Dissembling the fortified jewel

A photographer and poet have teamed up to present their own take on the city of Birgu – combining their respective disciplines in an exhibition which aims to show the more humane side of the fortified jewel

Scenes from Birgu • Photo by Jacob Sammut
Scenes from Birgu • Photo by Jacob Sammut

‘Birgu – Will you remember?’ will feature a selection of poetry by Miriam Calleja accompanied by a collection of photographs by Jacob Sammut, and will be on display at Auberge de France, Hilda Tabone Street, Birgu from July 20 to August 3.

Speaking to MaltaToday, Calleja said that the particular atmosphere of Birgu, coupled with an admitted predilection for people-watching, is what kept drawing her to the city as a subject.

“I’m especially taken by it when it involves those characters that have spent their lives in that particular city. They know it so well, and have watched the changes happening,” Calleja, who recently published her debut poetry collection Pomegranate Heart with Ede Books, said.

She added that while on the face of it, photography and poetry are different disciplines with different dynamics, what drew both Sammut and herself together on this project was a common desire to observe people during key, telling moments.

“We were both looking for something that is worth capturing in the streets of Birgu. Before and after looking at the photos, I spent some afternoons roaming around the city, having coffee and going for walks; I found some characters to write about. Then I juxtaposed these experiences onto Jacob’s sets of photographs, sometimes the poem came first, sometimes one or more photographs inspired the poem,” she said.

Speaking on the visual front, Sammut described how leaving a personal – and emotional – stamp on his take on Birgu was important, while adding that the city retains a unique flavour that is perhaps absent from other Maltese towns and villages.

“Birgu is, to me, one of the cities that maintains old traditions while allowing for change at the same time. So the contrast between the ancient and modern was interesting to me. I then set off to Birgu, and on different days I would notice that my approach to Birgu would change. I believe personal feelings have a lot to do with pictures and the way they are taken,” Sammut said.

Calleja in fact adds that in Birgu, “The air is thick with pride; it stands on its own, not resembling anywhere else. From a distance it looks like a stone ship, ready to set off”.

Poetry and photography would certainly have a way of re-adjusting our view of the familiar, and with this project, Calleja and Sammut certainly aim to show a side of Birgu that is leagues away from the polished tourist imagery that the city is all-too-often associated with.

“There is much more to Birgu than the tourist attractions,” Sammut comments. “The alleyways and side streets are so much more interesting, and it is there that one sees the real Birgu. I tried to wait for the right moment to capture the images. When an interesting human subject would appear, I would see how I could examine them, and if they were of interest, I would try use them as part of the composition with a pre-chosen backdrop.”

Sammut strongly believes that this impressionistic approach to photography is the way to go, and laments that it may be on the way out as technology takes over the process.

“In fact, most people I know who take pictures are spending much more time in front of a computer trying to edit their pictures into work of art, ignoring the actual possibility of taking a good picture at the moment of capturing. I personally believe that photographers should reduce their time in front of the computer time by 80% and spend more time actually taking pictures. That is what photography is really all about,” Sammut said.

The exhibition will not be the end of the road for Calleja and Sammut however, a the duo will be presenting another “installment” of it in Valletta during the next edition of Notte Bianca, and they will also be collaborating on a project for that other Valletta-wide festival, Science in the City.

The exhibition is organised in collaboration with the Birgu Local Council and Ede Books. For more information, contact: Jacob Sammut – ([email protected]), Miriam Calleja ([email protected]), or contact the local council on: 21662166/ 21807008/79662166