by Nana Ocran
Award-winning photographer, designer, furniture maker, boutique owner… Hassan Hajjaj is an individual who neatly fits all of these titles. A London-based artist, and a creative multi-tasker he moves around a lot, so pinning him down to a Skype conversation while he was working on a couple of film projects in Marrakech felt like quite a coup.
“I’ve been working on a personal project with some Gnawa musician masters” he explains, “I’m trying to document them, but I’ve also been editing another film called, Karima: A Day in the Life of a Henna Girl.”
This second project is one that features a young woman, who has appeared in a number of Hajjaj’s photographs over the last 15 years. Perhaps his best-known shot of her is one in which she dexterously balances on the seat of a pristine white scooter, her feet resting on the handlebars, while wearing a polka – dotted djellaba and matching niqab, leather babouche slippers and funky 1950s-style shades.
It is a theatrical piece in as much as the background and the subject are equally as important as each other, and the riot of colours –from pastel to primary, speak volumes about Hajjaj’s North African aesthetic influences. These combinations of visual, cultural and sensory influences are what drive his arguably most famous work to date – the ‘My Rock Stars’ portrait series. An ongoing project, Hajjaj
holistically documents the people he knows and admires – from musicians and artists to designers, dancers, writers and relatives – all of them dressed in clothes he has designed, with each sitter playfully positioned in spaces he covers in vibrant pop colours. His models’ images are then set in his signature frames, which are uniformly studded with mini soda cans with Arab script, or edged with brightly coloured raffia. The nod to recycling and the homage to African studio photography is clear.
“I want to continue this project” Hajjaj explains. “The first time I showed it was in Dubai in 2012 but I first started shooting the series in 1999. The idea of the studio shoot is nothing new because you’ve got Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta … you know, the masters, but my influence was also from when I was a kid”. This was during the early 1960s in Larache, a small Moroccan fishing port, where he and his siblings had their pictures taken in a studio because there were no cameras. “Up to the age of 16, there were only around three pictures of me – one on a horse with a cowboy hat, another time with my mum and my sisters. My dad was in London so we’d have our pictures taken to send to him. That was my first influence of photography. Since then, I’ve always wanted to extend this to a new generation because Sidibé and all the masters were photographers, who took pictures of local people.” Hajjaj’s memories of the colours of Morocco are key to his style of photography. Living and working between London and the North African country has had a strong influence.
“My work in fact goes beyond being a studio shoot. It’s about documenting people and also showing clothes that I’ve designed” he says. “I try to get all the stuff that I use from the medina. They may be things that have been bought cheaply, but I make them look grand.”
Although there is a strong fashion element to Hajjaj’s Rock Stars images, this is not the element that drives him. He is definitely far more taken by subjects, who he considers to be unintentional models. People who inspire him, for their own specific reasons.
“If I had an offer to take a picture of Jay-Z for example, it’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t want to do because he’s already mainstream. My work is much more about people around me, who I admire. People who live by their own code.” People who may or may not be completely at ease in front of the lens. It is therefore crucial that Hajjaj’s skills don’t just lie in clicking the camera button. Any bashfulness has to be overcome so that the ability to play, blends into
the whole experience.
“I usually do one or two sessions with people. Sometimes three” says Hajjaj. “Some people do feel out of their comfort zone but then they start to like it when they can step out of their world. It’s like a theatrical experience where I try to make sure they have a nice memorable day at the same time”.
Strangely, the same type of showmanship doesn’t extend to himself, although this might be something of a photographer’s prerogative. There is a distinct note of modesty at the suggestion that he himself should step in front of the camera. “It is uncomfortable for me” he admits. “If I ask a subject to get in front of the camera, it is because they’ve got something about them, so for me they deserve to be there”.
It is a humble, but also endearing admission, particularly when set alongside his personal experience of being culturally and spiritually out of sync with elements of his world during his adolescence. Arriving in the UK from Morocco in his teens meant struggling with English – both spoken and written – for years. This is an experience that has influenced his choice of rock star subjects, many of whom hail from similar backgrounds, or who at least have some link with the immigrant experience.
Full interview published in Omenka magazine volume 1 issue 3.
July 16, 2019