“See Naples and die,” Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe of Faust fame espoused in his book Italian Journey in 1786. Leaving behind his claustrophobic fame, his duties as Privy Councillor in the Duchy of Weimar and a long-term flirtation, Goethe, like many rich men of his day, travelled to Naples as part of a Grand Tour and found the city so beautiful, so opulent, that he knew that he would die without regret after visiting its shores. That and the fact that there was hella debauchery going on.
Today the phrase has become a tongue-in-cheek reference to the gang violence rife in the city. Naples, for instance, topped the European crime index ratings in 2017. But, argues photographer Sam Gregg, the media and TV shows like mob drama Gomorrah have contributed to an unflattering portrayal of a nuanced city, which often fails to see the humans behind the crime statistics. “I am far from discrediting this issue as it is a real and pressing matter, I am merely highlighting through my photography that the people affected are tangible human beings before they’re political units," explains Sam. “My photographs are a documentation of the spirit and vibrancy of the people who live in these areas, even in the face of abject adversity. They are fiercely proud of their heritage and emblematic of what it means to be a true Neapolitan. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and that’s what makes them so endearing.”
Focusing on two of the most visually striking yet volatile parts of the city – The Spanish Quarter and Rione Sanità, Sam’s series See Naples and Die aims to tell a more humanistic narrative of the city. “People are a product of their surroundings and the harsh living conditions have no doubt bred exceptional characters,” Sam tells It’s Nice That. “Through chatting with the locals I was able to better understand the socioeconomic issues of the city, and from then on the project started to take shape.”
From sun worshipers to nuns, children to weather-worn grandpas, Sam’s photographs show the whole spectrum of Neapolitan life. With a unique sense of style and a touch of the theatrical, most people were happy to have their portrait taken but knowing how to approach people was key, explains Sam: “Naples is known as a city of hustlers, therefore some of the things people do to survive are ‘under the table’, so to speak. Taking someone’s photo without his or her permission was greeted with understandable suspicion.”
Immersing himself in the city, Sam met many very different people, all coexisting in a small postcode. One of his most treasured encounters was with Mary, who he met in the Spanish quarter with her Ukranian boyfriend and an injured baby sparrow. “I soon found from talking to Mary that she refers to herself as a ‘femminiello’. Although on the surface appearing transgender, it is reductive to place femminielli in this category, as they do not claim a specific gender. The femminielli, instead, can be considered as a specific gender expression, despite widespread sexual binaries.” Sam discovered that the roots of this culture can be traced as far back as when the ancient Greeks founded Naples, with references to the god Hermaphroditus present in many of their rituals. Interestingly within a strict Catholic society, the Neapolitan attitude towards femminielli is overtly positive. Having spent a lot of time with the femminielli community, Sam would love to focus on them in his future work.
Keen not to romanticise the situation of his subjects, Sam wanted to capture both the strength and the fragility of the people he met, talking to people at length to help frame the nature of his portraits. “Of course I’ve been denied countless shots for privacy’s sake and I often felt uncomfortable in some of the ‘sketchier’ parts, but overall I find the biggest enemy is these types of situations is always oneself,” explains Sam. “If you can pluck up the courage and hurdle any fear you might have then more often than not you will get the desired shot. The one thing I’ve learnt from shooting across the world, from the Bangkok slums to the backstreets of Naples, is that most people are inherently decent. Treat them with respect and they will reciprocate.”