Sam Gregg (b.1990) is a self-taught photographer from London. His art shows a preference for the portrait and the documentary photo. Gregg is completely immersed in the stories he tells, a close-up observer standing just a little to the side. And this emerges through the realism of his work, as we can see in See Naples and Die. Not in the least simplistic and charged with emotion, this chapter of vibrant city life is a hymn to its genuine people and their values without turning a blind eye to its many weaknesses.
Hello Sam, tell us something about yourself. Where are you from? What did you study? How would you describe your current work?
I am from London. I studied languages at UCL and I would describe my work as character-driven social realism.
Looking through your projects I can see that your photography mostly concerns portraits and stories of everyday life. How did you discover your passion for the world of photography?
I started taking photographs about 6 years ago when I was 23. I worked in the film industry for a while and I was surrounded by very successful yet creatively very uninspiring people. I looked at them and thought ‘if you can do it so can I’. Picking up a camera was my way of taking control – a creative outlet to counteract the rather uncreative position that I held. In fact, a lot of my motivation comes from looking at uninspiring work. I would never allow myself to be so uncreative.
Your style is very personal and intense. Your shots immediately get our attention. The captivating quality of your subjects and the scenes you shoot are so realistic – you really catch the action– completely involving the viewer… What does photography mean to you? Do you have a specific message?
Thank you. That is something I try to capture in every portrait I make. It sounds clichéd but the eyes truly are the windows to the soul. Capturing another human being’s emotions in a portrait, especially fragility or melancholy, can be very powerful. The viewer can be transported into the subject’s mind-set, which can in turn provoke them to question their own humanity. It is a simple but effective method of transmitting and provoking emotions. In a world where people are not feeling enough, emotive portraiture can be a powerful, reconnective tool.
Last February I went to Naples for a couple of days and was overwhelmed and enchanted by the city thanks to the kindness of a friend of mine and her family. That is what drew me to See Naples and die. If I had to use just a few words I would describe Naples as strong, warm, surprising and extremely enchanting – a city of a thousand facettes. How do you perceive Naples?That is a good description. Multi-facetted is certainly very true. It is a city that no doubt has its issues, but overall it is a misunderstood city. It is far less dangerous than what is reported by the media. To be honest, there are not enough adjectives in the dictionary to describe Naples, but vibrant, colourful and passionate should suffice.
Your photos present Naples in its heart-breaking realism and beauty never failing to intrigue the viewer. They have the colour, the perfume and the sound of a very much alive place. How much time have you spent there?
I first visited Naples in 2014 but it was not until 2016 that I decided to move there. I went there with the intention of realising a project and I taught English to pay the bills. I spent over a year there before moving back to London. However, I go back there at least twice a year and continually add to the project.
You seem to have won the confidence of the local people. What is your experience in this regard? Did you take photographs in the tough parts of the city? You know, one of my most amusing anecdotes of Naples is situated in Sanità, where the local market never sleeps!
Sanità is without a doubt my favourite area. There is a unique energy to it. I keep things very simple when I shoot. I am polite, inquisitive and I try to joke around with people. I keep my instructions clear and understand the importance of timing and when to press the trigger. It also does help that I am English as people are naturally more curious about me. To be honest the Neapolitans make my job easy as they are very welcoming people who in general love being in front of the camera.
Would you define your art in terms of documenting, of denouncing difficulties and contradictions? Or rather as a way of telling things as they are, for better or worse?
I am interested in the beauty of difference, in people who are not afraid to stand out from the crowd. We are living in a society where everyone and everything is becoming homogenous. I am fascinated by the dying notion of the ‘character’. Of course my work has political undertones but I do not set out to create with those in mind. It is more about the spirit of resilience in marginalised communities and individuals.
In the project preview you speak of your intention to do an on-going investigation into Naples. Can you tell us about this?
I am always looking to go deeper. Naples has so many different layers and contradictions that it would take a lifetime to create a body of work that scratched just below the surface. This is what fascinates me about the city and I can honestly see myself shooting there till the day I die.
What about technicalities? What camera did you use for your work?
Most of it was shot on a Mamiya 7.
Could you recommend an artist, who has been a source of inspiration for you both in the world of photography and art in general?
Thank you very much Sam!
Interview by Costanza Francesconi
Images © Sam Gregg