“And this is the writing that was inscribed: mina, mina, shekel, half-mina. This is the interpretation of the matter: mina, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; shekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; half-mina, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
- Daniel 5:25-28
In the Bible, King of Babylon Belshazzar organizes a great feast. During the celebrations, his drunken minions profane vessels taken from the temple of Jerusalem. Suddenly, a dismembered hand appears out of thin air and scribbles four words on the wall. Prophet Daniel is called by the king to translate. He foresees the immediate fall of the Babylon and the rules of Persians. That very night king Belshazzar is slain and Persian troops take over Babylon.
In the course of history, many expressions from the Bible have been incorporated into the literature and became part of everyday language. The idiom “writing on the wall” is often associated with the approaching misfortune, or even doom. It signifies a warning that often comes too late. It is a danger that was there for a long time and has been ignored.
I have decided to use the biblical story to illustrate this small and ever growing photographic project. For several reasons, in fact. In 2010 my sister and her fiance visited me on the island of Malta and like real culture-vultures we visited all the hot spots on the rock. I have moved to Malta from Poland in 2006 and have always been amazed with the rich cultural heritage of such a small island. It would have been a fantastic short holidays with the relatives, however everywhere we went, we have noticed Nazi emblems or swastikas either scribbled on the walls or carved into them. It saddened and embarrassed me in a way. Here I was trying to give the best impression of my second home, and some little and swallow coward was ruining the experience for my family.
Since that episode I decided to document the racist messages on the walls of Malta. I don’t look for them on purpose, but when I come across one, I will photograph it.
Don’t get me wrong. Such messages appear through out of Europe. It’s nothing shocking. What does seem absurd is the fact that Maltese should be heavily averse to fascism or Nazism in any form. During WWII, Valletta (Malta’s capital) was one of the most bombed sites. Malta’s closer neighbour – Italy was under fascist rule which posed a significant risk for the island (which was then part of Alliance alongside US and UK). It is really hard to understand how come the general public ignores the graffiti sometimes in really prominent places.
Perhaps this post will offer some sort of awareness for the authorities and local councils.
I don’t know why I sometimes do not edit my photos for weeks on end. Perhaps I am scared that my images are not good enough. Like every starting photographer there is a degree of shyness when it comes down to one’s work. You never know when you caught the moment and when you really blew it…
I hope that two months overdue is not that much…
I have promised to write more about the place I reside – Republic of Malta. One of world’s smallest states (316 km2 or 122 sq miles) divided between three islands and one of the most populated places on the globe (with 500 000 residents and 3 mln of tourists throughout the year, density reaches 1,306.8/km2 or 3,413.9/sq m – that’s more than Hong Kong or Gaza Strip).
Malta is maybe a small place but extremely colourful and occasionally loud. Nothing captures the spirit of the island like the week before Ash Wednesday – The Carnival.
Il-Karnival ta`Malta holds a special position among all festas and public holidays on the island. It is celebrated annually since 1535 (that’s two-hundred years longer than Rio!) and is regarded as a major tourist attraction. The daily celebrations take place in the capital – Valletta, the nightly celebrations move to Nadur in the island of Gozo. Each year sees a street parade, band marches and floats competition. It is also a fantastic opportunity for any photographer – hand made costumes of the revellers take months to prepare and the results are astonishing. Maltese are also protective of children, taking photos of youngsters is frowned upon; the Carnival is probably the only time when a photographer can snap away photos of anybody without being yelled at.
Through – out its history, the carnival was a source of entertainment and controversy. The Knights of Malta, who brought the tradition to the island, had to reprimand residents numerous times over costumes or lavish celebrations. In 1969 a ban was issued by Grand Master Giovanni Paolo Lascaris to keep women away from the Knights` celebrations. It also forbade masks – those who would resist faced penalty of being publicly whipped. Maltese public answered in a typical Mediterranean fashion – regular riots erupted, a Jesuit church was destroyed and Grand Master Lascaris had to evacuate himself from St James Cavalier building in Valletta.
This story constitutes my favourite anecdote – today St James Cavalier hosts art centre, cinema and a popular restaurant. This year, I have been photographing the Carnival all weekend (9-10 February 2013) and had my lunches at St James. I was wondering what Grand Master Lascaris would say. Let’s hope my choice of local ricotta pie would be approved…
Carnival can stir up controversy even in this day and age. In 2009 revellers were arrested in Nadur for dressing up as Jesus and nuns. One person was handed a month – long prison sentence, the rest were acquitted.
The weather this year was really harsh and windy. I dressed myself up like I was taking part in Trans-Siberian expedition and tried to keep myself warm and hydrated at all times. Yet still became violently sick in the end.
I don’t usually plan how I will execute a topic when I shoot. However this time around I wanted to copycat a great idea. Perhaps you are familiar with `Humans of New York` project (www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork) where one very clever photographer roams the streets of his home town and takes portraits of random strangers. I wanted to capture the essence of what Brandon Standon is doing with HONY but on a smaller scale, hence nineteen portraits in this blog entry. Think of it as one roll of film…
What I wanted to portray were not just stunning costumes or cute kids. I wanted to show the diversity of people you can meet on Maltese streets, all dressed up and celebrating in their own ways.
I hope you like it.
This is second post in the series that I call Derelict. Its purpose is to show vacant properties around Malta – in details and old fashioned monochrome photography.
In November 2012, I have been to Paola to fix my banking issues (photographer at the bank is a good theme for a blog entry!) and came upon a petrol station that has been closed for more than a decade now. The old filling pumps are still there, but the place is used as an impromptu car park nowadays.
I wasn’t able to gather many details about this place. Right in front of the old station, state prison – Corrodino – is located, and the whole scene looks surreal, like a ghost town in the Wild West.
I don’t want to write a lot this time, because I am hoping that the photos will speak for themselves. Well at least that is the goal of a photo blog.
Critique and comments are welcomed.
It’s a new year and new projects on the agenda. I have been working very hard on two sets in the past week. Both form a part of my new project called “Derelict” (Thank you Annika for a suitable name!)
Malta has 70 000 vacant properties (both un-habited houses and abandoned shops). There are many reasons for it: legal quarrels, families moving out of the area, tenants dying, and business going bankrupt. However Malta is very small (316 square km) and new building sites take away the very little open space that we are left with.
I wanted to portray some of the devastated, forgotten sites that now remind of a ghost town. They are beautiful yet haunting in the same time.
This is an old furniture shop in Birkirkara named Dreamland Bedding. I have no idea why they went bust but they seemed to be quite a large business between 1997 and 2001. Since 2002 the shop is in disrepair.
How can you go out of business with such a logo? Is it up for grabs?
Please let me know what you think.
Fire, camera and action!
It became obvious to me, that most of the posts on the blog so far, show me working in a rather slow way – observing, documenting those who seem to be out of public eye. I call those people “The Invisibles”. I want to bring their stories or their struggles to light. I hope I have been making progress on that front. But you know something; photographers also have a wild side! Today I’d like to tackle that aspect instead.
I have mentioned before that cameras took me to some interesting places. I may not be the most prolific shooter out there but I have been around the block and I’ve seen a thing or two. From being an impromptu wedding photographer to a lucky voyeur at concerts, from photographing a vigil to marching at night though a bad neighbourhood with a small compact Sony in hand and an “escort” of half a dozen neo-Nazis. I could go on for hours and some of the things I went through with my cameras can be classified as “unreasonable behaviour” as Don McCullin would put it.
Sometimes photography is not for the faint of heart. You have probably seen dedicated individuals who would lie on the ground or climb high to get their shot. Been there, done that and walked an extra mile. I had run towards situations that others run from, like miners demonstration where pieces of sidewalk were flying in the air. I have photographed a state funeral for 9 hours straight in the scorching sun and fainted of dehydration afterwards. I have been dragged around by six police officers and threatened with an arrest (for taking photos). Although I see myself as a balanced shooter, I will not shy from a potentially crazy situation if I believe I can get some powerful shots out of it. I’m not an adrenaline junkie, but there is something alluring in running alongside a street demonstration and being in action. That doesn’t mean I can’t wait to get a right shot. On one occasion I nearly came down with pneumonia, after spending two hours in a freezing rain, trying to take one particular shot of a fountain!
My Canon goes with me even into situations where I have to take an active part. Then I pull a double duty (that of an observer and participant) and the crazy-o-meter goes high. Add some unlikely accessories like work gloves or unfitting uniforms or crash helmets or smoke goggles and you will have the idea of my usual shooting spree. When I mean action, it is often stranger than fiction.
Let me tell you about a day when I underwent fire prevention training and came back with “reportage”. And yes, full protection gear was in place.
In October 2009, my company decided that volunteers were needed to be trained in fire protection since we were rapidly growing and our offices became bigger and bigger. One person wanted to go by herself, the rest was convinced to sign up after facing a threat of having their quarterly bonus confiscated. In the end five of us were transported to Marsa Industrial Estate just outside of a detention centre for irregular migrants. I won’t deny that it was additional incentive for me; I planned to see if I could sneak in and photograph. Once there, I quickly realized that there would be no time to sneak away. We were rushed into the building and given the worst set of clothes I have ever seen: something that looked like a cross over between acid house baggy pants (a la early East 17) and a horror Halloween costume. Crash helmet, smoke goggles, loose military boots and workman’s gloves completed the outfit. When we emerged from the toilet (our “dressing room”) we looked like Village People. Defiantly, I put a camera round my neck, if I had to be a clown for a day, at least I’d take photos.
My shoes were three sizes too big and the gloves were so thick that I could hardly operate anything, but our instructor hardly had mercy. We had been running around with horse pipes, spraying water on the fires and on each other, carrying heavy blankets to put out fire on mechanical appliances and using different sizes of fire extinguishers. When I say running, I don’t mean kidding around. After four hours of military drill, we were soaked in sweat, bruised in all possible places and our lungs were filled with smoke.
If my colleagues were just concentrating on the practice, I was circling around, to get a shot. I crawled when I had to, jumped on old barrels, and was coming so close that my eyes were watering, despite wearing goggles. When it was my turn to practice, I was going in with a camera dangling from my neck. The instructor joked I was training to become a photographer in a fire department.
At some point, it became very windy and it started to rain. We had to stop the training but I was on the roll, taking portraits of my colleagues. No rest for the wicked. When it was hailing, we went inside to have a short lecture, before finishing.
Back in the changing room I discovered that my feet were covered with blisters and were bleeding (due to the bad shoes). It was a discomfort to walk around for a week. Also, once safely at home, I have slept eleven hours straight.
Although I have painted rather a bleak picture of the training, it was a very safe environment. Our instructor knew what he was doing and would not push us to the extreme.
The photos were done with a Canon 450D and 18-35 mm lens, the camera was on sport mode with automatic AF mode. ISO was around 400, I believe at that time, with images taken at aperture between f3.5 -5.6. I won’t say what the shutter speed was at that moment, surely over 1/250. Photos were edited in Photoshop with the high pass/overlay of 40 stops.
This post is actually also a proof that sometimes it is good to look though your old photos and surely you will find something interesting. I am quite proud of this set, actually. I have some good shots here.
All in all it was a crazy day.
Deja – vu
In July, I have written about a man named Mirko. I have met him outside a shopping center, quote close to my office. He had lost an arm in a car crash and was asking passers -by for donations. We had spoken on several occasions, until he was arrested by police and possibly deported. Begging is illegal in Malta. Mirko was Romanian by citizenship but belonged to a minority known as Roma (also referred to as Gypsy), he travelled the Europe to support his family of five. You can see the post below:
I often thought what have happened to Mirko, if he was safe and reunited with his family. But to be very honest, I thought that his story was off my radar for ever.
I was wrong. Mirko`s story returned to me in a strange twist of deja-vu and now it is much, much different. You see, to put it bluntly, Mirko was lying.
Fast forward to November 30, 2012. Its been raining since morning, temperature is just above 10 degrees, cold wind makes you dream of a cup of hot chocolate and a warm blanket. Another lunch break, the same street corner, the same shopping complex. People rushed by doing late shopping. Nobody noticed a man sitting with his trousers rolled up and bare feet. Or rather what were once human feet. A paper cup was held tightly in his hand.
I rushed towards him, within minutes I was kneeling next to him trying to talk to him. He wasn’t Mirko, but there were so many similarities I could barely control myself. He spoke Romanian, very limited Italian and had no knowledge of English. He was also a Roma. He sat in the same place, silently showing his wounded body and asking for donations into a paper cup.
He was thin, hungry, shaking with cold, having just trousers and a shirt and a small polar jacket on. He had no shoes, ho socks; there were no crutches anywhere near him and judging from his condition, he could barely walk. He said his name was Vlad, other that that he only replied “Si” to my every question. When I asked him where he was staying he just uttered “casa”. The use of Italian words was again, similar to Mirko.
I have brought him food and tea and took a photo of him despite his weak protests. As you can see, it is slightly moved, because I have been shaking with rage. This is not uncommon in mainland Europe for organized groups to bring disabled people from one country to another and to force them to beg. Roma are known to be involved in such a scheme, from both ends: as the profit makers and as the victims. Seeing Vlad, I have understood why Mirko was really in Malta for. His whole story being just a cover up.
Vlad was scared, traumatized, constantly looking around himself as if he was looking for somebody. I would not take a photo of him in other circumstances, but considered it of importance. I wanted to document his plight, the situation he was in, his bare feet in the cold.
I left him to enjoy his hot drink and cam back 30 minutes later. A police car was there and Vlad was being packed into the car, arrested. He looked through the window and gave me a look of pure hatred. He thought I was the one who called the police. I went down on my hands and knees and begged police to give him protection and psychological help. I told them about Mirko, asked them to wait for those who put Vlad on the street to come. After all Vlad was just a pawn and those who profited from it all were somewhere in the area. They had done the same to Mirko back in July; they would surely do it in the future.
Police told me they knew about Mirko and just drove away. They however promised they would call Romanian consulate.
Every year thousands people share the fate of Vlad and Mirko.
The Trafficking Protocol defines human trafficking as:
“the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”
I do not like recent news at all. I am unsure if this is related but something tells me (call it a hunch) that we are here looking at the same story. We had again Romanian Roma appearing on the streets in the same area Gzira – Msida – Sliema – St Julians. But this time around people begging are not disabled. They are women. And small kids are involved.
Just in spite of two days:
On February 23, 2013 a woman was arrested in Gzira for defrauding several shops. She carried a small baby with her. A photo of her was circulated on Facebook in the last few days.
On February 22, 2013, two other Roma have been arraigned in court for begging outside of Mother Dei hospital. They had flyers with them in broken English stating they were collecting money for a sick child.
I am not police so I may be wrong. But I have been raised in a country that seen similiar tactics before. And the patterns as worrying – speaking as a risk analyst – every 2-3 months we have Romanian Roma appearing in the streets of the same area (Gzira-Msida-Sliema-St. Julians are in a straight line along a very busy seaside promenade frequented by tourists and locals alike), they also appear in places that are known to be full of people – Valletta in the morning or Mater Dei hospital. Thing is the people who come they are from outside, they speak a bit of Italian and have no command of English (at least Mirco and Vlad shared that trait). Judging from the articles the women from outside Mather Dei had no command of English either. If they are new to the island, how are they able to know the busiest spots? Where do they stay and why they always frequent the same areas? Why are they always the most vulnerable: disabled, women with small children? How are they managing to survive here if they don’t know the language and need help?
Who is taking care of them? Why are they always Romanian Roma and not Roma from other European countries?
Who, what, where, when, why and how?
I have seen the tactics before. Disabled people, the wrong change trick, collecting money for operation of a child – you can call them traditional ways to raise money. Methods tested over many countries, over many years. The issue here is – people at their weakest are used and trained to do it, they are transported to places that are not yet accustomed with these tactics.
As I said, I may be wrong and I will stand happily corrected. But I believe that somewhere out there, there is someone or a group of people who benefit from this procedure now for months (at least from July last year when Mirko first came). And they will not stop until apprehended.
[Note: Please excuse the poor photos in this entry. I have completely failed to capture what was happening, but its rather hard when you are dragged around by six police officers. I have tried my best to have ANY shot in these circumstances - Mal]
I don’t go looking for troubles. They usually find me. And they catch up with me in all sort of bizarre places, even if I go out of the office for an hour during my lunch break.
All I wanted was some peace and quiet (that’s our family credo because we never seem to get some!). It turned out to be chasing, running and risking arrest.
I should have known something was up when I left the office. I forgot the camera. It is very rarely that I go anywhere without it. It is a bad sign actually, I wanted to turn back but convinced myself that I was just leaving for a coffee and I would be back in no time. Plus what could go wrong on the Sliema strand full of coffee shops and lazy Italian tourists.
It was ten to 15:00 and we just paid our bill. Suddenly a man in a red shirt started fighting with a group of taxi drivers just meters away from our table. They tried to get hold of him but he was like a wild animal- twisting punching, kicking and biting. A group of six men could not hold him down. He broke out finally and raced down the street, shirtless. His red shirt was now a piece of cloth lying on the street. Another man came running – he was a security guard dressed in white. He started to speak with the drivers and then continued his pursue of the shirtless man.
I went over to taxi drivers to ask what happened. They were confused. Said a man came running and asked for a taxi. Once in the car, he changed his mind, got out and started to kick the car. The drivers went to prevent him doing any damage; this is when the brawl started. My friend in the meantime, acting like a professional journalist, went to interview the waitress. She was told the rest of the story. Apparently the man in red shirt stole some things from a Zara shop nearby. He ran away from a guard who spotted him. He tried to escape in a taxi but then changed his mind.
Police officer came and spoke to the taxi drivers. The red shirt and other items dropped by the escaped man hanged from iron construction next to the taxi drivers post. The drivers were agitated. I was pretty much upset that I didn’t have my Canon, but took mobile phone and snapped some photos. Then out of nowhere the security guard in white uniform came back shouting for the police officer that the escaped man was in underground parking just meters away. They both sprinted and I followed in seconds hoping that I would get a shot of the thief being arrested, since I completely missed to document the fight with the taxi drivers. I ran after the police and the security guard with my mobile phone ready into the garage to see how they both searched in vain for the man. He was nowhere to be found.
Another call came up that the shirtless man was seen up the street next to Tower Supermarket car-park. Just outside of my office. I turned around and ran again after the police officer and the guard.
When I arrived at the Tower Supermarket there was a huge crowd of passers -by and a few police cars. Six officers marched back and front talking to supermarket security. How quickly it escalated into a real size -chase. I snapped some more photos with my phone and went to the office (climbing three stories) to get my camera. I entered the office panting and running silently for the gear. My colleagues are now pretty comfortable with that. They have seen me doing that at least dozens of time. My manager didn’t even finch as well. Malicia was on the chase and it was pointless to stop her.
I came down and started to shot with my Canon. I kept my distance; I was about 30-40 meters away from the police blocking the car park entrance and on the side so I didn’t disturb anybody. I know where to stand and where to shot.
Yet it seemed that the thief ran out again and the officers were looking for somebody to get their anger out. And there was a girl 5`2 with a Canon camera. Just the right target. I managed to take maybe 15 frames in all when it started. One of the police officers was especially blunt telling me that if I didn’t stop taking photos, he would get me arrested. The usual set of excuses followed: you can’t take pictures of the police, you are not media, and you are not licensed journalist. We will take your memory card away. I tried to politely explain that I was in the open, public place that I was not disturbing and that I had right to shot as this was something that happened in front of me and I wanted to see this though.
It only escalated the matter and at some I was dragged away to get my ID card. I marched into the office and loudly informed my manager that I could be arrested for taking photos. I came down and they took my particulars, trying to intimidate me. They called a sergeant and asked if I had the right to be there taking photos. Finally I was told I was no menace to them, that I was in the right but should have shot in secret – so I don’t have troubles. I should also apply for a license to photograph police because I may take photos to embarrass them. And best of all mobile phones were allowed, Canon cameras not.
I tried to explain that my old Canon took worse photos than a smart phone and if I had one Id shot on digital zoom and it would be on YouTube in seconds. But police officer I spoke to had no idea about technical issues and tried to turn the whole case around that I was the trouble – maker and I was causing them issues. Yes standing on the side walk meters away from them. I was also asked “Why do you risk being arrested for a bunch of photos”. I replied that it was what photographers were doing. The police officer replied “She has balls” and let me go. Soon after that they just folded the whole thing and drove away.
My friend found me and told me that during the entire 30 minutes when they were trying to intimidate me, many cars went out unchecked form the car park. The person they wanted to catch was possibly in one of the cars, hidden. But they already had somebody to punch around.
After the police cars were gone, I realized that it was raining heavily, my clothes were soaked. I retreated to the office.
The thief remained at large. All was fine as long as a photographer got disturbed.
I know this happens to other photographers as well but it is unnerving.