Look, there’s no way around this; break-ups suck.
Whether it’s something you’d been meaning to do for ages or something that completely catches you off-guard, breaking up with someone you initially thought was extra special has got to hurt. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be a learning experience. Or even a source of art.
Inspired by a break-up of her own, Maltese documentary photographer Justine Ellul decided to take that mantra to its extreme. And that’s where Strings was born.
In what she described as one of her biggest projects to date, Justine – who’s taken thousands of photos of partygoers in Malta, captured stunning scenery in Iceland and even snapped fashionistas for Vogue Italia – shifted her subject to something way more personal.
Justine’s concept was simple enough; document a number of ex-couples in the place they had first met or gone on their first date.
And while having a bunch of people standing next to each other in front of random Maltese backdrops might not sound impressive, the final pyschological effect is quite stunning.
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It’s been a year since one of my biggest projects. Inspired by a previous break-up, I had documented a number of ex-couples in the first place they had met for psychology research I was writing. Learnt so much from all the different perspectives – a project which focuses on how assumptions are made from anything posted online and how it effects any form of relationships I’ll forever be grateful for each participants’ bravery, honesty and time throughout which led to one of my biggest expos to date. Thankyou ???? @documentingidentity #strings2019
Opening up about the project with Lovin Malta, Justine revealed how deep the seemingly-simple concept goes… and some of the stories that really stuck with her.
“I was writing the concept for my photography thesis with a focus on psychology documentary, and how assumptions are made through any photograph on social media,” she elaborated.
As a documentary photographer first and foremost, Justine’s passion was always people and portraits. But as she started to document identity back in 2013, she quickly discovered a new concept born straight from her personal experiences and hardships. And it all started with one very simple question she found herself asking after a break-up: “can we still be friends?”
“I get very personal in documentary, and I attempt to deliver my previous experiences onto how I observe the world, full of curiosity,” Justine continues. “I had 100 individuals in the project, but my studies in photography helped me understand that I can’t get too attached to my work for a successful project. I had to remove anything which didn’t work as a pattern in visuals.”
“But my favourite will always be these two brave exes with their teenage beauty, who approached this project as an adventure and broke the taboo of not speaking to your ex,” she reminisced.
Beyond the interesting concept of getting exes to pose next to each other in such emotionally important places, however, Justine’s photo series actually has an even deeper level… and it’s all got to do with social media.
Not a big fan of social media herself (even though she recognises the importance of connecting with friends and sharing her work through it), Justine wanted to highlight the potential dangers of social media and gossip through this series.
You see, not every single pairing represents ex lovers… and a small number of the couples Justine photographed are actually still together.
“When I eventually exhibited the series at Valletta’s Spazju Kreattiv, I told people we’d be playing a small game, and they’d have to guess who’s together and who’s not,” Justine smiled.
“I remember the guests saying it was impossible,” she recounted. “They asked me, ‘But how can I know from just looking at the photos?’ And I answered, ‘Exactly’.”
“The couples who were still together even got messages from people who were worried that they had broken up, just because they knew someone who had been to the exhibition and had seen their photo in this context,” she continued.
“It’s important to understand how much people assume on social media, and the dangerous implications those assumptions have,” Justine finished. “Even a simple ‘like’ or ‘comment’ can sometimes get the minds – and mouths – racing!”
Talk about challenging preconceptions.
“I learnt so much from all the different perspectives,” Justine admitted on Instagram, sharing the massive compilation of photos, set against everything from Maltese beaches to popular bars and clubs.
“I’ll forever be grateful for each participant’s bravery, honesty and time throughout which led to one of my biggest expos to date,” Justine finished, and you can’t help but agree; how many of us would gladly return to the place where it all started for a failed relationship, and pose next to our exes?