Candid Conversations: Hassan Hajjaj and Eliška Sky

Continuing our series of conversations, two art photographers – one an industry veteran, the other a young rising star – talk candidly about the balance between art and commercial work, and reflect on the positives and pitfalls of finding a unique style.
A woman in leopard-spotted clothes with a face covering, lying on a striped pink, black and purple rug. The image's frame consists of red cans with tomatoes on them.

Hassan Hajjaj started out in photography taking pictures of his friends, to show qualities he admired. This image of Alia Ali is part of his My Rock Stars series, which features inspirational artists, performers and creatives and challenges the stereotypical image conjured up by the term "rock star". Central image taken on a Canon EOS 70D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 90D) with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 32mm, 1/50 sec, f/4 and ISO200. © Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy of Alia Ali, the Artist and Fotografiska New York

Picasso and Monet, Stephen Shore and Richard Avedon all have one thing in common: each one has a distinctive style. But how does a unique style develop, and is there a point where it becomes a constraint?

The portfolio of visual artist and Canon Ambassador Eliška Sky brims with colour and creative concepts. Throughout her 13-year career, she's built up a body of personal and commercial work that is bold and playful and often provides visual commentary on important issues such as climate change and diversity.

Here, she speaks with fellow art photographer and Canon Ambassador Hassan Hajjaj. Hassan has lived and worked between Morocco and London since childhood. Over a 30-year career he has created joyful images that mix documentary photography with portraiture and fashion with set design, as well as featuring self-styled characters from the street. With his work exhibited in the British Museum, London's V&A, Brooklyn Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he's not only successfully straddled the art and commercial worlds but also become easily identifiable.

The two photographers met virtually to discuss inspiration, developing a style, and striking a balance between commercial and purely artistic work.

Canon Ambassador Hassan Hajjaj holding a Canon camera, against a pink background with a vertical zig-zag pattern.

"I use photography as an expression, as a medium for my work," says Hassan Hajjaj. "I'm not a really technical photographer. But the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV does all I need and I can shoot video on it. I like how intuitive it is."

Canon Ambassador Eliška Sky against a sky blue background that matches her clothes, with table tennis balls in the air around her.

"As both an art and advertising photographer," says Eliška Sky, "I look for perfect image quality and versatility in a camera. The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV gives me both of these. I love the high resolution and great detail in the images, the Dual Pixel RAW option, and the video functionality."

Eliška: It's a pleasure to talk with you. I really love your work – your use of colour and how you combine patterns. Colour is something very important for my work as well. I know you grew up between Marrakesh and London, so did this influence this aspect of your work?

Hassan: If I'd lived in only one of these places, I definitely wouldn't be doing the work I'm doing. Growing up in Morocco gave me my tools and my tradition, and an understanding of my country and culture. London was about discovery – finding new things, meeting new people, influences from music, art, fashion and film.

Eliška: I read that there were a lot of studio photographers in Marrakesh when you were growing up, where you had to go and dress up?

Hassan: Yes, you had photo studios, with the beach for the summer, a plastic racing car, one where you dress up as a cowboy… My studio photography really stemmed from that idea.

A man in a patterned suit holding a bouquet of red and yellow flowers, against a decorative painted background of peacock feathers and flowers. The image's frame is made from green packages.

"When I started, I was very uncomfortable with calling myself a photographer," says Hassan, "because I had all these friends around me that were great photographers." This image of Riz Ahmed is from Hassan's My Rock Stars series. Central image taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 IS USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy of Riz Ahmed, the Artist and Yossi Milo Gallery, NYC, USA

A curly-haired model with a necklace, a red face paint stripe across the mouth and a neon-orange wiggly line running from the eyebrow down the face and neck and across the body.

A portrait captured as part of Eliška's series for Dolce Vita magazine, I Want To Be Loved *even in the pandemic. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 2.5 sec, f/13 and ISO100. © Eliška Sky

Eliška: You always have frames around your pictures, or you have patterns as a frame. Originally I thought it was just an image multiplied, but I later realised that you're building frames made out of objects and products. What's the meaning of the objects within your frames?

Hassan: My early work, from probably 1991 until the mid-90s, was called Graffix from the Souk, and the idea was to collect all Arabic products that I grew up with in Morocco and shoot them. I started printing them on canvas, to make them look somewhere between a photograph and a painting. Then I made my installation called The Salon, and I would show things from my culture that could be looked at as being "cool" – because in the 80s, when you said "I'm from Morocco", people would think of camels, tagine, things like that...

Eliška: So there was a westernised view?

Hassan: Yes, it was dated. The other thing is that I've seen some old paintings from past centuries with decorative frames made for them at the time. I wanted my photography's frames to be part of it. It's also about having that repeated pattern, like the mosaics in Morocco. And then, sometimes, I would play around with the brands according to the image – sometimes, if I have women, I'll have chicken spam, because in English there is that sexist term "chick" for a woman.

Hassan:Where are you from, Eliška?

Eliška: Czech Republic. I've lived in London for seven years.

Hassan: You've been doing more art photography? I've seen the work on Instagram, but are you doing more exhibitions or work with other companies?

Eliška: At the moment I'm doing both, but I really want to get more into art photography. What is quite important for me is the project Womaneroes. I cast diverse women and, together with a body painter and a headpiece artist, we transform them into these colourful statues. I really would love to do more of that. What is most important for me is the message behind it all – in commercial projects and my art photography.

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A woman in a suit wearing a fez, standing in front of a painted background of large red roses. The image's frame is composed of plastic bottles of a blue substance.

Hassan often collaborates with other Moroccan creatives for his work, as in this portrait of singer-songwriter Hindi Zahra. Taken on a Canon PowerShot G11 (now succeeded by the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III) at 1/30 sec, f/2.8 and ISO100. ©Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy of Hindi Zahra and the Artist

A woman in a blue coat, with the sky behind her, holding a clear plastic object to her face, with her hair appearing to fall upwards into the air.

"I get inspired by everyday situations, by things I want to talk about," says Eliška. This image is part of Eliška's 2 Metres Distance project, in response to social distancing. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/7.1 and ISO100. © Eliška Sky

Hassan: Something that has heart in the work, basically.

Eliška: Exactly, exactly. I mean, that's what it should be about, right? Presenting yourself through your work.

Hassan: Yes. I've been commissioned for fashion shoots before, and I've had to stand up for that. I've always said, "If you really want a fashion shoot, get a fashion photographer", because I've always refused to take pictures with models in the picture. I try to have real people. I have no makeup artist, no hair stylist – none of them. If you want a fashion shoot, I'm the wrong person – a fashion photographer will understand what they do, and that world. However, you will get some people, magazines or brands who understand, and that's when you have that great moment.

Eliška: With you, it's all about loving what you do and being authentic and just creating the work which means something to you.

Hassan: Yes, but also there are two sides. There's the creative side, but if you want to make a living out of it, then there has to be the business side too. You have to separate the two when you create, and when you're going out there trying to show your work. You have to present yourself and your work in a different way.

Eliška: Do you do some commissions where it's more because it's just good money, and you don't show the work?

Hassan: Yeah. I mean, I'm a human being – I'm an artist trying to survive! I started doing commissions for the first time probably three or four years ago. Luckily, so far, it's been for really good people. It's about finding that balance.

A black and white image of multiple families inside a large tent, with children eating and clothes hanging from lines.

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A woman in a bright floral red top and green floral skirt with pink flowers, with her shoulders and head out of frame, in front of a green brick wall. The image has two frames, one blue with a scale pattern, the other appearing to have been weaved like a basket.

"You have to work hard, you have to have the passion, you have to get up when you fall down and not give up," says Hassan. This image, Wamuhu Legs, was created in 2014 as part of Hassan's Part of Legs series. Taken on a Canon EOS 70D with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 45mm, 1/80 sec, f/4.5 and ISO100. ©Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy of Wamuhu Waweru, the Artist and Fotografiska New York

A woman with an elaborate hairstyle flared behind her head, wearing a deep-cut, shimmering top, with green light shining on her.

An image created for a "hair culture" site and presented as part of Eliška's Light in the Dark series, demonstrating creative low-light photography techniques for the Canon Redline Challenge. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/4 and ISO4000. © Eliška Sky

Eliška: I saw in your interviews that you like people to really interact with your work and touch it – it's not just a photograph, it's an experience.

Hassan: Yes, because then you're inside the work. And once you're sitting there, you're part of it. You might look at the table and realise it's a road sign – because you're inside of it.

Eliška: I love that. You said that the work you do is a lot about empowerment? You're taking these everyday objects, really cheap fabrics, but you're making something really unique from it, and you're giving a power to the people by them being the "rock stars" of your photographs.

Hassan: Totally. My Rock Star series. In the 70s and 80s, when you said "rock star", you thought of a white guy with long hair, sunglasses, the leather jacket, the tight black trousers, and a guitar. That's what we got sold as a rock star. It's taking a name and re-owning it by having boxers as a rock star or a belly dancer as a rock star. Again, playing around with these words – iconic things that meant something different to me.

Four years ago, I started a project here in Morocco. I felt selfish, just doing my own work, so I started an exhibition to champion Moroccan photographers. I had many, many photography friends back in the day, before I was even into photography, that helped me along my journey. I'm at a stage and age where I wanted to give back and help in the same way.

Eliška: I also do the courses with Canon – part of the Canon Student Development Programme – and there is definitely feedback there. And I really love to see other people's work, see what their mission and vision is. I find it very exciting for my creativity, even.

Hassan: You know, some people like to work on their own, and others like to talk. It depends on each personality and how much time they have. I'm quite active with a lot of photographers.

A woman with an elaborate hairstyle with an image of the night sky projected onto her, meaning that only her face and torso are clearly visible.

"I take inspiration from quite a lot of different fields," explains Eliška, "not necessarily looking at photography or talking with other photographers, even though that can be inspirational too." Another image from Eliška's Light in the Dark series for the Canon Redline Challenge. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/4.5 and ISO3200. © Eliška Sky

A woman in a white and blue jacket and trousers, with a red, black and green blouse, crouching down in front of a pink, purple and black striped background. The image is framed by purple cans with an eye sticker on each of them.

This piece, featuring fellow Moroccan artist Lamia Naji, is part of Hassan's series Maroc Stars, a tribute to, or interpretation of, Morocco's cultural landscape. Taken on a Canon EOS 70D with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/30 sec, f/4 and ISO320. © Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy of Lamia Naji and the Artist

Eliška: Your style is so specific. Did you always create with that style, or did it develop?

Hassan: I was doing the studio shoots from the beginning, documenting people. It was influenced by the fact I've only got three pictures of myself from the age of 1 to 13. [Hassan was 12 when his family moved from Morocco to London.]

From my experience, you just have to believe in what you're doing. You have to work hard, you have to have the passion, you have to get up when you fall down and not give up. It takes a long time.

Eliška: I find it incredible that, when I look at your work, I know it's you – you keep that aesthetic going. I find it's quite difficult to keep just one style, because there are different clients or there are different jobs.

Hassan: Well, that also comes with time. If you think of Keith Haring, for example, you usually think of the specific style of work he's known for: the colourful drawings. If he did something slightly different – and he will do something different, because he's an artist – you're not going to recognise it as his work. Yet all the collectors are only going to want to buy the work that he's known for. That can kill your art. You have to be careful that having a rigid style doesn't hamper you in the long term. As a photographer, I'm a big fan of black and white photography, but most people know my colourful work.

I get a lot of the younger generation asking "How did you make it?". I ask what "making it" means from their perspective. They say it's about becoming famous and making money and having all these shows and stuff. It's not about that. It's about whether you love what you're doing and letting that take you on a journey.

Emma-Lily Pendleton

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