For someone who makes photographs for a living, Hassan Hajjaj is remarkably shifty when the lens is turned on him. We’re gathered on the street outside his shop in Shoreditch trying to snatch seconds of sunlight from clouds overhead. “Look into the camera,” photographer Nina Manandhar says. Hassan obeys, eyes sliding hesitantly to meet the camera. He blinks, and his gaze shifts up to the flats which circle around us in red brick.
The Boundary Estate was the world’s first council estate. Hassan Hajjaj has been a member of the community since 2004. Following a stint in Parkway, Camden and before that, Covent Garden’s Neal street, the shop is not Hassan’s first. Somewhere between souk and living room, the small Shoreditch shop is crammed with trinkets — babouche slippers with a Nike tick, Barbie dolls dressed in Fendi printed hijab — only some of which a dotted with neon stickers denoting their price. “It’s like a contemporary Ali Baba cave I suppose,” Hassan allows, his eyes grazing the walls around him. “I need the space to work from, and this shop came about from the council so it’s decent rent. I’ve never really relied on the shop: I use it as an office, a place to meet, a studio to shoot.”
Hassan splits his time between London and Marrakech, bookended with trips elsewhere — New York, Paris, LA — for shoots, meetings and to check up on the progress of upcoming shows. Eschewing traditional purpose-built studio spaces, Hassan Hajjaj makes his work on the street. “That’s my studio,” he points to the pavement outside his shop. “I don’t use lighting, I only use daylight, so I shoot in the streets. All my shoots are in the street. It’s easy for me to shoot as everything’s already there.”
Hassan Hajjaj left northern Morocco at the age of 14. In 1973, he made the journey over to west London. Having left school at 15, Hassan spent the next seven years unemployed, time he invested in “a lot” of parties. “I used to promote and create lots of parties and within that [time] I found a space and re-decorated it, inviting people, putting DJs on,” he recalls. During the period in which he had a shop on Neal Street, Hassan started assisting his friend, stylist Andy Blake, on fashion shows and magazines. Around the same time, he started working with his friend Zak Ove behind the scenes on music videos and then, in the ‘80s, he founded cult streetwear brand R.A.P. R.A.P stood for Real Artistic People, a label born from London’s subculture of “outsiders”. R.A.P dressed everyone from Soul II Soul to Bionic, London Posse to Ekow Eshun, who Hassan stills considers a close friend.
It wasn’t until the late ‘80s that Hassan Hajjaj bought a camera and finally started taking pictures. “I showed the first body of work in the ‘90s, really just to share with my friends,” Hassan tells me. It was during this period that Hassan sold a piece to Italian singer Pino Daniele who used it for his album cover. “He asked me to do 150 prints of the cover to sign, and I decided to give this a go and see what I had inside me,” Hassan remembers.
The journey to global recognition unravelled slowly due to Hassan’s own hesitations about being labelled an artist. “It kind of happened slowly, because I didn’t have the confidence,” Hassan says. “It wasn’t something I was trying to do or look for, it just happened. I remember doing my first show, and the gallery introduced me as their artist and I remember going, ‘I’m not an artist!’ because I didn’t think I was worthy to have that title. I didn’t know if it would just last a minute in my life. It took me a good three years after the first show to forcibly be able to say, ‘I’m an artist’.”
In 2018, Hassan is better known than ever thanks to his central role in last year’s 1-54 African Art Fair which granted him a solo show at Somerset House. In the year since, Hassan’s place as the “Andy Warhol of Marrakech” has been solidified. Despite the art world taking note at last, you get the sense that Hassan Hajjaj doesn’t really care. His heart lies elsewhere, eternally embracing high, low, club, pop and street cultures and playfully leaping between Africa and the West. “When I started doing so-called ‘art’, I was questioning myself,” he explains. “What do I want to do? What do I want to express? And I just thought, what’s around me, be truthful. I don’t want to be a really intellectual artist because the work is for the people.”
Lately, Hassan’s career has taken a more glamorous turn. Scroll through his Instagram page and you’ll find that he has been busy shooting Cardi B, Will Smith and Madonna. “This is all new to me because I’m not a celebrity photographer,” he admits. “Will Smith discovered my work. He was coming to Morocco and he asked if he could meet me and spend some time with me. So I invited him to my house to do a brunch, and I asked him if he was up for doing a shoot with his friends and he said yes.” It’s unsurprising: Hassan’s humble attitude is catching.
Hassan’s process stays the same whether he is shooting a world famous celebrity or a squad of unruly teenage girls. He doesn’t cast because everyone he shoots is a friend. “I never put pressure on them,” he explains. “I say, bring your own stuff or I present stuff, and that makes it easier. It could be a suit that gives me an idea, or it could be the person or backdrop: it depends on each one for something to just click between elements.” And what makes a good subject? “An energy,” Hassan replies, eyes filled with the unmistakable glimmer of mischief. “I love the moment where I’m taking pictures because it’s a sense of escapism for me.”
Hassan’s creative vision extends far beyond photography into the realms of set design, furniture design and film, an approach which allows him to sidestep the monotony of repetition. “I think by allowing myself to work in different mediums, I haven’t been able to get bored,” he considers. “I could be in Brick Lane and see something that could turn me on with sunglasses. Or I could be in Marrakech and see a design on a table. So it really differs, and every day is different, so in some ways I’ve been lucky to be able to create that and make my way through the art world.”
Despite his rising profile within it, the art world does not seem to hold much lure for Hassan Hajjaj. Instead, the artist is happiest behind his camera. “I’d rather people look at the image and like the image but not me. If you get lost in showing the work or being around, it can harm you,” he says philosophically, gazing at the Ali Baba cave of a shop. In his world, outside doesn’t really matter. “What I’m doing inside is all happening naturally.”
Hassan Hajjaj’s work features at this year’s 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House