Moroccan girls, motorbikes, and polka dot veils are important themes in this photographer's work

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: For our next story, I've got four words for you: Moroccan Motorcycle Girl Gang. That's what you see in a series of photographs by Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj. Women wearing veils and traditional clothes, posing on their bikes. Hajjaj has an exhibit of his work called "Kesh Angels" in New York right now. "Kesh" is short for "Marrakesh". Hajjaj told me about one angel in particular, a woman named Karima.

Hassan Hajjaj: She's a girl that works in Jemaa El Fna, which is the square in Marrakesh where all the tourists come and the Moroccans there - it's like a theater. You've got snake charmers, monkeys, storytellers. She's a third generation doing Henna for the tourists and Moroccans. I was really attracted to her because she wears a veil and this really textiled abayas, the things we wear with the hoods - the long gowns with the hoods.

Also, she rides a bike to work and back. She's a normal woman that works probably 8 to 10 hours a day in the square. She speaks about 4 or 5 languages. She's a housewife, has 2 kids, she's built her own house over the years. So, really, that started from the ?? influence back in the '90's. I started to ask other things ?? and later on when I was using my design, I kind of added that in some of the images.

Werman: What about their motorcycles? Are they really motorcycles? More like scooters? Are they obsessed about them?

Hajjaj: It depends on the shoots, because there are some bikes that were my friends and they would pose on it but I would say most of the bikes are their bikes. The thing is I've only highlighted the girls on bikes but you have to remember Marrakesh is really a bike city, a mobile(??) city. Everybody rides them, from young kids to a man, from a young girl to older girls - it's a feast for the eyes.

You're going to see things and you're going to laugh. There could be a woman riding with a sheep behind her and a husband behind that. You could see 2 guys carrying a big piece of glass behind them. This transport is used for work, used to get by. There's not somebody who is going to be putting rims on them or something like that.

Werman: How did you become interested in photography in the first place?

Hajjaj: I was born in Morocco and then I came to England in '73. I've become a misfit because I didn't speak English, but from the age of birth until 13, I can say that I probably have 3 pictures of myself that were taken in the studios. So my first experience - because my dad was living in England in '66 and I was still living in Morocco with my mom, aunt and sisters, so every few years we'd dress up, go to a local studio, and there'd be a different backdrop or something like that, and then they'd take a picture. A few days later we'd collect the picture to be able to send to my father in London. That was my first, I would say, impact with photography.

I'd never forget going into that room, seeing the lights, the film, the backdrops and then every time we'd go down to look at the pictures, they would have other pictures that they had taken of other people at the front of the shop. We'd go and see if we knew anybody. We grew up watching Indian movies, so if you go down, if you can't get into to see the movie, you can see the picture outside the movie, and fantasize. That was my first thing, I suppose, with photography.

Werman: We recently featured a photographer who was in Marrakesh and found it really hard to take pictures of subjects there. People just didn't want their pictures taken. What about you? What was your experience like? Some of these women are just badass. They seem to be saying, "Go on, take pictures of me any which way you want."

Hajjaj: For me, it was really about trust. It wasn't something where I had just met the person and said, "Let's shoot." It was time. They got to understand what I do. Now they ask me when the next shoot is going to be. It really takes time and trust. They say in Morocco, especially the older generation, they have this thing which is also said in Africa, where if you take a picture of them it's like taking their soul. You have that element of it as well.

Werman: It's almost like understanding the code and obeying that code. How do people in Morocco see your art? Do they see it as "This is Hassan and a bunch of his friends," or do they see it as art?

Hajjaj: I think it's been accepted as art. I've been very lucky. I've got big support in Morocco - especially the younger generation in the age of the internet. There was one point where I felt lonely and on my own, because being in Morocco and doing what I suppose is called "Arab Art", it was a lonely space, because in the West nobody is going to take you serious. You'd be that ethnic, Moroccan, North African artist so you're not going to be getting into the white ?? with anything like that. So I think it's a mixture, I suppose.

Werman: Well you certainly don't want to miss Hassan Hajjaj' pictures of the "Kesh Angels". We have some of them on our website, Pri.Org. Hassan Hajjaj, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Hajjaj: Thank you very much sir.