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DUBAI: Early in February this year, Moroccan contemporary artist and photographer Hassan Hajjaj was given a reminder of just how high his star has risen. Within a few days of each other, Hajjaj had shows opening in the US, Morocco, and — as part of AlUla Arts Festival — Saudi Arabia. 

Hajjaj’s playful portraiture, which incorporates vivid color, funky clothing (almost all of which he designs himself), geometric patterns, and — often — vintage brands from the MENA region, has made him internationally popular, and his instantly recognizable style has established him as one of the world’s leading photographers. 

His show in AlUla consisted of images that he shot in the ancient oasis town in February 2023. That visit was initially supposed to involve shoots with around 20 local people. It’s the kind of thing he’s done a few times before, including in Oman and Abu Dhabi. “It’s always a good opportunity to get to know the culture and the people,” Hajjaj tells Arab News.  

But, as he says himself, he arrived in AlUla as “an outsider,” so needed a team on the ground to persuade locals to come and sit (or stand, in most cases) for him.  

“It was a bit tough, in the beginning, for them to find people,” Hajjaj explains. “But because it was during a period when lots of art things were happening in AlUla, there were lots of people coming from outside AlUla as well. So we opened it up. I basically said, ‘Just come.’ 

“In the end lots of people turned up, not just locals — people from Riyadh, Jeddah, and people (from overseas) too. I think I shot around 100 people over a few days. So it was a great opportunity,” he continues. “To get to shoot that many people over three days — organizing something like that for myself might take a year. So, as long as I have the energy, when I get these opportunities — you know, I’m in AlUla with this eclectic bunch of people — I’d rather go and grind it, really work hard, and have that moment.” 

A Hassan Hajjaj shoot isn’t your regular portrait shoot, of course. “It’s almost like a performance,” he says. “There’s music, people dress up, it’s like a day out for them, taking them out of themselves for a few hours.”  

He followed the same modus operandi in AlUla. “We got an ambience going. It was fun, there was music… I shot in this beautiful old school that was one of the first girls’ schools in Saudi Arabia, from the Sixties. Upstairs was like a museum — everything was like a standstill from the Seventies and Eighties; even the blackboards had the chalk and the writing from that time,” he says.  

Alicia and Swizz. (Supplied)

A crucial part of Hajjaj’s practice is to ensure that his subjects are at ease and feel some connection with him (“comfortable” is a word he uses several times when talking about his shoots). While all his portraits bear his clearly defined style, it’s important to him that they should also show something unique to the people in them. 

“It’s that old thing about capturing the spirit of the person in that split second, you know? I’m trying to get their personality and body language in the image,” he says. “Quite often I’m shooting in the street, outdoors, so (the subjects) can start looking at other people, thinking, ‘Are they looking at me?’ So I usually say, ‘Listen. This is a stage I’m building for you. I’m dressing you up, and we’re going to have fun.’ Then I just try and find that personality that can come out and make the image stronger. With some people, though, saying almost nothing can be better — just getting on with it. I try to kind of go invisible so it’s the camera, not the person, that’s doing the work. The best pictures come out when there’s some kind of comfortable moment between me and the person and the camera.” 

It’s the way he’s worked since the beginning — a process that developed organically, as most of his early portraits were of “friends or friends of friends.” 

Installation view. (AlUla Arts)

“There’s a comfort in that because you have a relationship with them. It made it easy,” he says. “And that taught me about how important it is to build trust with people to get into that comfortable zone. But as time went on, obviously, people could see the stuff in the press or on social media, so then people started, like, asking to be shot in that manner; maybe they’ve studied the poses of certain people and stuff like that, so they come ready to do some pose they’ve seen in my pictures. That’s quite funny.” 

The work that was on display over the past two months in Hajjaj’s “AlUla 1445” is a perfect example of what he tries to achieve with his shoots. The images are vibrant, playful, and soulful, and the subjects run from a local goatherder through the AlUla football team to bona fide superstars: the US singer-songwriter Alicia Keys and her husband Swizz Beatz.  

Hajjaj says he has a number of favorites “for different reasons,” including the goatherder.  

AlUla F.C. (Supplied)

“He brought in two goats and it became quite abstract when you put all of them together. I was playing with that notion of the person; you could see that’s his life and even the goats look happy,” he explains. “I wanted to make sure they had that shine in the image as well. I got some great shots of him.” 

The Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz shoot has been a long time in the making. Hajjaj first met Swizz Beatz a decade ago, and they have been in touch intermittently ever since. The idea of a shoot with Keys first came up about five years ago, but logistics had always got in the way. But since they were playing a concert in AlUla at the same time as Hajjaj was there, it finally happened, on Hajjaj’s last day, with perhaps an hour left before the light faded.  

I ask Hajjaj if his approach to shooting celebrities differs from his shots of “ordinary” people.  

Hand On Heart. (Supplied)

“There’s probably not that much difference,” he says. “They’re coming into my world, so, again, it’s just making sure they’re comfortable with you and you’re comfortable with them; not looking at them (as celebrities). The only thing is you have to imagine they’ve been shot thousands of times — by top photographers, too — so they’re going to have their ways. So I just have to lock in with them and find that comfortable space between the sitter and me.”  

And then there’s Ghadi Al-Sharif.  

“It’s a beautiful picture. She’s got this smile, with her hand over her face. For me, that one really presents the light and the energy of AlUla,” Hajjaj says. “It captures the new generation.” 

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