naples through the eyes of a british photographer
Get to know Luigi, the Forcella Playboy, and more of the Italian city's vibrant characters.
Photography Sam Gregg
"I spent so much time abroad that I almost forgot what it means to be British," writes photographer Sam Gregg on his website. Born in London in 1990, Sam travels relentlessly around the world in search of his next subject. He has, for instance, visited Bangkok to photograph the notorious Klong Toey, and Phuket to capture the legendary Festival of the Nine Emperors.
More recently, Sam spent time in Naples photographing the city and its inhabitants. i-D Italy caught up with him to discuss the resulting project, See Naples and Die.
What made you choose Naples over any other Italian city?
I visited Naples a few years ago and absolutely fell in love with the city. I remember saying to myself "Before I die I have to live a year in Naples". At 26, I thought "It’s now or never" so I took the plunge. I quit my job in London, found a room in the centre of Naples and started teaching English. If I wanted to document the city, it was the only way I could survive. I’d teach in the mornings and the evenings, and in between I’d take photographs.
What are some of the characteristics that make Naples and its inhabitants different to other places and people?
The Neapolitans -- especially those in the central areas of Quartieri Spagnoli, Sanità and Forcella -- firmly believe that they are cut from a different cloth to the rest of the world. The way they talk, the way they dress, and indeed the very physical make-up of their being is different. They're incredibly passionate, colourful, flashy, frantic, welcoming, cunning, loud, proud, melodramatic and misunderstood. The list of adjectives you can use is infinite. Naples is the epitome of life itself.
As to why things are this way, I guess that’s down to history. Naples has been through so many different rulers over the past two millennia, and that's led to an amalgamation of traits and customs that are uniquely Neapolitan.
Your photographs are mostly portraits. How did you approach your subjects?
Most people were more than happy to have their photo taken. Neapolitans are theatrical by nature and take great pride in their unique sense of fashion -- they certainly aren’t camera-shy. As an Englishman, I also imagine I was a bit of a novelty for them. There weren’t many tourists in some of the areas I frequented, let alone one with a 120mm film camera strapped around his neck.
Why did you choose to name the project See Naples and Die?
It's a quote from Goethe's Italian Journey. Naples was once one of the richest cities in the world, so glamorous that for many there was absolutely no reason to leave. It's supposed to mean that having seen Naples one could die, since no other city could match its beauty. In a modern context the phrase is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the city's gang violence phenomenon.
How did you get into photography?
I worked in the film industry for several years but had a rather dull job, so photography was my way of compensating for this -- a creative outlet of sorts. My way of making up for sitting in front of a computer all day. Not to sound too pretentious but I felt a bit like Tantalus -- the guy who tried to steal ambrosia and nectar from the Greek gods. I was so close to creativity I could almost taste it, but I could never reach it. Photography was my way of taking control and satisfying those urges.
What do you hope people feel when seeing your Naples work?
I hope they find it a little different -- a change from bog-standard black-and-white photography on the Camorra. As an outsider, perhaps I’ve been able to capture tender every day aspects of Naples that locals have become desensitised to. My work is about finding beauty in the mundane, highlighting the extraordinary in the ordinary. My images aren’t driven by politics, they’re merely a documentation of the vibrant characters found in the city’s overlooked areas.
Is there a picture in the series to which you feel particularly attached?
Yes, the one of the man in the pinstriped suit. His name is Luigi, but everyone in the neighbourhood knows him as the Forcella Playboy.
Scroll down for more photos by Sam Gregg:
Photography Sam Gregg
This article originally appeared on i-D Italy.