Kazem Hakimi runs a fish and chip shop a short distance from where I live. I drop in when I’m passing. We talk photography and occasionally I treat myself to a bag of fish and chips. Kazem has also taken the photograph of me on the Home Page of my website. I like the picture. He catches me relaxed, but curious, as though I’m sizing him up as a subject! I also took the picture of him accompanying this blog. Both pictures were taken in Kazem’s “studio” which consists of a white wall at the back of his shop.
You may be finding this all a bit strange - dropping into a fish and chip shop for photography, but recently the world has started to pay attention to Kazem, the fish and chip photographer,
You can see some of Kazem’s pictures on this and other websites. I think you’ll agree they are quite remarkable. Personally I’m drawn to Kazem’s photographs because he illustrates two key components in the photography I admire.
First of all Kazem photographs the world he knows. He portrays his customers for us, the people who live and work in Donnington on Oxford's Iffley Road. They are not afraid to show themselves and to act into the occasion of being pictured. Sometimes this shows up as a bit of extravagance and sometimes as something more subtle like a wry smile, or a direct open gaze. Seeing the pictures and meeting Kazem has made me wonder about the significance of locality - how he shares the swirl of a common place with his sitters. This line of inquiry arises from my experience of photographing urban and natural landscapes. I have found that I take my best photographs of places that I already know well, or have taken the trouble to roam around in and see from many different angles. Immersion becomes my point of resonance with Kazem. His pictures feel to me as if they are taken from the inside of a place he shares with those he depicts. When he leans across the counter to show his pictures I smile at what I see and lean forward into the detail of the images. When I leave the shop the landscape shows up differently because it holds all the hidden variety disclosed by his pictures. For a while at least, the Iffley Road feels just a bit more mysterious and magical.
Secondly, slightly paradoxically, Kazem’s photographs also show a limit to direct contact with his subjects. These are not intimate photographs such as Kazem might take of his family; nor are they especially naturalistic for the subjects are posing and often performing in some way; nor are they especially informal, for the photographs show compositional care, and the framing process seems to disrupt direct contact. His photographs are, then, very different from the almost overpowering intimacy of (say) Saul Leiter’s interiors (See “Saul Leiter, Early Black and White:1. Interior”, Steidl/Howard Greenberg Library). Leiter along with others in the New York school seem beautiful to me for the way they penetrate into the core of people by showing them in the detail of a shared life space - a bedroom, a kitchen some other kind of communal space. This sounds similar to Kazem's immersion in the same place as his subjects, but the results are quite different in what is expressed through the images. Kazem’s photographs convey the expressive distance of a classic portrait - the sitters stand out as quite distinct as if they were deliberately showing themselves to the photographer rather than being caught in some naturally occurring situation.
The edge of formality in Kazem's images is a second source of resonance for me, because in my street photography I will more often than not approach someone who interests me to negotiate a shot rather than try to catch them by surprise. This places a requirement on me to make sufficient contact quickly so that the stranger approached on the street will consent to be photographed and be relaxed enough to do a bit more than grimace at the camera!
The personal effect of viewing Kazem's pictures and meeting him in person is, then, to remind me of themes and dilemmas in my own practice. In particular he reminds me of how picking up the camera can enable, a certain kind of attention that draws me out into the scene being photographed. For example, in landscapes the shadows and reflections come to light more clearly through my lens as I immerse into the scene and this excites me with a feeling that there is something here that transcends my own everyday perspective - something strange that awaits discovery. Kazem also causes me to notice more distinctly how releasing the shutter changes my relationship with the scene. The release shifts my focus towards the resulting still image as I move it through various stages in my work flow. Now the questioning is concerned with expression, especially whether the image has or has not acquired its own distinctive and independent dignity. Such heightened awareness of my own practice is reinforcing a frame of inquiry based on the relationship between two stages - those of immersion and expression. It is a conceptualisation of my work that is carrying me forward into fresh inquiry about what it means to be photographer in an age where there is a proliferation of images and photographers.
My developing frame also rebounds into my appreciation of Kazem and his pictures. He brings to us a rich variety of people. He is immersed in a world with them, but he does not try to reduce them to some need of his own, or lay particular claims on them. Nor does he seek to connect them all according to some external model or theory. He just shows them as they are, but with an added twist that, in their easiness in front of his camera, they go beyond themselves to express a little more than they perhaps intended. In this sense Kazem seems to me to practice a photography of constraint. A practice that follows a middle path; that snakes its way between a photography of immersed intimacy and one of portraiture or distance. Might we call this a photography of co-existence? A photography that shows us novelty and lets it be?