ARTZ ID speaks with photographer Joseph Smith about how his documentary approach to photography and his involvement in photographing music events inspired a new project during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.
You have been photographically documenting artists and musicians during the pandemic. Why did you feel it was important to undertake this project?
It started quite by coincidence. Our son who is studying jazz drums in the Netherlands had to return home as the conservatory closed down because of the pandemic. All local gigs and concerts were also cancelled. Although he practiced in his room at home I could see the frustration and ennui all over his face. I recently started shooting some film again and asked him if he would sit for a portrait for me. The aim was to capture his feelings at this particular time. I loved the result and had this idea of developing it into a project. Since I have been photographing the Malta Jazz Festival from day one, and because I have also designed CD sleeves for various performers, I have a good number of musician friends. I contacted a few and also put up a Facebook post.
The response so far has been great and I have a few lined up for the shoot. I had to shoot some images digitally because the film I was using ran out of stock. I ordered some from abroad a month ago but, as we speak, they are still caught in customs. Having a penchant for environmental portraiture, I am finding this project therapeutic for myself and, more importantly for the musicians. It is a very difficult time for them and I’d like to think that their involvement in this project can serve as a stimulus to keep them in high spirits. I decided to go for a square format to heighten the mood of intimate space and helplessness. The musicians are being photographed in their homes or practice spaces.
How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect your way of looking at and photographing things?
Incidentally the start of the pandemic coincided with the start of my second year of retirement from my previous office job and I was now looking forward to dedicating my time to doing what I really love. We also had to spend the first 15 days of the pandemic in quarantine due to the return of our son from the Netherlands. During these two weeks I challenged myself to photograph stuff around the house using only my mobile phone. This helped me deal with the situation whilst further sharpening my photographic vision. In the process I was discovering the aesthetics of mundane and ordinary objects. I have also been going on walks along Dingli Cliffs and photographing ordinary things I come across and that stimulate me visually. A sort of “Walking as Art Practice”. Again, using my mobile phone. The pandemic, in a way, was also useful in that I made good use of the time by finalising the text, proof-reading and design of my upcoming second publication “Survivors 2 – The Ageing Population of Birgu”. Concurrently, I also started work on a collaboration with my good friend and photographer Therese Debono. More details on this later on this year.
Several of your projects, such as ‘Epitaph and the ’Survivors’ series, document people, places and objects that are on the verge of disappearing. Can you tell us more about this?
The Epitaph series was shot entirely at the now defunct Marsa Powerstation. As the workers downed their tools for the last time and the ageing Marsa power station was switched off forever, I thought I should document the remnants, human or otherwise, before the complete demolition or conversion of the space, and before newer technology takes over. I have always had this fascination with urban decay. States of abandonment and disrepair appeal to my emotions. I am drawn in by the obsolete dereliction. The rusty and decaying artefacts and the fading evidence of human presence take me back to the past. In this case it was a very recent past. Such spaces can speak to us and send messages of loss, decadence, failure, change and yes, beauty. The Survivors project is a documentary and ethnographic project which documents ageing citizens of the walled medieval town of Birgu. The second volume, apart from documenting the protagonists, is also an anthropological study of their surroundings and belongings. The second publication will also include a USB with snippets from the video footage of the interviews.
Are you currently working on or thinking about future projects that you can share with us?
The Survivors book launch and exhibition is next in line. This will be followed by the exhibition at SK of the collaboration with Therese Debono. Of course I will also be continuing with the Musicians-Pandemic undertaking.