Back in 2015, two friends with a passion for photography and storytelling started an artistic project to capture the essence of what makes the Maltese islands so unique – its people. STEPHEN BUHAGIAR and RODERICK VELLA started The People of Malta. Their story comes full circle as one of the people they feature.
Scrolling through the photos of The People of Malta it is hard not to notice a familiar face or two.
With a camera in one hand and a trusted notebook and pen in the other, Stephen Buhagiar and Roderick Vella have photographed over 2,700 people, from the likes of students, full-time mothers, retired elderly people, skilled workers and personalities.
Alongside each portrait, the photographers post a quote or a short story told by the photographed people.
Influenced by the iconic photography project Humans of New York, the two friends – who are also colleagues teaching in the same school – began their project by walking around village squares trying to capture dying Maltese trades and crafts.
Today, they are more open to photographing anyone with an interesting story.
Through their lens, they have managed to capture not only the people they have interviewed but also the nation’s heart.
With over 86,000 likes and 89,000 followers, people wait eagerly to see what story the photographers will post next.
Stephen never expected their project to boom as it did and confesses he is always happily surprised when their posts receive overwhelming reactions from the public.
“In the beginning, we would just go to a random village and speak to the people there, but now there is a whole community behind The People of Malta,” he says.
“People reaching out to us with exclusive stories, stories which we break first and then news portals report about later on.”
I know this is true, having interviewed a widower and grandfather who was ordained a priest at the age of 78, earlier this summer just a few days after Roderick and Stephen featured him in The People of Malta.
It was also them who first reported that Valletta’s iconic household shop, N.Caruana & Sons’ was to close for good.
A couple of weeks ago they travelled to Gharb to capture the handful of Gozitans who still play the unique and traditional outdoor game, Brilli– which originated from the time of the Knights.
“We hope that in the future, people can look back at these pictures and see how the Maltese used to live, to understand what we were like and our traditions,” Stephen says.
While their inboxes are full of requests and suggestions, they still enjoy walking through the narrow village streets and starting conversations with random strangers.
“That is where we find very beautiful stories, and it makes us happy that we are giving their story importance,” Roderick adds.
The fear of social media
Yet, despite their success, they still come across certain challenges.
“Sometimes we meet people and we speak to them for a good half an hour, but then they tell us we cannot publish their story, worried that people will judge them,” Roderick recalls.
They noticed how older people raise their concerns about sharing their pictures on social media.
“They tell us they do not even allow their own children to share pictures of them on Facebook,” Roderick says.
“There is still a stigma that social media is damaging, and sometimes people would tell us their story but then ask if we can share it without their picture,” he adds.
“Or ask if we can blur them or take a picture of them from behind! It just wouldn’t work,” he says with a smile.
Inspiration driven by everyday stories
A moment of silence follows after I ask what must be the question they dread the most.
“So, which is your favourite photograph?” I ask, also with a pen and notebook ready to jot down points.
“There are so many, and also many stories that surprised us too,” Roderick says.
After scrolling through the photographs, he brings one up and tells me about their recent interview with a man called Fredu.
“He was born with a defect in his leg and recently was diagnosed with cancer. He was married but his wife died, and now at the age of 80, he met someone in the Mosta square and they have been seeing each other for over a year,” Roderick recalls excitingly.
“I just remember coming out of the interviewing thinking, wow this guy never gave up.”
Stephen adds that people who face their challenges head-on are stories that are prominent for both of them.
He recalls how they interviewed a baker, who lost his wife at an early age and also underwent surgery for a prosthetic leg – yet continued to go every day to the bakery to support his children.
“They are struggling but are an inspiration to others to keep pushing on, and never giving up. We have changed since we started this project, we value the importance of community much more, and look more on the positive side of life.”
Run out of people to interview?
Asking what the future holds for them, I wonder if they are concerned they would run out of people to interview.
They both laugh and say they discussed that idea before, but are not worried.
“There will always be stories out there,” Roderick says.
“Our island has changed so much in the past seven years and continues to change. In the beginning, we used to interview just Maltese people, but now why shouldn’t we speak to foreigners who have lived here and feel just as Maltese as you and I?”
So long as they are motivated to go out there and listen to people’s stories, People of Malta will continue to grow.
“The motivation comes from the people we meet, people inspiring us with their stories,” Stephen adds.
Roderick and Stephen have captured the soul of the Maltese, delving into stories of love, troubles, achievements, losses, and the everyday emotions we all face.
And, I know through first-hand experience, that their project has also left an impact on those they captured in the past. Just as they can recall countless memories of the people they met, it is hard to forget the moment when Stephen and Roderick first approach you.
They introduced themselves and asked me what I do.
Despite only having a couple of months of experience as a journalist, I told them that the one thing I loved about the job is meeting new people.
Looking back, it would have been difficult to imagine that four years later, not only would People of Malta’s popularity grow, but my career also, and that I would have the pleasure of meeting them both once again – this time to hear their story.
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