‘It’s humans who make history, everything else is a backdrop’

Celebrating humans and street life, photographer Jacob Sammut’s exhibition is now open in Sliema.

How do you believe your choice of focusing on the human element in the streets contributes to telling the story of life in the present day?

It is a strong belief of mine and others that humans make history. Therefore, all our stories are our own, and our surroundings are a backdrop for our conveniences.

Now, put someone in a modern jogging suit, short dress, and high heels, and we have given it an age. We have given it time and created a moment. Unique to that particular moment. Give it 10 years and the styles change, maybe even certain parts of the backgrounds change.

But the most significant difference will always be us, who are subject to multiple equations in life. Be it economy, weather, fashion, struggle, music trends, faith, technology, etc. Every tiny bit of this captured in an image tells a story of our times.

What role does photography play in preserving our cultural and social history, and how do you think your exhibition contributes to that goal?

Photography is one of the closest things to reality regarding a tangible visual document we can experience. Subjective, it may be, but certain things are clearly what they are, and nothing can ever replace that. It is a photograph we have on our documents, not a painting. The best writers can describe a scene. The most fluid painter can make a flawless canvas, but none shows reality the same way a photograph can. For that same reason, the work being done in our times, not just by me but by other documentary photographers, will have a place in the days to come for future generations to look back at what their ancestors looked like.

Can you discuss the process of selecting the images for this first edition of Via from your extensive archive that dates back to 2014? What criteria did you use to choose the photographs for this exhibition?

This was by far the most challenging part of the entire process. You first have the hundreds of negatives (and hundreds is putting it lightly ) shot within nine years, not to mention the skills learned and fine-tuned during this period. Second, I could see my skills evolve in the streets and even in the darkroom and my prints. Some of my original favourites in time became less precious to me, while others kept their status.

Most of the time, I would print contact sheets, as well as maquettes. Tiny prints of the smaller selection now spread over the floor or large table, sometimes even in cafes if alone or with friends who would join in on the never-ending silence, stare at the images, and shift them around. I would see which image would call out to me more than once, and through this process, I would start filtering my selections. But in the meantime, I was shooting more, which led to new images. It is a never-ending, vicious cycle, but it’s part of what attracts me to the process. I’m glad. I managed to reach a selection, with many printed images still in storage and negatives still unseen. I have enough material for the second and third editions, but those can wait for now. I do have other exhibitions planned to kick off after Via.

How does your choice of using 35mm or 120 medium-format black and white film and hand-printing on fibre-based paper affect the aesthetic and overall impact of your photographs?

We live in an age in which photography is accessible to everyone, but it is all data. Nothing more. People no longer print their photos or make albums. It is all up on social media, to be seen once and then forgotten or lost in the ever-growing cycle, of the internet. How many photos have been taken and lost once a mobile phone dies? How many hard disks have been lost with memories of families and loved ones? Thousands of images are taken daily, and within a short time, things are lost. That is the reason I took the plunge and moved towards analogue.

The film also gives me something real. You can’t be a lazy photographer because if a shot is terrible, it just is, and you move on to the next one. People tend to spend three days just editing a single image. I’m a photographer. I want to use my time taking photos, not sitting over a computer editing something, which may lead to a missed opportunity for the sake of social media. So the look and process starts with the choice of film you want to use, how you want to develop and shoot it and finally, how you want to print the image through that negative.

All these steps lead to the final print that you want. It’s an entire thought process which keeps you constantly in touch with the work. And finally, as they are made individually, every single print will have slight differences, making every single image in a series unique. One does not just press print and have 50 identical photos. This means every art collector has a one-off piece made by hand.

These is also the quality of the print itself, and as I mainly shoot in black and white, I just tend to see that digital doesn’t give me the same depth in shades as the silver-gelatin process gives me.

Why do you believe it is important for your photographs to be treated as documents to be preserved and archived for future generations?

The idea has been in my mind since I was a teenager. To know where you are, you need to know where you have come from. We are making history. Every day something occurs; people do something, wear something, or say something that future generations may never consider doing or even know about. It was as simple as having my niece watch me load film in a camera and being shocked at what I was doing because all she knows is digital. Same as rotary dial telephones. I remember them; most readers remember them, and others will probably look them up on the internet after reading this.

What message or emotions do you hope viewers take away from experiencing your exhibition, and how do you think it may influence their perspective on the world around them?

More than anything, I hope that some of the images may trigger something personal to them. Something they understand or may have experienced in one way or another. How may it influence them? It may make them look around more and realise that everything they do matters. No action is meaningless, nor is their part in life.

VIA: Way of the Streets runs until May 29 at ChristineX Curated Gallery, Sliema.

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