Matt Thompson | Pushing back against narcissistic norms

UK-born, Malta-based photographer Matt Thompson speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about his latest project, focusing on young Maltese women whom he’s identified as embracing an unconventional approach towards their self-image

Matt Thompson. Photo by Maria Galea
Matt Thompson. Photo by Maria Galea

First off, could you tell us a little bit about your creative trajectory as a photographer? How did you first get started, and what spurred you on to continue in a more sustained manner?

I was actually in the music and broadcast industries for the first half of my adult life. During that time I did my first backpacking and decided to buy an early point and shoot digital camera to chronicle the experience. Friends saw the images of my travels and commented that I seemed to have an eye, but I had no idea what I was doing (just enjoying capturing and composing instinctually) so I decided to go on evening courses to learn about the principles of photography and printing… just as a hobby at first.

In 2008 like many people I was left reeling from the financial crisis and so I decided to go and collect my senses in India. While I was there, I came to the realisation that I wanted to explore photography properly and so upon returning to the UK I enrolled at the London College of Communication (part of the University of the Arts) and studied photography in my mid 30s.

At my end of course exhibition at LCC, I got spotted by scouts from Ozwald Boateng – the fashion tailor. When meeting Ozwald I told him that if he was looking for a straight-up fashion photographer, I wasn’t his man, but if he wanted to tell a story, that was something I could do. He bought into the idea and I ended up shooting the story of the largest ever men’s show at London Fashion Week. I shot the models arriving, being made up, suited and booted, rehearsals, the show and then walking out into the streets of London and it was made into a book. That was my big break.

From there, I mainly focused on commercial work to pay the bills. I did a campaign for e.on, one of the big energy companies in the UK, shot for UNICEF and shot portraits of CEOs in the city. I enjoyed the work, but it wasn’t fulfilling me so I turned my hand to my first proper photography project which was a collaboration with my former girlfriend who suffered badly with epilepsy, a photo diary of living with the condition shot over one year. It got picked up by the Observer (The Guardian’s Sunday paper) and they ran it as a cover story. It’s the most rewarding work I’ve done, as it has affected the lives of the people who’ve had the condition, and those supporting them.

After that success, I knew I wanted to move more towards art and documentary photography and have been working away at that while the commercial work has sustained me. I’m starting to see the fruits of that labour as recently I was picked as one of the winners at Open Walls in Arles, a prestigious competition run by the British Journal of Photography. The winning image, ‘The Field’, is from a long term project I am shooting, exploring what it’s like to live with Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome otherwise known as M.E or CFS, an illness I was diagnosed with in 2017.

Anne by Matt Thompson
Anne by Matt Thompson

How was your connection with Malta first formed, and do you find the island inspiring for your work?

I first came to Gozo as a 15-year-old on holiday as my parents bought an apartment there, so I spent my teenage holidays there. It has always felt like a second home, so I continued to come back in my adult life when I wanted to chill out.

After 17 years in London and after my diagnosis I was ready for a change, and decided I wanted a change of lifestyle and also to find more space for my creativity. I instinctively thought of Gozo, but knew it would be too quiet for me, so decided to investigate what a life in Malta would be like. I took a trip to Valletta and instantly began to meet and connect with people and enjoyed the vibe, so I packed my bags and came!

My project on M.E is a mixture of portraits and finding meaning in my immediate environment to try to communicate how I feel. It’s been really interesting coming here and furthering the project. My nudes project ‘Passivation’ that I was due to exhibit until COVID-19 came along, is also partly a product of moving to Malta. The connection I made with the models and their willingness to explore with me and their curiosity to what their body can mean and communicate has elevated the project of nudes.

The landscape and the people have had a major impact on my work. The project I guess that has been influenced the most by moving to Malta is my Young Maltese Women project…

Erika by Matt Thompson
Erika by Matt Thompson

How did you first hit upon the idea forthe ‘Young Maltese Women’ project? What spurred you on to pursue it?

Upon arriving in Malta I photographed a young woman named Martina who I discovered on Instagram. I was impressed by her maturity and what she would later describe as her “comfort in my uncomfortableness.” As I dug deeper into the Instagram web, I was struck by how many of the young women on the island were choosing to present themselves. Unlike many, these young women hadn’t fallen into the Instagram trap of over sexualising themselves for validation through likes. They were presenting themselves in an interesting way rather than following the narcissistic norms.

I wanted to know where their strength and pride originated from, so I decided to meet with them to endeavour to discover why. I decided to photograph these young women without makeup (save some mascara), and to shoot the portraits as far away from the disposable, fake Instagram aesthetic as I could, all the while taking my inspiration from the old masters, an honest aesthetic I hoped would reflect something real. The reasons why they were choosing to present themselves in a different way were complex, but the theme that emerged through all their challenges was a strong self-respect.

Rachel by Matt Thompson
Rachel by Matt Thompson

What kind of reaction did the project elicit from the participants themselves? Did it give them a space to reflect on ‘Instagram and beauty on a small island’?

I think so. I have had a really positive response from the participants and I think they have found it rewarding to reflect on what self respect means to them and I would like to hope they enjoyed the process.

What do you make of the visual arts scene in Malta? What would you change about it?

There’s real talent on the island. However I don’t think the infrastructure and the appreciation of the arts is at the level to truly support and nurture it yet. More needs to happen in schools to turn kids onto the arts and an understanding will hopefully develop of the importance the arts can play within society. It’s all about education.

However the scene can still help itself, and I would love to see a gallery/gallery shop in Valletta that was well located to attract foreign visitors, so in the meantime Malta based artists had an outlet to sell their work and generate an income here in Malta. That would really help support the scene as there is no real collector base to speak of when it comes to contemporary art on the island as of yet.

One positive is that there is a real air of collaboration in the visual arts scene here, which stands it in good stead as people are going to have to work together to push things forwards in such a small environment.

Martina by Matt Thompson
Martina by Matt Thompson

What’s next for you?

I’ve been incredibly busy renovating a home here in Malta, so I am looking forward to getting back to my creativity. I hope I can exhibit the ‘Passivation’ project in the spring, COVID-permitting, and it would be fantastic to find some financial backing to exhibit the Young Maltese Women project. I’d love to see it in a prominent public space so it could reach as many people as possible and hopefully get people thinking. As for my next creative work… I am not yet sure, but I know whatever it is it will be about the human condition and the body.

For more information on the project, visit: http://www.mattthompson.co.uk/young-maltese-women

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