November 3, 2021
CITY DOUBLE LIFE
Photography by Martin Agius
Interview by Melanie Meggs
Martin Agius is a renowned photojournalist and street photographer with a remarkable career that has spanned decades. Born in Malta, Martin was exposed to the magic of photography at a young age. Starting his journey with the only medium available at the time – camera film – Martin soon found himself in the employ of the Armed Forces of Malta as their Official Photographer. After retiring from service, he made the transition to freelance photography and photojournalism for a leading newspaper.
For the past ten years, Martin has dedicated himself to the creative art of street photography. His vivid images capture the geometries of his surroundings, from architectural aesthetics to the warmth and beauty of light and dark shadows. He views his subjects as actors within the scene, ‘performing’ for him in captivating ways that draw in the viewer. Martin’s works are renowned for their evocative power, making them must-see pieces of art.
“I developed my way of street photography by using the geometries of the surroundings of the architecture with the harsh sunlight and beautiful dark shadows. Shooting very early in the morning or when the sun is going down, gives you long shadows and the nice golden light is magnificent.”
IN CONVERSATION WITH MARTIN AGIUS
THE PICTORIAL LIST: Martin please tell us about yourself.
MARTIN AGIUS: I was born in Malta in 1966 and lived all my life so far on this tiny island. When I was 18 years old I joined the Armed Forces of Malta until I retired at the age of 44 years old. While I was still in the Army I did my first photography course back in 2008 I decided to take my photography to another level by enrolling for courses organised by the local photographic societies. In July 2009, soon after passing an accredited course in photography, I was appointed the official photographer for the Armed Forces of Malta. On retiring from the Armed Forces of Malta in 2010, I then began my career as a freelance photographer and as a photojournalist for a leading newspaper. In the same year, I was also asked to be the official photographer for ‘Gladiators Fight Night’ (a sports activity with local and foreign participants), a role I still have today.
In 2012, I obtained an Associateship with the Malta Institute of the Professional Photography (MIPP) and subsequently abroad with the Societies’ Photographic Society in the United Kingdom (SWPP). The panel I presented for these qualifications where in the Fashion & Glamour genre. 2013 brought about a new experience for me when I was asked to judge a number of local and overseas competitions as well as qualification panels.
I have been organising street photography workshops since 2015 and also lecture locally on Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. I have also notched several Gold, Silver and Bronze awards in the Societies Monthly Competition (SWPP) and was also awarded the Societies prestigious UK Press & News Photographer of the Year. In November 2016, I organised my first solo exhibition called ‘Malta Street Life’ and also have had my works exhibited in Egypt, Greece, Italy, the United Kingdom, and in 2020, Japan. Some of the photos which are either published in local and overseas foreign media or in national and international competitions.
TPL: How much does street photography in particular play a role in your overall photography experience. What is it that you love about this genre? Where or how do you find inspiration?
MA: Street photography has become part of my life where I cannot live without it. I am fortunate that I am a photojournalist which helps in being very observant, act fast to shoot and also I get many street photography opportunities while on journalistic jobs.
I developed my way of street photography by using the geometries of the surroundings of the architecture with the harsh sunlight and beautiful dark shadows. Shooting very early in the morning or when the sun is going down, gives you long shadows and the nice golden light is magnificent. In my opinion, this golden light enriches my images, even though I convert my images into black and white. I also underexpose a bit so I have those shadows darker but still have detail in them.
I started the project 'City Life' over eight years ago when I decided that it was time to do something with my images. The name ‘City Life’ came to my mind for this project. Since I was shooting street photography this was what I was doing, documenting a city life. This is an ongoing project, which has evolved into my solo exhibitions, talks and even tutoring.
I go out and practice street photography very often, doing research and studying light in the streets. Going out shooting and returning with nothing good will still be a success as the shoot served as a training session for my mind and eyes. Failure was not actually going out to shoot.
While going around in the streets, I love listening to the sounds around me especially when it is very early in the morning and the place is starting to get up to the new day. Watching the people passing by, how the light falls on their faces. Who is in a hurry, because he is late or who is going slow because he is not hundred percent awake. Sometimes a sound gets your attention and you might get a photo opportunity.
TPL: Talk to us about your double exposure work. What was the idea behind the series. What is it that you want the viewer to take away from your work?
MA: I have started street photography by shooting everything that catches my eye, then I moved on to Fine Art street photography especially playing with harsh light and dark shadows. Living in Malta we get harsh light nearly all year round so this helps a lot and I wanted to make the most of it.
I am always thinking about how to improve and be creative. I always loved seeing other photographers double exposures (which were not street related) and I always said to myself I want to try these. Then one day the idea came to do double exposures with street photography images.
It was last year when the Covid-19 Pandemic hit the world that I decided to give it a try. I did my first double exposure with one image from Malta and one image from London. It is already hard enough to combine these kind of images and doing them with one image from Malta and one image from London is much harder but I wanted to continue with my ‘City Life – From Malta to London’ projects, talks, tutoring, workshops etc.
The first image was a real success which won me many awards, a lot of appreciations and it was also chosen as a front cover for a street photography magazine, which was a great honour.
TPL: What are some tips or advice you would give yourself if you started photography all over again?
MA: First and foremost is to invest in yourself first by doing courses and workshops. Learning by yourself is good but if you want to improve and advance in photography you need to learn from someone. Joining a photography club helps a lot as they can guide you better and also they offer talks, competitions, critique and courses and workshops. Don’t be shy to show your images and get constructive critique.
When you decide which genre you would like to practice then you can see what is the best equipment you can buy to help you more in that kind of genre. Equipment is not everything, it needs to be you and your eyes first.
A good note to beginners is, that having a passion is not enough to improve and succeed but you also need to be disciplined and commit yourself.
TPL: Do you have any favourite artists or photographers you would like to share with us?
MA: I have a lot of favourite photographers who inspire me and also give me motivation. From the past, I admire Fan Ho, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Steve McCurry, Don McCullin, Saul Leiter and many more. Nowadays, I follow Umberto Verdoliva, Sean Tucker, Ando Fuchs, Kai Ziehl, Joshua K. Jackson and many others.
TPL: When you are out shooting - how much of it is instinctual versus planned?
MA: When I am out I am always looking for a clean nice background with harsh light and dark shadows for my Fine Art images but I also go around to find a character for my double exposures. So one can say that I practise both.
I have learned to be the hunter and the fisherman while shooting street photography. Being a hunter was going around to find that candid shot or the right character passing by in the street. As a fisherman, it was finding a composition and background and wait for the right subject to pass. This requires a lot of patience, time and often the study of light and how it affects the areas I am shooting in. This included photographing scenes with harsh sunlight and deep shadows in a minimalistic way, using the drama of high contrast.
When I see the scene that I like, I will top and study it, if I am lucky and the light is right I will wait for the right subject to pass, if not, when I get back home I go on the 'Photo Ephemeris' and calculate when it is the right time to go and shoot in that location. In fact, one location where I wanted to shoot in Valletta, Malta, it was only possible with help of the 'Photo Ephemeris' as when researching I found out that the light I wanted to shoot in, only lasts for about ten minutes and you have to also be lucky that the right subject passes in that narrow of time.
While going around in the streets, I love listening to the sounds around me especially when it is very early in the morning and the place is starting to get up to the new day.
TPL: Where do you like to go to photograph?
MA: I visit London very often and I consider it my second home. I decided to do the project 'City Life' with a mixture of images taken in Malta (mainly in Valletta the Capital City) and London (being the Capital City of England). Malta is my home country and London, England my second home. Both places have an interesting mixture of old and new buildings and diverse cultures. Apart from street photography, I strive to document people and their way of life.
In Malta it is very easy for me to shoot in harsh sunlight since we have the sun nearly all year round. In London, this is a bit difficult since the sun is not so common especially when I am visiting just for a week. This does not make me give up and I always try to find new stuff to shoot, like museums and the underground. In fact, I have included these in my project as you can also get great images with the geometries and the indoor lighting or a light coming in from a window or door.
TPL: Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length? And, describe your editing process to us.
MA: Well, I always believed that equipment is not everything. I learned to work with what I have. Ok, some genres of photography require certain equipment but one has to be creative first as the equipment doesn’t do the job for you.
My all time favourite lens was always the Canon 24-15mm f/4 as it is an all-rounder lens, which I use in most of my work. Recently I bought the Canon R6 mirrorless camera with the 24-105mm f/4 lens and I love it. I also just bought the 35mm f/1.8 lens to have less weight to carry. I shoot from two paces away to very wide.
I always keep the editing part of the images very near to the journalistic rules which is the nature of my work. I only crop, level and straighten, adjust the white balance, dodge and burn. I edit in 16 Bit and save in 8 Bit. I convert the images into black and white as I want to give the viewers the feel of the past and present as well as reduce colour conflict.
TPL: What are some of your goals as an artist or photographer? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
MA: As always, I want to keep improving and be more creative. I am doing well in tutoring and talks locally and want to improve it as well. I am also looking for opportunities abroad for Talks, Workshops etc. I already did a few and also judged photography competitions in the United Kingdom but I would like to do more. I have recently started a Blog on my website and want to improve this. I also wrote some articles which were published in street photography magazines and also had some interviews like this one and podcasts. All in all, I am doing well and I want to keep improving this.