London as Never Before: “Ninja photographers” take to the rooftops of London

‘What you see here is the photos,’ says Mati Contal. ‘The experience of actually being up there isn’t centred on the photos. The photos are our way of cataloguing and …’

‘Expressing ourselves,’ finishes Gabriele Scapola. ‘Seeing London from up there; it’s just another world.’

Source: Gabriele Scapola & Mati Contal

We’ve all read about the ways teenagers express themselves through art. More often than not, society tends to assume that their art will be destructive. This is because we only hear of the negative stories. Newspapers are filled with reports of vandalism and petty crimes. People were put off the idea of teenage expression entirely when news publications worldwide covered the story of a ‘burning London’ last summer, where hundreds of youth took to the streets and destroyed everything in sight.

Mati and Gabriele at their exhibition
Source: P.Mogul & L.Lahtinen

This weekend, London was introduced to two young teenage boys whose art portrays a London never seen before. Of course, no one knows about these two boys because no one wants to believe that there are young people out there with incredible talent. No one wants to believe that there are young people out there with incredible talent who are doing great things with it.

Meet two young photographers, Mati Contal and Gabriele Scapola. Laughing, they jokingly described themselves as being“ninja photographers” and I was soon to realise how accurately the phrase suited them. The 16 and 18 year old have taken up the practice of ‘roof-topping’, a new craze that has hit the city of London recently.  Roof-topping involves standing on the top of a tall building and documenting the scenic view of the city from up there. While many may think there’s only so much you can photograph the view from above before they all start to look the same, Mati and Gabriele manage to make each photograph uniquely different and as they will tell you – each one has it’s own story to tell.

‘There are some good stories,’ says Gabriele. ‘It’s not just the same every night.’

Gabriele has been an avid photographer for five years now, dealing mainly with street photography. However, ever since moving to London two years ago, roof-topping has been taking up most of his time and it wasn’t long before Mati joined him up there. Their passion for photography develops with each new building they climb and each night they spend on the top of some of London’s tallest buildings.

The captivating view forces the two to spend at least an hour admiring London from above, before setting to work on their creations. While most photographers would argue that photography is about capturing a moment, creation plays a much bigger role in the unique work of these two teenagers. Gabriele and Mati, two students who have never taken a class in photography before, believe taking photos is more about creating, rather than capturing.

‘Our photos are quite different,’ says Gabriele. ‘We play with lights and that’s probably where creation takes part. It’s actually painting. You can paint whatever you want to.’

For those unfamiliar with the concept of long-exposure, it involves a slow shutter speed that captures features like light trails. The effect is prominent in Gabriele and Mati’s work as they incorporate fire into many of their roof-topping images to add an exclusive effect.

‘When I try to explain how long-exposure photography works, I usually describe it as a canvas and you can paint upon it,’ says Gabriele.

During the 30 seconds of long-exposure shot, the two ‘paint with light’. By swirling fire around to get sparks flying everywhere, they are able to use the night sky as a canvas and express themselves in a way that provides a fascinating and distinctive end result.

‘A lot of the time it is capturing something physical, something that’s real, a moment, an instant,’ explains Mati. ‘But at the same time a lot of what we do, in a way it’s painting, it’s drawing. So it is a lot of playing; we do play around.’

True daredevils
Source: P.Mogul & L.Lahtinen

Leaving home at 9pm and returning at 5am is standard when the two are out roof-topping. Sneaking into buildings and climbing scaffolding on construction sites are only some of the adventures the pair face when creating their art.

‘It’s scary as hell,’ admits Mati. ‘But it’s very rewarding. All the effort and energy and adrenalin that goes into getting on top, and then you’re rewarded with this view.’

A lot of effort does go into what they do. Not only are they challenged with portraying a breathtaking view; they’re also dealing with getting into and to the top of these buildings without being seen. Tactics like sneaking into abandoned and under construction buildings, as well as not using flash, only get them so far. The rest is luck. As they tell me stories of nearly getting caught by threatening security guards or the terrifying feeling they get as they wave fire in their air, praying not to be noticed, my heart pounds for them. However, their faces express pure exhilaration as they shoot out these near-miss stories one after another.

‘I just love the adrenalin you get doing this,’ Gabriele admits. ‘It helps you do this kind of photography. I wouldn’t be able to do it if I wasn’t brought to it by the adrenalin.’

Their exhibition held at the International School of London on Saturday, April 21st, was Gabriele and Mati’s first go at taking their art to a more professional level. Two friends, Anna Vesaluoma and Zeinab Hashi, encouraged the young photographers to showcase their art and helped put together the exhibition, organising the details while Gabriele and Mati were creating their best works to display on the day.

‘I always thought that their work was so inspiring,’ says Zeinab.

‘They’re obviously great,’ adds Anna. ‘Gabriele was always very enthusiastic about his photography and I was always blown away by it. Mati got into it a bit later than Gabriele but then they became this collaborative team. We thought we could put together the organisational skills that we have, combined with their amazing artistic creativity.’

The exhibition, entitled ‘London As Never Before’, displayed a collection of photographs of London from above. The bright lights of a bustling city will make you fall in love with London all over again. Gabriele and Mati’s long-exposure effects will make you marvel at the fact that nothing you see has been edited through Photoshop; it’s simply their creations.

‘Like you said, photography is usually about capturing,’ says Mati. ‘With this series we’ve tried to almost disregard that and use the camera more as a canvas.’

‘Our art is a mix between urban exploration and long-exposure photography,’ continues Gabriele. ‘The lights experiment mixed together with an urban exploration focus.’

The two go on to describe their work in a way that assures me they know what they’re talking about, using words like “exuberance” and “romanticism” to highlight the nature of their collection. They also elaborate on the role of the artist within their pictures. Many of the photographs with the long-exposure effect depicts a figure spinning the fire spirals, which Mati clarifies as ‘giving the artist an exulted position’ and an idolised position within the picture.

Gabriele and Mati’s exhibition at ISL
Source: P.Mogul & L.Lahtinen

By selling roughly 20 photographs at their exhibition and charging a minimal entrance fee of £3, the two photographers managed to raise approximately £900 for the charity, Save The Children. The pieces were elegantly displayed around the room and people were able to easily pinpoint their favourite ones to purchase for their living rooms. The music, snacks and wine only complimented the already artistic and professional atmosphere.

‘It was beyond my expectations!’ exclaims Anna, who has lost sleep worrying about how the event would pan out. ‘I was very stressed but then finally it all came together and I was really, really pleased with how everyone was really enthusiastic to help us out. The guys have been really professional.’

‘We’ve been working on this since September and seeing the photos put up and seeing it all come together made everything worthwhile,’ Zeinab agrees.

There were also a couple of familiar faces in the crowd. Art teachers, Ms. Pawel and Ms. Adriana, were shining with pride as they walked around the room, admiring the photographs for what must have been the hundredth time.

‘I’m very proud of them,’ beams Pawel. ‘They have developed a great deal since they started. They’re very independent and they work in their own time, putting in extra hours. They explored different fields that we’ve never even thought was possible. The exhibition was perfect; everything went really well. But I do think the prices are very cheap, and next time they should charge more.’

Passion for their art
Source: P.Mogul & L.Lahtinen

When I managed to pull aside the two stars of the show – who were busy talking about their work to intrigued observers all afternoon – their passion and dedication for their art was evident. Despite the risks they take to create their pieces, when they see possibility for a great work of art, nothing can stand in their way. Yet, surprisingly enough, when asked if this is something they’d like to take up professionally one day, the two were indifferent to the idea, maintaining that they do it purely because of their zest for it.

‘I’d like to do it professionally, but I wouldn’t mind keeping it as a hobby either,’ says Gabriele. ‘I’m not thinking about getting professionally involved but if it happened, I wouldn’t get out of it.’

Mati agrees with him, saying, ‘I’m not trying to make it go anywhere. If it does on it’s own, then fantastic, but I’m happy as I am.’

Gabriele’s personal favorite
Source: Gabriele Scapola & Mati Contal

Gabriele: ‘This one of St.Paul’s Cathedral is a timeless photo. I love how the past overshadows both present and future, how all the different architectonic styles interact with themselves, creating a unique sensation, which gives you the impression of being lost in time.’

Mati’s personal favourite
Source: Gabriele Scapola & Mati Contal

Mati: ‘I think when you’re up there it’s just more for the experience of soaking it in, being there, and then the photos are the afterthought.’

For more details on the photographers or any of their work, please leave a comment or contact me directly and I will make sure your message is passed along. You can also view more of their photographs on Gabriele’s Flickr page

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