The Case for a Center for Photography
I would like to make a passionate appeal to the authorities on a particular subject which myself, together with other like minded citizens, have been for a long time trying to lobby on. The issue is all about ‘the powers that be’ to finally realize the potential, the work, the professionalism, as well as the plight of local photographers and NGO photography organizations. Photographers, both professional, artists and hobbyists have till now more or less been ignored when it comes to concrete help. Since 1996 – yes, during the Sant government – I have been doing infinite rounds of cultural ministries, parliamentary secretaries, government funded entities and so on with the aim of trying to get help to set up a place where local photographers can finally have a premises where to meet, where to exhibit, where to set up courses, studios and darkrooms for their members, where to set up a photography museum, where to hold international conventions and workshops.
I have heard all the excuses, such as that the Lands department does not even have a list of governmental properties in its possession (!!!) or that it is not feasible that every association can have its own premises. The latter argument does perhaps carry some weight, but what about all the buildings going to ruin? What about empty factories? Due to the former argument, I have also countless times pointed out some locations which could prove ideal for a National Center of photography, but for one reason or another, nothing ever materialized. I am always told that the idea is good, that photographers have been neglected, that it can be done but, over all these years, nothing concrete has ever happened.
To set the record straight, I have not been asking for a ‘state of the art’ premises or anything grand, but a place which, with effort and reasonable funds, could become the reference point for all photographers on our island. Location is also not that important as Malta is reachable and any locality could be considered, as long as there are some parking facilities. Good marketing is what makes a place successful.
During my Presidency with both the Malta Photographic Society and the Malta Institute of Professional Photography, I have always had this issue in mind and for that reason I have painstakingly tried to collect funds from various activities so that should we ever get this place, we would have some money to embellish it. We are sure that if the photographic community was given a base we would be able to run it in a professional and feasible manner.
If one studies what other countries are doing, the current government could look into a recent heritage law and scheme successfully launched in the United Kingdom.
Like us, the UK government has a number of properties which are of historical value and going, unfortunately, to ruin. Naturally, it is impossible to find the enormous amount of funds needed to restructure, restore and maintain such buildings. So the idea is not for the government to do this but for encouraging and involving the private sector, particularly serious NGO’s and entities. If a list of properties could be finally drawn up by the Lands department, legislation could be passed offering appropriate buildings to private entities, NGO’s, organizations etc; who would have the passion and the energy to restore and maintain them. The smaller the properties are, the better, as the NGO’s would be more capable of handling such properties. The properties could be given out on renewable contracts, (say for five years), and strictly monitored by governmental authorities (MEPA and Heritage Malta could do this job) as to their proper upkeep and maintenance. Every five years, if the ‘tenant’ keeps to the terms of the contract, the contract would be renewed for another suitable period and so on. If, on the other hand, the tenant defaults, then the property would pass back to the government.
I think this is a win-win situation for everyone as it will:
1. Generate some more work in the service, maintenance and building industry.
2. Give a base and working space to various entities that in their own way will generate jobs whilst running these properties.
3. The properties essentially remain with the government, so they are not being given outright.
4. Arrest deterioration of historical buildings and bring them to their former glory.
5. Enable NGO’s to apply and corner funds for these projects from EU sources.
The ever growing legion of citizens involved and interested in photography keeps increasing all over the world and Malta is no exception. Why have other entities and associations been given premises by devolution whilst the local photographic community has not? It is undeniable that photography is one of the main contemporary art mediums practiced and utilized globally. I know that Malta cannot compare to other bigger countries, but even in smaller countries, entities have been successful in obtaining adequate help and recognition from their governments. When one adds to this the fact that the island’s photographers keep regularly winning international awards and accolades, the issue becomes more intriguing.
Coming to the Museum part, a photographic Museum should have been long established due to the importance that the evolution of early photography had in Malta. Photography came into the island as early as 1840 so a documentation of Maltese photography will not only depict the various stages of evolution in the history of photography but nearly two centuries of life in Malta. This museum would naturally be another tourist attraction to the island, especially to British, French and European students of the subject. It is a documented fact that whilst Henry Fox Talbot (acknowledged as one of the pioneers of photography) was perfecting his invention, he was constantly in touch with photographers in Malta who were actually using and testing his material!
It is also the appropriate time to establish a museum as with the advent of digital photography, most of the old conventional items are either being disposed of or even thrown away. So an effort must be immediately done to preserve these items for the future. It is a sad state of affairs when such treasures, like the Richard Ellis photographic collection, cannot be made available to the public because it is not housed in appropriate premises. Thank God that people like Ian Ellis, who has nurtured and safeguarded the archive with whatever limited means he has at his disposal has, till now, managed to painstakingly keep the collection together. This collection by itself can be the actual mainstay of a photographic museum in Malta. Like other collections on the island, perhaps less known, this archive is a treasure trove, not only for its content, but for the invaluable amount of data with which each photograph has been documented with.
A few years ago, I managed, with the help of the National Archives in Rabat, to collaborate and help set up a digital picture archive. This was achieved through my insistence and to the fact that Mr. Charles Farrugia, the National Archivist, not only believed in the idea but pulled up his sleeves and helped.
The archive’s main aim is to digitize photography collections in Malta so as these would not only be available for online research but would preserve copies of priceless images which would otherwise deteriorate and be lost to us forever. It is a slow and arduous process as funds are never available to continue this work in the manner it deserves. Is it really so difficult to provide some funds for this? We are here talking a couple of thousands per year.
For those who are not aware, there are two main bodies which have worked incessantly to promote and improve Maltese Photography. These are the Malta Institute of Professional Photography, (MIPP) and the Malta Photographic Society (MPS). Together we have 600 members, and one needs only look at our websites and events to see how hard we work towards making local photography recognized and respected all around the globe. Yet the authorities seem not to appreciate or recognize our efforts. Why are we being treated as the Cinderellas of the local art scene? Why has photography in Malta been left out in the cold?
Naturally, with the new Labour government, I have again started doing the rounds and trying to again for the umpteenth time to push this idea through and get something done. In fact, I have had meetings with various entities, particularly the Minister of Culture, Dr. Jose Herrera, who has kindly received me on various occasions to listen to my arguments and discuss a way forward. I am sure that if there is the right political will, a place can definitely be found to address this issue once and for all and give a tremendous boost to Maltese Photography and Culture as well as Tourism. This will, once and for all, fill in a glaring gap in the cultural agenda. It would definitely be a crowning glory if something is done particularly with Valletta V18 coming up – I just hope that the authorities take this opportunity – it would be a tremendous legacy bequeathed to the photographic community after all the dust has died down.
For sure, there are many well intentioned private individuals who, together with the strong base already in place provided by the work of the MIPP and MPS, that should premises be found, this cannot but prosper and grow for the benefit of all Maltese. I think this stumbling block can be surmounted to help the Photographic community in Malta to further grow and meet the challenges of the future.
I would also like to state that I am writing this letter in my personal capacity and with over thirty five years of experience and heavy involvement in the Photographic sphere.
A note on the MIPP:
The Malta Institute of Professional Photography (MIPP) has now been in very active existence for over sixteen years. Its main aims have been to promote the furtherance and improvement of photography and photography practitioners in all aspects.
The MIPP is a registered non-profit NGO and has, for these last years, been responsible in improving the standards of local photography both in Malta as well as abroad. Its current membership is around the 300 mark and it has been involved in cooperating with various Government entities and in cultural initiatives related to photography. The MIPP also established various important international ties and constantly strives to, not only promote the skills of local photographers, but also our island.
In fact, the MIPP organizes no fewer than three yearly international conventions/seminars on our island and has helped in no small way to make Maltese photography very well known and respected around the globe. Maltese photographers are now being regularly invited to other countries to network, lecture, learn and subsequently promote Malta and its photography.