When Hassan Hajjaj came to London in 1973, aged thirteen, it was a very different world to his hometown of Larache, a tiny Moroccan fishing village. “London back then was quite tough for immigrants like me. I didn’t speak the language, so I had to learn it. Then I started to find people like me who were from cities all around the world.” Navigating that thriving, imperfect mix of cultures, not so far from Morocco’s mesh of peoples, languages and traditions, Hajjaj found his identity, in part thanks to photography. “Photography for me is a bit like escapism, I’m setting up a stage,” he reflects. Although some of his studio photographs are intensively planned, often Hajjaj shoots on the street, where unexpected things can happen. It’s his ability to adapt and be spontaneous that makes his work so unique.
“I bought a camera in 1989 from my friend [the artist] Zak Ové, he showed me how to use it, and I went shooting from there — that was the beginning of it I suppose,” Hajjaj recalls, speaking on the phone from Marrakech, where he is currently setting up an exhibition he has curated at Comptoir des mines gallery, featuring twenty-three Moroccan photographers. “Photography is something I’ve always loved.” It’s just one of the projects he has on the go in the city the week we speak: he is opening a Riad, has an installation featured in a new group exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary African Art, and will be shown by Yossi Milo gallery at 1-54 fair. “It feels good to be out here,” he says, pausing to give instructions to someone.
Despite the fact he’s in the middle of a particularly pressured week, Hajjaj is humble and relaxed when he talks. “I just try to be myself,” he says. It’s something that comes across in his images, that always have an element of fun.
Hajjaj made his name as a photographer in the neoliberal nineties, in the halcyon days of multiculturalism in the UK. His mash-up of African studio photography and East London street style, Pop Art and graphics, became an iconic part of the optimistic visual language emerging from London. Over the years, Hajjaj has also gone on to shoot some of the world’s superstars, from Will Smith to more recently, Cardi B, who he photographed in 2017 for the cover of New York magazine, and the likes of Maria Sharapova and Madonna, who he captured at his riad in Marrakech last year.
“It’s always exciting and nerve-wracking,” he says, when I ask how he feels when celebrities approach him for a portrait. “But these celebrities are coming into my world, which is my comfort zone, which makes it a bit easier. Every person is different, so I try to go with their spirit and energy, I try not to think of it as a celebrity, but as another person I’m shooting. I don’t want the celebrity to overshadow the people I’ve been shooting for the last twenty-five years.”
Although the celebrity gigs have broken Hajjaj’s name on a global level, it’s his own community is really at the heart of what he does, something that relates back to the tradition of African studio photographers, like the ones he used to visit with his family as a child. Across North and West Africa, studios have been places where locals could come with friends and family to dress up with props and pose against designed backdrops — but their role has been much more than a place to take a picture; often lively hives of activity, a place to meet and socialise, laugh, and assert a sense of identity and power through self-documentation, studio photography has long served a social function as a way to bring a community together.
The salon-style installation Hajjaj has curated for the second year in Marrakech, appropriately, is called Mi Casa Su Casa. In 2019, it has doubled in size, and includes, many upcoming names from the country including Nabil Nadifi, Yoriyas and Imane, many of whom have had no exposure in the context of the international art world.
“It’s something that’s happened naturally; there’s a lot of talent here. The idea was to start with this, and see where it goes from here. There’s not enough spaces in Morocco to show Moroccan photographers, so I’m happy to do what I can to help, using my experience to help elevate Moroccan and African artists.”
Self-representation was the reason Hajjaj, who is self-taught, says he started to take photographs, and he continues to document his circle of friends, many of them musicians, dancers and artists. Series like “My Rock Stars,” and his earlier, popular “Kesh Angels”, (2010) a group of women market-sellers on their motorcycles, shown at Somerset House in 2017. In a typical fusion of East and West that Hajjaj does so seamlessly, the women wear their own veils, with heart-shaped glasses he bought in Camden market.
His London studio in Shoreditch on Calvert Avenue is open to the public as a shop, acts as an office, storage, and a meeting place where you can drink a cup of Moroccan tea. It’s like being inside one of his photographs, packed with furniture made from recycled furniture and packaging (a motif in his work), art and streetwear, and recalls the vibe of the studios like the ones he used to visit with his family as a child in Morocco.
Despite his chaotic schedule and his itinerant lifestyle, Hajjaj, who is 58 but has the energy of someone far younger. His use of colour has been compared to Andy Warhol and David LaChapelle, and his strong graphic sense to Malick Sidibe and Samuel Fosso, the masters of African studio photography. Like the late great Malick Sidibe who used to get around Bamako on his scooter, shooting morning to night, in the studio, on the street or at the beach, Hajjaj, who is often compared to Sidibe, is racing around the Medina of Marrakech on his bike. The tempo of Marrakech becomes part of the unstoppable rhythm of his images.
“My work is aiming to keep studio photography alive, but for me, people like Fosso and Sidibe, great photographers that can now be seen as artists, were renowned for taking pictures of people in their cities. I feel like I’m part of the next generation that’s moved around, from one country to another, and I try to capture people like myself who have the same journey, so it’s about documenting people who are scattered all over the globe.”
Hajjaj’s work speaks to and of a new urban generation who have grown up with mixed heritage and between borders. Its narrative is uplifting, making new out of the old, beauty out of waste, and ultimately, celebrating a nomadic tribe who connect by being authentic. “I try to be myself,” as Hajjaj puts it. “I want to do more than take a pretty picture with a nice backdrop. I want to be a little deeper than that.”
“It’s the love and passion for photography that still motivates me. If that ever goes out, that’s the point to stop.”