A Mystery Hidden in a Family Photograph

This is my great-grandfather Donato Tarullo when he was 19 years old.

I knew virtually nothing about my family’s history before the turn of the 20th century, when they immigrated to the United States. Their time in America is well documented in census records, citizenship papers and family photographs. But their prior lives in Italy were nothing more to me than the names of towns and ancestors on a family tree.

I never thought much about where Donato grew up until last summer, when I was helping my mother clean out her basement.

Even though this photograph was taken in the mid-to-late 1960s, it still gave a tangible clue about where I’d come from.

For my day job, I work for The Times’ Visual Investigations unit — a team of digital sleuths. We scour the internet for photographic and video clues that help us tell complex stories.

For example, we analyzed countless videos, social media posts and other media to understand how the Jan. 6 Capitol riot unfolded and to help uncover Russian atrocities in Ukraine.

Now I wondered if I could use these same skills to find my great-grandfather’s house.

My first stop: Google … to see what I could find on Street View.

Finally I spotted a potential match.

Success! The next step was to compare architectural details.

They both have metal arches …

the size and placement of windows and doors match …

and so does the lettering on an adjacent wall.

But I noticed one difference — this plaque on the side of the building.

The inscription contained a familiar name: “Henri Cartier-Bresson” — a giant of 20th century photojournalism.

Tap to explore.

Tap to compare the details.

But what was his name doing in Scanno, affixed to the side of an old family home?

It turns out this tiny mountain village has long attracted travelers, writers and artists.

The theme was often the same: a quaint locale with ancient traditions frozen in time.

Henri Cartier-Bresson visited Scanno in the early 1950s, as part of a wave of journalists looking to document World War II’s effects on Europe’s impoverished regions.

His photographs captured the town as many before him had: charming and quiet, with solemn scenes of black-clad residents.

Among them, one in particular, caught my eye.

The metal arches above the stair seemed familiar

and I’d seen this church when I was looking around on Google Earth.

The doors and the lettering on the church were identical.

It was right across the street from my great-grandfather’s old house.

I couldn’t believe it. Henri Cartier-Bresson had taken that photograph from the very spot where Donato was born.

After more digging, I learned that my great-grandfather visited Scanno just a year before Cartier-Bresson first arrived there.

Donato and family on the stairs

He’d left Italy for the United States in 1906 at the age of 12, and eventually worked in food service.

Then in 1950, according to his daughter Jean, he won about $2,000 in the lottery and used the money to bring part of his family back to Scanno.

A family album chronicled that vacation.

Inspired by what I’d found so far, I kept digging.

I soon learned that more photographers visited my great-grandfather’s house, following in Cartier-Bresson’s footsteps.

The Italian artist Mario Giacomelli arrived several years later. He saw Scanno very differently — and criticized Cartier-Bresson for working as a “detached witness of a strange and foreign culture.”

Two other photographers — Gianni Berengo Gardin and Fernando Scianna — would take turns on the steps paying homage to him.

Fernando Scianna

Mario Giacomelli

Henri Cartier-Bresson

And it’s easy to see that the work still inspires pilgrimages to the steps.

A simple Instagram search shows how many people still follow Cartier-Bresson’s path to my great-grandfather’s front door.

Just as a few minutes on Google led me me there.

A vast majority of images on the internet are unremarkable, cheap to make and easy to access.

And while they may not have a serious artistic intent behind them, they can fulfill a different purpose.

I think back to Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of Scanno. He was famous for capturing the “decisive moment”: the split second when the elements of everyday life that churn before us unpredictably seem to arrange themselves into a perfect composition.

Fernando Scianna once said that all photographers should pray to the spirit of Cartier-Bresson to be able to make an image like the one he took on Donato’s steps.

No one is praying to mimic the photographs in my family photo album from Scanno. They were hastily composed, sometimes blurry and overtly sentimental — just like a lot of what we see on social media.

But those messy images show us the world as it is.

After all, it’s the imperfect images strewn across the internet that are the most useful in my line of work, where they can help visual investigators piece together evidence of a botched U.S. drone strike or the misuse of police force

… or just discover a tangible part of your family history.

The key, so often, is the clue hiding in plain sight.

I found one such clue when I was taking a second look at Donato’s house on Google Street View.

There, in the corner, I spotted something I hadn’t seen before: Cartier-Bresson’s photograph, leaning against a wall near the steps.

Thanks to a street vendor, the master’s work was there all along, blurry and pixelated, marking the spot that inspired countless others to follow him.

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