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Someone once told him

Mario Cacciottolo. Right: One of the photos submitted to his website.

Mario Cacciottolo. Right: One of the photos submitted to his website.

You can tell a lot about a person by their eyes. This phrase rings true when looking at the photo on someoneoncetoldme.com of an Iraq war veteran holding a sign baring the message 'Freedom is the greatest' as Stars and Stripes flutter in the foreground.

Although the message may seem jingoistic, the man's eyes betray its sincerity. He is huddled in a park, homeless and dishevelled, his face careworn and battle weary.

This is one of the hundreds of photos on the website set-up by Maltese journalist and photographer Mario Cacciottolo, who works for the BBC in London.

It contains black and white photographs of people holding a handwritten message of something that someone once told them. The photos are accompanied by a short explanation of the story behind the quote.

According to Mr Cacciottolo, we are all shaped by the things that someone once told us. The website is an attempt to chronicle the messages and expressions that have influenced people's lives.

The idea was born when a friend paid Mr Cacciottolo a small compliment in an e-mail.

"I was flattered and thought how that would stay with me for the remainder of the day. Then, suddenly, I started thinking of all the things that we're told, and how strange it was that some of them stay with us forever. I then thought of trying to collect some of those moments using a sketchbook and camera," he said.

People either e-mail their own photos to Mr Cacciottolo or he takes a photo of them, sometimes by appointment and sometimes by random approach. When he set up the website in 2007, it was little more than a hobby and a way for him to practice photography.

Not anymore. To date, the site has received 2.4 million page views, 340,000 hits and is currently averaging over 1,500 hits per day. The Guardian described it as "a twisted, modern British version of Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues video" and it has developed a cult following, with Mr Cacciottolo receiving photographs and invitations from all over the world.

In an age when the internet is accused of reducing human relationships to impersonal interactions, the website is a lesson in how it can be used to bring people together. Mr Cacciottolo is travelling to Los Angeles in July at the invitation of two fans of his website he has never met. They will be providing him with accommodation, posing for photos and also arranging for some of their friends to pose too.

The project is going so well that Mr Cacciottolo is considering taking unpaid leave from his job at the BBC to travel around the world and take photos of people. He is fascinated not just by the photos but the stories behind the quotes that people choose.

"Something about this project makes people reveal highly personal stuff. One woman told me that everybody is trying to be heard, but the website allows people to feel they are being listened to," he said.

Eventually, he would like to put on an exhibition of the photos and he is attracted to the idea of publishing a book. But at the moment, he is very keen on receiving submissions from Malta, the country he left aged 13.

"Malta is my spiritual home, my first love, and where I plan to return to one day. I'd love to tap into the stories and talent of the Maltese people, to capture their life experiences in a place that I think is the most beautiful on earth," he said.

To encourage submissions, Mr Cacciottolo is offering a prize for the best photo sent to him from Malta by July 15.

He advises people to make sure there is an interesting story behind the quote they choose and to make use of the "great natural landscapes and superb architecture" in Malta.

Details of the competition can be found at www.maltainsideout.com/competitions. The photographer gives over the copyright when submitting a photo to 'Someone Once Told Me'.

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