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Hakim Kabbaj

21 June 2021

Covering subjects such as landscapes, city scenes, and abstract portraiture, Hakim Kabbaj has a dark and emotion-evoking style that broadly isolates subjects against a minimalist backdrop. His work often combines bold contrast, rich colours and lifted shadows pushed towards the blue spectrum, which give the photos a theme that is both distinct and futuristic in its nature.

What's your backstory?

The journey began in North Africa. I was born in beautiful Morocco and immigrated to the United States at an early age. I grew up in New York City in the 80's and 90's where creativity and danger filled the dense city air; lessons were learned and stripes were earned with every outing. My parents were the hardest working people I knew and dedicated their lives to giving my siblings and I the best possible education, and I owe everything to them. I also grew up with a tight knit group of friends from diverse backgrounds and was lucky to be exposed to different cultures from the start.

After high school, I moved to Philadelphia where I attended Temple University and graduated with a degree in Film and Media Arts. After College, I was lucky enough to land an amazing job with the Associated Press as a videographer, photographer and live broadcast specialist. I was based in Washington DC but got the opportunity to do a lot of traveling, covering international breaking news stories all over the Americas including natural disasters, man made disasters, presidential elections and numerous other events. This little Moroccan kid found himself in certain rooms and places you wouldn't believe, I was fortunate to witness some notable historical moments as an AP shooter.

After that unforgettable experience, I moved back to NY to be closer to my family. I worked on a couple of shows for Vice and helped manage the Vice News studio at their Brooklyn Headquarters. Recently in 2019, I started working full time doing corporate photography and videography for a large accounting firm here in NY. It's not as exciting as what I used to do, but it's another aspect of photography that I've been able to add to my repertoire while still working on my personal projects when time permits. A little job security and benefits aren't bad either, especially after the year we've had.

How did you first start out in photography?

Growing up, my father always had a camera with him. When no one was watching, he would always finish a roll of film by taking these super close-up selfies of himself. We would eventually get the photos back and as we're looking through them, there goes my Dad's huge face on the last 3 or 4 prints. Even though he did it with every roll, I always got such a kick out of it. Those moments opened my young eyes to the impact of images and their ability to produce instant joy, anticipation and surprise. To this day, I'm still convinced that my Dad invented the selfie hahaha… didn't quite rub off on me though.

During High School and College, I was more into moving images and dabbled with photography as a way to sharpen my eye and improve my cinematography. Eventually, I came to the realization that creating still images was my true passion and at times even my therapy. A medium that agreed with my solitary ways, it allowed me to go out on my own terms and create. It's been a bit of an obsession ever since that realization.

How would you describe your style?

I would obviously prefer to hear how others would describe my style of photography, but ultimately for me it's about emotion and imagination.

If I had to break my style down, I would say it's perhaps an attempt to illustrate my own bipolarity, my depiction of eternal dueling forces, such as good vs evil, hope vs despair, light vs darkness, the old vs the new, with a touch of escapism, isolation and American Indian mythology. Some of my work is inspired by the chiaroscuro Italian art technique of using strong and bold contrasts between light and dark in order to create drama and emotional impact. I enjoy the way deep shadows and strong contrast distort our sense of space and scale. The images of the American Indian Dancers are great examples of that. I feel like the dark backdrop is disorienting to the viewer and creates mystery while giving the dancers a timeless presence, a connection with the infinite.

I make a sincere effort to create unique and unexpected images and I try not to get boxed into a specific style. You gotta stay open to trying new things as a photographer while also staying true to your gaze and your intent. I'm energized by some of the images I've been able to create these last couple of years, especially some of the low light ones, and I'm eager to keep developing and see where I can take it. It's a lifelong journey.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I draw inspiration from a variety of places. I've always loved science fiction books and movies which grew into an interest in real life space exploration. I love the history of it, and I mean if you're not inspired by what's currently happening in the field of space exploration...I don't know what would inspire you. Personally, it makes me look up more often and pay more attention to the daily cosmic ballet that we're all spectators of and passengers on.

I also love survival stories and stories of humans that go through extraordinary lengths to achieve their goals. They remind me that we can push ourselves beyond what we think is possible. I consume a lot of nature and investigative documentaries that serve as constant reminders of how much destruction we inflict on our environment, and the corporate and political greed that plays part. I'm also a huge fan of science fiction and dystopian cinema and pull a good amount of inspiration from movies such as: Brazil, The City of Lost Children, THX-1138, Alien/s, 2001: A Space Odyssey. What fascinates me is the actual making of some of these older sci-fi movies. With less SFX available, they really had to rely on their ingenuity, creativity and craftsmanship to make it all come to life, sometimes in a very simplistic but extremely effective manner. I admire that.

All of these things influence the mindset I approach my photography with.

How do you know when you've got "the shot"?

While I'm shooting, I never really know when I've got the shot, but when I feel like a shot has the potential to be a great shot, I try to give myself options in the edit by shooting it multiple times at different specs and maybe even different lenses if I can. I hate the feeling of being in the edit and wishing that I had tried this or that, especially for locations that took a lot of effort to reach. I think a great shot stands out from the rest when it contains multiple elements working together within the frame that serve in conveying emotion or igniting the viewer's imagination and curiosity.

Are you an impulsive or planned shooter?

I would say I'm more of a planned shooter. I'm always up for some spontaneous shooting, especially if there's some interesting weather outside, but I feel like I usually get better results when I plan things out and put some thought into what I'm trying to capture before stepping out the door. I use those plans as a general guideline but also try to stay flexible because you never know what you might see while you're out. I think the biggest challenge at times is to stay in a positive mindset when things aren't going as planned or you feel like you're not capturing anything great, we all have those days.

You might think this is crazy but when I have a trip coming up, I'll practice some sensory deprivation by not going outside a week or two before traveling, so that when i eventually get out and reach my destination (which is usually in the middle of nowhere), those positive vibes you get from being outdoors in nature are that much more intensified. I think everyone experienced some of that this past year.

How do you achieve the look in your photos?

At times, I'm able to come close to what I'm looking to achieve right out of the camera and so only minimal edits are required. Other times, I completely transform an image to achieve the final result. Some of my favorites though are the ones that I simply experimented with, trying different things in the edit. I think it's fun to explore the limits of how much an image can be transformed. While I dabble a bit with Photoshop, I make almost all my edits in Adobe Lightroom. I create my own presets that compliment my style and use them as a baseline when working with newer images.

Before and after editing
Before and after editing

How do you feel your style has evolved over the years?

You can see the progression of my style by scrolling through my Instagram page. You'll see that my earlier works have more of an emphasis on the physical location of what I'm photographing. As my style evolved, my images took on a more minimalistic style and emotionally infused nature. Low light photography has definitely helped me achieve a more dramatic aesthetic along the years.

Do you have any photos that are you particularly proud of?

I'm particularly proud of the images of the rocks over the dry lake bed. It was a very difficult location to get to. I had to drive the final 20 miles over a very rocky road. On top of risking a flat tire, I was alone in the middle of the desert at the height of summer, no one around for miles and no cell phone reception. Luckily the vehicle held up and got me there just as the sun was setting. It was getting dark fast and I had to get creative, so I set up the camera for long exposures and I used my headlight to spotlight the rocks while doing my best to stay out of frame. It was a spontaneous idea that worked out beautifully. I was able to highlight the rocks and the floor bed in a low light environment and it gave the images an eerie otherworldly aesthetic; before having to drive back on that rocky road in the dark of night. I don't know what I would've done if I got stuck out there to be honest, but I do know that the extra effort always pays off - so embrace the struggle.

What does photography mean to you?

It means everything. It provides me with a refuge from everyday life, a place I can get lost in emotionally. It allows me to get up close and personal with the birds, the mountains and the moons. It's given me access to places that I would have no business being in if it wasn't for that camera in my hand. It served as a conduit for numerous valued connections with subjects and fellow photographers. What I also love about photography is that you're forced to learn and familiarize yourself with whatever it is you're looking to capture, so ultimately it becomes about more than just taking a picture.

My motivation is to ignite people's imagination and curiosity, perhaps bring a sense of wonder back to someone's life who's lost it along the way, while perhaps also serving as a warning call for the inevitable looming global catastrophe. Because "Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment…" - Buckminster Fuller.

What advice would you have for people getting into photography?

My advice to anyone getting into photography, is to respect the medium as an art form, encourage and be kind to your fellow photographers, leave no trace after shoots and to just put in the time. There are no shortcuts in photography, you need to put in the time to develop your eye, your technique, your voice and your intent. I still have a lot more time to put in myself. Keep creating, keep improving and see how far it can take you. I also recommend always having some water and perhaps an energy bar in your camera kit, it might save your life one day.

How has COVID-19 affected your photography?

I was lucky enough to be working during the pandemic which kept me pretty busy. I spent most of my spare time working on large size prints, working with various print shops, experimenting with different sizes and paper stocks. It's a wonderful feeling seeing your images come to life. I also started working in medium format this past year. I'm still learning how to work with the images but I'm looking forward to seeing where I can take it.

What are your thoughts on Instagram as a photography platform?

I can't hate on Instagram too much. I've been able to connect and build some great relationships with some outstanding human beings there, that go beyond photography. I feel part of a genuinely nurturing and encouraging community. Every time I log on I'm blown away and inspired by what my fellow photographers are creating. It's also a great way to expose your eyes to a huge amount of imagery, it's become a photography database of sorts.

As far as the algorithm, I try not to worry about it too much. Obviously, followers/likes feel good and it's great to see your account grow, but I try not to spend too much time thinking of how to out-manoeuvre the algorithm. If you make Instagram the end-all-be-all of your photography world, it will most likely disappoint because at the end of the day, Instagram is a business trying to turn a profit. It's also not tailored for art photographers. We might've managed to carve out some space for ourselves there but the Instagram universe is so much vaster. Value the bonds and relationships that you build with others through the platform instead of the numbers.

What are some of your hobbies outside of photography?

I still love shooting video and helping friends and family out with different creative projects. Along with traveling and exploring every chance I get, I also enjoy cooking, I play a little basketball and got into plants this past year… I'll stop there cause this is starting to sound like a dating profile.

Thank you for taking the time to speak to us Hakim. Any final comments?

It was a pleasure. Thank you for the interest and truly honored to be mentioned alongside all the talented artists showcased here.

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