’ve left in the film – I hope that inspiration I found in his work comes through.

As for the audience, I hope people find that ten seconds of courage they need to do something they’re unsure of by looking at how Davide chose to live life. I think that’s the most inspiring thing; here we are 21, 22 years later still talking about him, so I really hope people get that ten-second inspiration that Davide could really bring to people.

@see_know_evil

See Know Evil is currently on limited release around the world, with wider release soon to be announced. Watch the trailer below.