Hassan Hajjaj meets Magazine by Runway Gallery

We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful photography wizard of Marrakech

At a glance, photographer, Hassan Hajjaj, doesn’t have too much in common with Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Firstly, she is a fictional character, and, well, Hassan Hajjaj, isn’t. Mr Hajjaj, who was born in Morocco, before moving to London as a teen, is among the most preeminent international artists of the contemporary day- with a clientele base including Vogue Arabia, Madonna and Billie Eilish. 

The feeling one has when Dorothy first lands in the colourful Oz is, in many ways, similar to that which you experience upon admiring the vibrancy of Hajjaj’s images- but what does this global powerhouse have in common with a young girl from Kansas? 

The answer is their ideology. As Dorothy states- It’s not where you go; it’s who you meet along the way. 

M, by Moroccan photographer, Hassan Hajjaj
M 2008 by Hassan Hajjaj

“People are interesting,” the photographer began, when asked about his relationship with his subjects. 

“I love to work with individuals who interest, inspire, and influence me. I work with characters who have something, and it’s not all about a particular gender or colour. I also enjoy getting to know people. Whether they are friends or friends of friends, I take time to understand each person before I take their photo. Therefore, I am attracted to the energy and spirit of a person”. 

It was already no secret that Hassan Hajjaj’s clientele is made up of friends, as The New Yorker, Le Monde, and The New York Times are among the industry giants who have shared the photographer’s success story over recent years. In a call from Morocco, the artist further expanded: 

“For around 30 years, I was taking photos of my friends, and friends of friends, and these are the photos which attracted the celebrities, as they saw the kind of characters I had been photographing”

Popstar Billie Eilish, taken by Moroccan photographer, Hassan Hajjaj
Billie Eilish for Vogue (2019) by Hassan Hajjaj

A quick stalk of Mr Hajjaj’s Instagram offers an insight into the vast number of celebrities in which the photographer has styled and shot, but, as Hassan shared, every star-studded collaboration continues to shock and surprise. 

“All celebrities have been a thrill because I never expected [to work with celebrities] in my life.”

“I couldn’t choose one from another, because they are all so different, but I am surprised by them all. To me, they become the people I am shooting, not the celebrities that everybody knows.”

Hassan Hajjaj has refined an unmistakable signature style that is instantly identifiable as his own throughout his career. The artist typically frames his subjects in an array of found objects- from Arabic lego to cans of soda- which he constructs by hand. 

Perhaps the most famous of all Hajjaj’s series’ is “’Kesh Angels”, a collection of portraits- capturing the motorbike girl gangs of his native country. 

Kesh Angels, part of a series by Moroccan photographer, Hassan Hajjaj
Kesh Angels (2010) by Hassan Hajjaj 

“I took a majority of the pictures in 2000, before the September 11 attacks, and after this date, there were many new ideas against Muslim people. I think some people found it uncomfortable to see a woman with a veil on the bike. It didn’t sit too well at first. It was unusual and bizarre for the audience”. The photographer continued, suggesting social media played a part in the series’ successes. 

“Social media helped because it was becoming increasingly powerful, and more people were sharing the images.

I also think it is probably because of what was going on around the globe at that time.

My first show of ’Kesh Angels was not until 2010, and then it took a few more years for people to discover this work.”

However, Hassan’s images have not always looked this way. While the artist is known and loved for his use of kaleidoscopic colour, he also discussed his black and white work, which he kick-started in the 1980s and 90s. 

“Believe it or not, when I started shooting, black and white was an attraction to me from the very beginning. I grew up watching film noir movies, and I witnessed the transition between film noir and technicolour movies. Most people know my bright and colourful work, but I took most of my black and white photos in the 90s. To be honest, I’m a lover of black and white.” 

At Riad Yima Studio, by Moroccan photographer, Hassan Hajjaj- taken in Marrakech
At Riad Yima Studio (2016) by Hassan Hajjaj

The one thing Hajjaj’s black and white work has in common with ’Kesh Angels, and all of his other photographs, in fact, is the process each series involves. 

“My idea often comes from a character, from a textile, or something that catches my interest. A series could take up to 10 years before I show the work.”

While much of Hajjaj’ work pays homage to Morocco, it is equally influenced by his life in London, or, even more specifically, Shoreditch. As a London based gallery, we had to ask, of all the places in the world to chose a base, why Shoreditch? 

“It just happened. I was there from 1989, which was before the area was trendy, so it was cheaper rent. That’s probably the reason.” 

Sam and Shaka, Art Comes First, taken by artist and photographer, Hassan Hajjaj
Sam and Shaka (2018) by Hassan Hajjaj

Working between London and Marrakech, Hassan Hajjaj splits his time between the two cities. Still, he is no stranger to the City of Light- after an exhibition in the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, following shows in the Third Line in Dubai and the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, to name but a few.

It goes without saying, that at present, the pandemic has forced Hassan Hajjaj to pause his global domination, and adapt to continue creating in a climate nobody has had to experience before. 

Door, a photograph of Dior in Morocco
Door (2009) by Hassan Hajjaj

“It wasn’t easy at the beginning. Like everybody else, I found it a bit of a shock. There was a bit of fear in everybody, but then we learn to adjust to the situation, and now I’m keeping busy with lots of different projects”

“I’ve been working on ideas that I always wanted to work on in the past- such as my online shop in London-something I have wanted to do for years. I’m also planning some upcoming shows that were initially going to happen last year, for when things get back together.  

Plus, I’m in collaboration with Poppy Lissiman Sunglasses, and Happy Socks, so I’m just finishing that, whilst working with Art Comes First, so I’m keeping myself busy creating. We don’t know what will happen, like everybody else, but I’m doing my best to keep getting everything ready for when things can eventually go back to normal.” 

All photos are taken from Hassan Hajjaj’ Instagram page. Keep up to date with his work @hassanhajjaj_larache

An avid photography lover? Check out another interview with fashion photographers, French Cowboy, or discover their work at Runway Gallery here.

By Megan Slack– Contributing Editor at Magazine by Runway Gallery