This interview is part of a series in which Olaf Willoughby talks with Leica Meet members about their photographic projects, their stories, goals and learnings along the way. This month’s interview tells the story of Paul Borg Olivier. From Mayor of Valletta to telling the story of his city, from a IIIc to an M9-P all in one year — it makes for fascinating reading.
Q: To start can you give me an overview of your project? What is its title and main theme?
A: I was born and bred in Valletta, Malta’s Capital, a world heritage site declared by UNESCO and the European Cultural Capital for 2018. I served the city as its Mayor for ten years, a time that engaged me into the plaited link between the city, its people and its port. I stepped back into a political sabbatical to capture the texture of the city through its social and political dynamics. This is what led me to the theme of my ongoing project, “My Valletta: A City, its People and its Port”.
Q: And how does that theme develop as a story throughout the project?
A: Like all cities, Valletta strives to strike a balance between the roots of its people, its history and tradition on one side and the seeding of new roots through development, progress and change. Valletta is a cult, not only of a city but also of a people, perhaps a PopCult.
Unlike most other cities that developed by time, Valletta came straight from a drawing board. Built by the Knights of the Order of St. John, it is the work of a combined effort, probably of the best minds and hands of the 16th Century. It was the New City — the Citta Nuova. Valletta was and remains a melting pot in the Mediterranean, a bridge between cultures at the southernmost boundaries of Europe.
It is the City of Caravaggio for his uniquely signed masterpiece, as much as it is the city of Renzo Piano designing a new gateway for the city to mark the 21st Century. Valletta strives to remain perpetually contemporaneous. Its port developed from a Port of War, serving as one of the strongest naval basis for the British Empire, to a Port of Peace sinking the cold war deep into its waters with the Bush-Gorbachev Summit in 1989. Valletta is living a New Renaissance.
I have always been led by the philosophy that my eyes are my camera and my camera is my memory. It is this philosophy and this story of my Valletta that inspired me to capture these dynamics.
Q: Is the project purely for yourself or do you have a commercial or cause related end in mind?
A: The project is purely mine. It is a sort of yoga to my eyes, inspired by the desire to revisit it — to relive it through my passion as a simple member of the community, and to engage deeper into its roots. There is no timeline, no limit, no commercial constraint tied to the project. It is fluid and open as much as I want it to be, developing also into different sub-themes.
Q: What photographic choices have you made; colour palette, composition, use of flash….etc?
A: I have been engaged with this project for less than a year. Black-and-white photography gives me a more emotional experience. This is purely subjective. There are many beautiful colour photos as well as black-and-white. I personally feel that when dealing with colour photography the eyes settle for the colours before they can settle for the subject and the story. Before you know it the photo has faded from our memory. Black-and-white photography leaves a more long lasting impression and gets you closer to the subject.
Emotion is captured and conveyed in people, composition and light. I love to challenge the sun and shoot against it, but the effect can be haunting. It gives a silver-lining to the subject, just like a passing cloud. I like situations of high contrast engaging more with the subject, be it in broad daylight or at night. I never used flash (and am still reluctant to mount it on my Leica) and limit myself to available light.
Q: What is your vision for the project and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?
A: I gauge success by the levels of satisfaction more than by anything else. If I feel I have captured the emotion that my eyes have seen and recorded it with my camera, then a feeling of personal success is immediate. I am happy with what I capture and happy to share the experience. A photo takes life when it is seen and liked by others. I get the feeling that often what I like is liked by others.
Q: Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?
A: The city and its people are my inspiration to this project. In general, I cannot say that any person or body of work influenced me. I am an amateur with a reborn passion. I cannot say that I never held a camera in my hand, but it was only in this last year that I really got hold of a camera and used it regularly. Before that I had no time for it.
I must admit that coming into the Leica Meet community on Facebook got me in touch with new friends enhancing the community into a real network of experiences. What is nice about a camera is that you need no license like driving a car, sailing a yacht or shooting a gun. You can try out, learn from mistakes, learn from others, increase your skills and improve on what you see.
Immediately the eyes start to see what we did not see before holding a camera in front of our eyes, and that is when our imagination is triggered and inspired to shoot.
Q: Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what were your learnings?
A: The city and its people are dynamic. It is the constant flow of a rushing stream. An annual event is never the same. The verve and the atmosphere can give the same fulfillment, yet the dynamics are different. A missed opportunity may be difficult to return to in the same way next time round. Valletta and its people are like a shooting star. You have to be prepared to capture the comet that may not return in years.
Q: Are there any technical or workflow challenges you’d like to mention?
A: I guess it is all about feel and being quite spontaneous.
Q: What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?
A: I love my Leica M9-P. Leica is as elegant and graceful as Audrey Hepburn, and as sharp and discreet as Sean Connery. There is no other camera that builds a relationship as strong between the eye and the subject. Leica challenges you to change your images. I use a 35 mm Summicron-M f/2 ASPH. and a 90 mm f/2.8 Tele-Elmarit lens from 1973. Nonetheless, Leica can take good thread mounts and will still perform very well, possibly enhancing its unique identity with them. I have experienced cinematic results with a Canon 50 mm f/1.4 from 1968 and have also developed a good relationship with this lens.
The M series is centered around the capabilities of the human being with respect to the laws of nature. It lets the user develop and work with his own tools. It strengthens your senses.
Thank you for your time, Paul!
-Leica Internet Team
See more of Paul’s work here.
Paul Borg Olivier is a lawyer by profession. He is an amateur photographer taking up the challenge of his passion for photography shortly after he withdrew from public life in June 2013. He got hold of a Leica IIIc in April 2013, a Leica D-Lux 6 in May and a Leica M9-P in July of the same year. Since then he has taken his philosophy to the streets of Valletta and into action: “My eyes are my Camera, my Camera is my Memory.” He joined the Leica Meet group on Facebook shorty after in October 2013 and was fascinated by the dynamics of the group and by the passion of its members. It has been an overwhelming experience and an endless, enjoyable journey since then.
Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to over 2,000 members. In June, Olaf will be co-teaching a creative photography workshop with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College in Rockport. If you have an intriguing project or body of work, completed or in progress, that we might feature contact Olaf at: firstname.lastname@example.org and www.olafwilloughby.com.