Amazed by his film portraits shot in Naples, Italy, we wanted to find out more about British photographer Sam Gregg. In this interview we discover how he turns ordinary daily life scenes into extraordinary portraits.
Hi Sam, welcome to our Online Magazine! Could you introduce yourself for those who don't know you yet?
I’m a portrait and documentary photographer, born in London in 1990. I currently don’t have a base but I’ve been living on and off in Naples for the past nine years.
Tell us a bit about your photography background. What’s your story?
I started taking photos seriously around the age of 23. I dabbled in my teens but lost interest for a few years. I flunked university and spent a few years working in the film and TV industry but I soon became quite jaded and uninspired by it all. Picking up a camera was my means of taking control. I looked around and thought to myself, if you can do it then surely I can. At the time I was working on a TV production in Bangkok and I started photographing an area of the city called Klong Toey. Although the project, called Neon Dreams, isn’t currently on my site, it’s the first project that put me on the map and gave me the courage to seriously push forward with my work.
In an undeniably digital age, why do you choose to shoot film?
First and foremost the quality. The quality of a print made in the darkroom is utterly incomparable. Secondly, film forces me to work in a more controlled, concerned manner. I’m wary of the cost of each shot so I have to really think before I press the shutter. As predominantly a portrait photographer it slows the process down and enables me to capture more genuine, emotional moments with my subjects. With that being said I do shoot digital for some commercial jobs.
Your photography is mainly focused on marginalized communities. How did this journey start? And what is your aim in documenting those on the outskirts of society?
I’ve always felt like an outcast. I photograph marginalized communities and individuals because I see myself in them. I feel at ease on the fringes of society.
Have you ever encountered a moment where you decided to put down the camera and not take the photo of a specific scene or person? If so, can you tell us your experience and the reason for that?
Sure, I’ll often approach individuals with the intent to photograph them and midway through conversation decide against it. Perhaps they have a mental or physical impairment that I wasn’t aware of, perhaps they don’t look quite as characterful as I expected from a distance. I draw the line in several places. I only photograph individuals who take pride and confidence in their appearance. With that being said, photograph or no photograph, I always take something non-tangible from every encounter.
Most of these photos are shot in Naples. What brought you there and what is your relationship with this unique city?
I came there by chance in 2014 to visit a friend. I’d been warned away by people and had obviously listened to background noise by the media but upon arrival I discovered that Naples was far from the place I had believed it to be. I fell in love immediately and moved there the next year. I quit my job and started teaching English. I’d teach in the mornings and evenings and photograph the city in the day.
I think I was very fortunate in the sense that I arrived in Naples at just the right time. The city was beginning to shed its negative reputation and turn more towards tourism. I was there before the current Napoli mania so the city still felt incredibly authentic, and just at the right moment where previously dangerous parts of the city were starting to open up. I remember walking around areas like Sanità and Forcella and there were barely any tourists, nowadays whole tour groups weave through the streets. If I’d arrived 5-10 years earlier I would’ve encountered problems photographing these areas.
You mentioned that you are very fond of Lomography because it was the first company that helped you get into photography. Can you tell our readers why?
Lomography didn’t make the first analogue camera that I received but they made the first two cameras that I purchased. I credit both the Lomo LC-A and the Lomography Fisheye for sparking my curiosity in photography. They’re fun and affordable entry level cameras for young photographers.
Through your photographs, ordinary daily life scenes become extraordinary. What is the balance between your technical expertise, the equipment, your "eye", and the harmony you create with the subjects?
I’d say that I have a decent eye and an understanding of light but with that being said I’m not technical in the slightest, partly because I never studied photography, I just figured it out on my own. I’d say that the most useful tool in my arsenal is my ability to read peoples’ emotions. I guess you could call it emotional intelligence. But above all I have a strong work ethic. It’s quite simple really, the more you walk the more likely you are to come across special moments.
What makes you hit the shutter?
I’m obsessed with characters as they’re becoming a dying breed. The world and people are becoming more and more homogenous. I’m obsessed with people who aren’t afraid to stand out. That, along with emotional moments, is what makes me hit the shutter.
Where do you draw inspiration from and who are the artists that you follow?
My primary source of inspiration comes from observing the banalities of everyday life. In terms of photographers my biggest inspiration is Josef Koudelka.
Your subjects are often strangers met in the street for the first time. What is your secret to making people feel comfortable in front of the camera?
It’s less about making people comfortable and more about knowing when to press the trigger. Obviously I try my best to put people at ease, mostly with humour and a genuine curiosity, but with that being said, even the most tense individuals will let their guard down for a second. My advice is to just stare through the viewfinder and when their expression changes, press the shutter. It’s kind of like being a sniper.
What would you say to someone saying, "I'm too old to start a photography career”?
Google Letizia Battaglia, one of the greatest Italian photographers of all-time. She started taking photos when she was 36 with 3 children.
What are the challenges when shooting on film for fashion editorials or other commissioned project?
Personally there are no challenges as I’ve always shot analogue so it’s second nature, but I guess for clients there can sometimes be a bit of anxiety due to the fact that you can’t see and influence the results in real time.
Do you have any advice for those who would like to switch to analogue photography?
Personally I always advise that people start with analogue, as it teaches you to be more considerate with your image making. But if you want to do the reverse then go for it. Just warn your wallet as you’ll fall in love and struggle to return to digital.
What's coming up for you in the future? Any interesting projects or collaborations planned?
I have my first book release coming up about Mexico’s Santa Muerte.