Naples is the kind of city which elicits an immediate and strong reaction—much like Marmite, people tend to either love it wholeheartedly, or hate it. Admittedly, it’s not the easiest of cities. It’s beautiful, fascinating, vibrant, yes—but it is also chaotic, gritty, at times dangerous (which major city isn’t?). Those seeking the idyllic ‘dolce vita’ style of Italian holiday tend to avoid it entirely, at most passing through on a necessary passage to the glittering Costiera and islands beyond.
Naples’ reputation, sadly, precedes it. It has endured centuries of foreign occupation, crime and economic inequality, as well as an endlessly unkind portrayal and fear-mongering at the hands of the mass media. To visitors, the city can feel hostile and impenetrable—but more often than not, it is merely our own preconceptions which hinder us from experiencing Naples in all its real glory.
Because when one does actually scratch beneath the surface and embrace the city, its people and all its contradictions, that is where the magic begins. There are few populations in Italy more hospitable and warm, varied and eccentric, than those who proudly call Naples home. And there are few who have managed to capture them as beautifully and honestly as the British photographer Sam Gregg.
“I was always told to stay away from Naples. People are scaredy-cats and believe everything they read in the news, but I was adamant I wanted to live there. So when I was 25, I packed my bags and within a week of being there I was teaching English at a school and in the richest parts of the city—despite not having any qualifications. In between, I would go around the city and take photos.”
And these photos changed Sam’s life. Spending hours and hours walking around the city, he met and got to know a huge variety of people—and found the subjects for his now-famous portraits which make up his ‘See Naples and Die’ series.
The project focused on four of central Naples’ most historically rich yet contemporarily volatile areas. In other words, the notoriously ‘bad’ neighbourhoods which tourists are told to avoid: Forcella, Quartieri Spagnoli, Rione Sanità and Santa Lucia. The pure fact of photographing these areas in a way which avoids cliché and judgement reveals a side of the city which most never get to see—but Sam’s curious, talkative nature, evident love of Naples and desire to get stuck in meant he was able to go even further.
“Naples is full of stunning things, but nowhere else has its people. They are the most important part of the city, and what made me fall in love with it. They have such great big hearts that they made it easy for me to enter their city and their lives. Here, it’s totally normal to just have a chat with someone on the street, whether it’s a random grandma or a 12-year-old kid—the people are just incredibly approachable, friendly and open. Neapolitans are theatrical by nature and love being in front of a camera, too, which makes my work a dream.”
With so many vibrant, passionate, colourful and distinctive characters, it is little surprise that the people of Naples are a subject of such interest for photographers—but while most fly in and promptly fly back out on a ‘snatch-and-grab’ job, Sam lives as part of Naples himself. He photographs the people whom he passes regularly, whose stories he has learnt through numerous conversations and interactions and whose lives have become intertwined with his own. It is this authenticity which allows him, and his photos, to go deeper. Where others seek easily identifiable caricatures, he sees humanity—people filled with contradiction and the troubles and joys of everyday life.
“Some of the ‘scary-looking’ people in my photos are actually some of the kindest and gentlest. It’s crazy how an image or preconception can be so deceiving. It’s the same with Naples itself. Historically it has a terrible reputation, but the reality is so different.”
Take Luigi, the subject of one of Sam’s most recognisable portraits (and a few more thereafter). The photo was taken the first time Sam met him in Forcella, one of the poorest and toughest areas in Naples. He is captured staring straight into the camera, looking rather intimidating, wearing a pinstriped suit—the classic ‘mobster uniform’ of our collective imagination. But the reality is that he is a “super sweet and lovely guy” who works in a children’s school, married with a family, and who loves dressing in sharp suits on a daily basis.
Or Gianni, who stares into the camera from beneath a shrine to Jesus in the Quartieri Spagnoli, topless, tattoed, with his pitbull on a leash—he is a DJ who lives “a very straight-edge life”. It is one of Sam’s favourite images, as it made him think of the parallels between the plight of pitbulls and that of the Neapolitan people at large: “both are deeply misunderstood as a result of the rash actions of a select few.”
One of Sam Gregg’s most poignant and popular images is of a man who is a permanent fixture on the Naples lungomare. Every day and at any time of year, he can be spotted sunbathing on the same rock between the two big stands selling drinks and taralli. A “salty sea dog” who has spent so much time by the sea that his eyes have turned the same colour as it. The tattoo emblazoned on his tanned chest reads ‘Tutto Passa’, ‘everything passes’—emblematic of the typically Neapolitan laid-back, laissez-faire attitude, but more importantly, of their resilience. Things change, for the better or worse, struggles are a necessary evil (and a perennial part of life in this city), and although everything eventually passes, Neapolitan resilience is eternal.
Sam Gregg has done much to bring the raw beauty, irony and reality of Naples to a wider audience with his photos, which have been disseminated worldwide, shared infinitely on Instagram, and even made it to my own bedroom wall. The city has adopted him as one of their own—“il fotografo britannico” who fell in love with Naples and its people and continues to help debunk unhelpful, unfavourable and untrue stereotypes through his work.
Each image is an immersion into a wonderful and flamboyant world which is often beyond our own experience. But most of all, it is a reminder of the importance of seeing beyond what is in front of us and what we think we know—because there is infinite magic to be found, the deeper we go.
Napoli alla Sam Gregg
- Pizzeria: Sorbillo.
- Street drinking spots: Buco Pertuso, Perditempo and Vesuvius Soul.
- Museum: Cappella Sansevero is home to the Cristo Velato, one of the most intricate, delicate sculptures ever created.
- Area: Rione Sanità has an incredible history, decadent crumbling Bourbonic architecture and is populated by some of the friendliest, most vibrant people you will meet in Naples. After a rough period in its history, Sanità has finally started to emerge from the shadows.
- Walking spot: I like to start in Materdei and make the descent to the Fontanelle cemetery. I then weave through Sanità and make my way up the hill to Capodimonte, a huge beautiful park which is essentially the green lung of Naples.
- Off the beaten track: Naples has a very large Sri Lankan community, the second largest after Italians themselves! The area of Salvator Rosa therefore has some amazing, authentic Sri Lankan restaurants—perfect if you need a break from the carb-heavy (albeit delicious) Neapolitan diet.
- Beach: Lido Mappatella, an inner-city beach full of colour and infectious energy which is one of the purest representations of Neapolitan life.