PROFILE

Hassan Hajjaj

A young woman wearing brightly coloured clothing sits on a blue stool in front of rows of red crates. Positioned in front of the stool is a book with a large white question mark on the cover.

British-Moroccan contemporary artist and Canon Ambassador Hassan Hajjaj is renowned for his vibrant Pop Art portraiture which has been exhibited all over the world. Maroussia Diaz, the circographer of Groupe Acrobatique de Tanger, is pictured here posing on a stage designed by Hassan for the group's show FIQ! Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 45mm, 1/60 sec, f/4.5 and ISO100. © Hassan Hajjaj

Canon Ambassador Hassan Hajjaj's creative output – a blend of photography, design, fashion, music and filmmaking – knows no bounds.

The British-Moroccan artist gained critical acclaim for his iconic series Kesh Angels, featuring Marrakesh's biker girls posing in heart-shaped sunglasses, brightly patterned djellaba robes and veils adorned with Nike swooshes. His colourful Pop Art portraiture, influenced by the culture, style and characters of Marrakesh and London, is held in major collections around the world.
Originally from Larache, Morocco, Hassan moved to the UK, in 1973, aged 12. His interest in photography started in the 1980s while he was running his fashion store, R.A.P, in Covent Garden, London. More than just a place to buy clothing, it was a focal point for the music scene at the time. "I had a record shop downstairs where we sold vinyl and tickets to illegal parties," the artist says.

On the side, Hassan organised club nights while working as an assistant stylist on fashion shoots and catwalk shows. "I would also photograph my friends when they came to the shop," he explains. "I'd get them to pose and set things up, but I was doing it for myself now and then, not professionally." He used an instant film camera until 1989 when he bought an SLR camera from a friend, the artist Zak Ové, who taught him the basics of photography. Today, his camera of choice is a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
Canon Ambassador Hassan Hajjaj holding a Canon camera. Portrait by Jenny Fremont.
Locations: London and Marrakesh

Specialist areas: Fine art, portraiture, filmmaking

Favourite kit:

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
A young woman wearing flamboyant clothes poses in front of a colourful striped background.

Hassan has been a fan of Moroccan-Canadian actress, dancer and model Nora Fatehi, pictured posing in front of his signature plastic mat backgrounds, for quite some time. "I have wanted to shoot her for a while and took the chance when she was in Marrakesh for a week," he says. "I'm proud to see someone from my own country breaking into the Bollywood industry, which is big in Morocco, and which I grew up with as a kid." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 21mm, 1/40 sec, f/4 and ISO250. © Hassan Hajjaj

A young woman wearing a green hat and a black jumpsuit with pink dots poses in front of a strikingly patterned blue background.

former stylist and fashion store owner, Hassan designed the clothes for this shoot featuring Moroccan-Canadian actress and dancer Nora Fatehi himself. "I really wanted her to be part of My Rock Stars [an ongoing project] wearing my designs as I love how she uses and moves her body due to her dance practice," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 40mm, 1/30 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Hassan Hajjaj

It wasn't until the late 1990s that Hassan started exhibiting his images in London and Marrakesh, beginning with the series Graphix from the Souk. "Growing up, my friends and I were too scared to go to galleries, museums, spaces like that," he explains. "I didn't think of what I was doing as art at first, so to accept myself as an artist and see if this could be a long-term thing, I decided in 2000 to do it full-time."

When Hassan showed his unseen negatives and contact sheets to art curator Rose Issa, he says that she looked at them and said, "You know you have about 10 years' worth of shows here?"
A group of men and women in brightly coloured clothes pose acrobatically in front of a white building with yellow pillars.

Hassan was approached by Groupe Acrobatique de Tanger, an ensemble of 15 young Moroccan acrobats and hip-hop dancers, to art direct FIQ! during its Marrakesh residency. Having been fascinated with street art since he was a child, Hassan readily agreed; he also designed or sourced the clothes for the production. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 28mm, 1/50 sec, f/5 and ISO100. © Hassan Hajjaj

Over the past two decades, Hassan's photography career has snowballed. Along with having major solo shows at London's Somerset House and Paris' Maison Européenne de la Photographie, he has published two books: Photography, Fashion, Film, Design, and Dakka Marrakesh. He has also completed commissions for Vogue and Vanity Fair, and moved into filmmaking with the feature Karima: A Day in the Life of a Henna Girl and a video installation of his series My Rock Stars. To top it all off, he has continued his fashion design work through his label, Andy Wahloo.

In the pipeline is a documentary about Gnawa musicians, whom he's been photographing for 24 years. "While I have the energy, I'll keep shooting, keep travelling. And when I get to the stage when I'd rather look back, I'll have lots of work to show," Hassan says.
In your creative process, what's the balance between planning and spontaneity?

"I do a lot of planning. I have to look for locations and then I sit down and sketch the scene. I'm always trying to make the exterior shoots feel like a scene from a film. I want the viewer to wonder what's going to happen next. Then there's the outfits – I have to buy the fabric, take it to a local tailor in Marrakesh to have it made – so there's a long journey to get the image."


What sparks the idea for a portrait?

"Normally it's the sitter, but it could be a textile or a backdrop – anything. For example, a few weeks ago I saw some shopping bags with black and white pictures of Arab actors and actresses. I had a suit made out of them which I'll use if I'm photographing an actor. I have hundreds of outfits I've designed in my shop in London. It's like an artist in the studio with his paints. You have 100 colours and you might only use five but the others are there, ready for when you need them."


What do you do to create a good atmosphere on a studio portrait shoot?

"When I set up the studio, it's like I'm setting up a stage, and when I dress the sitter up, it's immediately like they're a character in a performance. I'm lucky because most of the people I photograph are musicians or artists, so they already have an attitude that they bring with them. Then I put on music and we flow with the energy between the sitter and myself."


How does music influence your images?

"I grew up with a lot of musicians around me. In the 1980s I was running clubs and I had a record shop. That feeds into your spirit and mind and blood and becomes normal to you. If I'm shooting with a musician, we might put on their music. I'll be shooting along with the rhythm of the beat while the sitter is posing to the rhythm of the beat. The work has that frequency within it."

One thing I know

Hassan Hajjaj



"Sometimes the pictures that you take today might not be important for 10 years. When I have a show, I might have been working on it on and off for a decade. I've been taking pictures of Gnawa musicians since 1996. I've only shown maybe five of those pictures and I have hundreds. When I feel it's the right moment, I'll show them. It's about being patient and building up the body of work; the story you're trying to tell. For me, this has been a learning process."

Facebook: @hassanhajjajart

Instagram: @hassanhajjaj_larache

Hassan Hajjaj's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Hassan Hajjaj's kitbag containing a Canon camera and lenses.

Camera

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Designed to perform in every situation, the EOS 5D Mark IV is beautifully engineered and a thoroughly accomplished all-rounder. "I like how intuitive it is," says Hassan. "I use photography as an expression, as a medium for my work."

Lenses

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM

A short telephoto focal length, combined with a large maximum aperture and fast autofocus speed, make the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM an ideal optic for any photographer shooting portraiture. Hassan says: "I use this for shooting portraits in the studio."

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