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DUBAI: In early February this year, Moroccan contemporary artist and photographer Hassan Hajjaj received a reminder of how high his star has risen. Within a few days of each other, Hajjaj opened shows in the United States, Morocco and, as part of the AlUla Arts Festival, Saudi Arabia.

Hajjaj’s playful portraits, incorporating bright colors, original clothing (almost all of which she designs herself), geometric patterns and often vintage brands from the MENA region, have made him popular internationally and his instantly recognizable style has established him as one of the most important photographers in the world.

His exhibition in AlUla consisted of images he took in the ancient oasis city in February 2023. That visit was initially supposed to include photo sessions with around twenty local inhabitants. It’s the kind of thing he’s done several 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 puts it, he came to AlUla as “an outsider,” so he needed a team on the ground to persuade the locals to come and sit down (or stand up, in most cases). for him.

“At first it was a little difficult for them to find people,” explains Hajjaj. “But because it was during a period when a lot of artistic things were happening in AlUla, a lot of people from outside AlUla also came. So we open it. I basically said, ‘Just come.’

“In the end a lot of people showed up, not just locals: people from Riyadh, Jeddah and also people (from abroad). I think I photographed about 100 people in a few days. So it was a great opportunity,” he continues. “To photograph so many people in three days, organizing something like that for me could take a year. So, as long as I have the energy, when I have these opportunities – you know, I’m in AlUla with this eclectic group of people – I’d rather go and push myself, work really hard and have that moment.”

A Hassan Hajjaj photo shoot is not your usual portrait session, of course. “It’s almost like a performance,” he says. “There’s music, people dress up, it’s like a day off for them, taking them out of themselves for a few hours.”

He followed the same modus operandi in AlUla. “We have an atmosphere going. It was fun, there was music… I filmed in this beautiful old school that was one of the first girls’ schools in Saudi Arabia, from the sixties. Upstairs it was like a museum: everything looked like a stagnation of the seventies and eighties; Even the blackboards had chalk and writing from that time,” she says.

Alicia and Swizz. (Supplied)

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

“It’s that thing about capturing the spirit of the person in that split second, you know? “I’m trying to reflect her personality and body language in the image,” she says. “Very often I photograph on the street, outdoors, so that (the subjects) can start looking at other people and think, ‘Are they looking at me?’ That’s why I usually say: ‘Listen.’ This is a scenario I’m building for you. I’ll dress you up and we’ll have fun. Then I try to find that personality that can emerge and strengthen the image. However, some people say that almost nothing can be better and just move on. I try to become invisible so that the camera, not the person, does the work. The best photographs come out when there is some kind of comfortable moment between the person and the camera, me and me.”

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

Installation view. (AlUla Arts)

“That comforts you because you have a relationship with them. He made it easy,” she states. “And that taught me how important it is to build trust in people to get into that comfort zone. But as time went on, obviously, people could see things in the press or on social media, so people started asking to be shot that way; Maybe they’ve studied certain people’s poses and things like that, so they come ready to do some pose they’ve seen in my photos. “That’s pretty funny.”

The work that has been on display for the past two months in Hajjaj’s “AlUla 1445” is a perfect example of what he is trying to achieve with his photographs. The images are vibrant, funny and moving, and the subjects range from a local goat herder to the AlUla soccer team to true superstars: American singer-songwriter Alicia Keys and her husband Swizz Beatz.

Hajjaj says he has several favorites “for different reasons,” including the goatherd.

AlUla FC (supplied)

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

The filming of Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz has been in the works for a long time. Hajjaj met Swizz Beatz a decade ago and they have been in touch on and off ever since. The idea of ​​a photo shoot with Keys first came up about five years ago, but logistics always got in the way. But since they were doing a concert in AlUla at the same time Hajjaj was there, it finally happened, on the last day of Hajjaj, with maybe an hour left before the light went out.

I ask Hajjaj if his way of photographing celebrities differs from his photographs of “ordinary” people.

With your hand on your heart. (Supplied)

“It probably doesn’t make much difference,” he says. “They’re coming into my world, so again, it’s just about making sure they feel comfortable with you and you feel comfortable with them; without looking at them (like celebrities). The only thing is that you have to imagine that they have been photographed thousands of times (also by the best photographers) to get their way. So I just have to stay with them and find that comfortable space between me and the babysitter.”

And then there is Ghadi Al-Sharif.

“It is a beautiful image. She has this smile, with her hand over her face. For me, that one really presents the light and energy of AlUla,” says Hajjaj. “Capture the new generation.”