By Corrie Parsonson
A British-Iranian street photographer based in Oxford, England is capturing his subjects in a deeply affectionate “tapestry of characters.” The photographer also happens to own and manage a fish-and-chips shop.
Kazem Hakimi immortalizes customers of his take-away in suburban Oxford through photographic portraits that consistently demonstrate their humanity – and his own.
“Portraits From a Chip Shop” is on show at two Oxford venues: Modern Art Oxford, the university town’s prestigious contemporary-art museum; and Arts at the Old Fire Station. In a reflection of how deeply Hakimi’s work has touched Oxford’s sense of itself, the Modern Art Oxford show has broken all visitor records.
“It’s one of the most popular openings to an exhibition we’ve ever had,” said Clare Stimpson, the museum’s communications manager.
Since rediscovering his passion for photography during a 2004 journey back to Iran, Mr. Hakimi has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions across Oxfordshire, including at the North Wall Arts Centre, OVADA, Art Jericho (since closed) and The Jam Factory. In 2008, photographs from the Iran trip were published in a book titled “An Eye for Iran: The Photographs of Kazem Hakimi.”
Hakim, a father of nine, has run his Iffley Road fish and chip shop for 27 years, during which time he has earned enormous respect and affection from his customers – and not just for the takeaway seafood and savories he prepares and sells. His warm welcome is both infectious and authentic.
It’s little wonder that so many of his customers have readily agreed to be ‘snapped’ against a plain white wall at the rear of his premises. He doesn’t give them time to ‘pose,” and uses a 50mm lens to get up close and personal. Because he has to get back to his kitchen, the photo ‘sessions’ are limited to “a minute, no more.”
Dr. Stephanie Straine, Modern Art Oxford’s curator of exhibitions and projects, said the twin show includes 50 portraits, split evenly between the two venues.
“He’s a well-known character, and this project is an outcome of his many years developing relationships and community bonds,” Dr. Straine said.
Dr. Straine said it was a “snapshot” of a much larger body of work known as ‘OX4,’ the postcode of where Kazem’s chip shop is based on the Iffley Road in East Oxford, “which captured the collective portraits of a community.”
Kazem arrived in the U.K. in 1974, when his parents sent him from his birthplace, Shiraz, to boarding school in Solihull near Birmingham. He later completed his A-Levels at a tutorial college in Cambridge before moving to Oxford Polytechnic to study Civil Engineering.
“I didn’t like it,” he recalled. “I was never really interested. I wanted to do photography, but my dad said that’s not a subject, not a serious one anyway. So I did civil engineering.”
He did, however, spend a lot of time in the photographic department at Oxford Polytechnic. “I became friends with the tutors there, and am still friends with them. They’re really good photographers themselves, and they shared their knowledge. They looked after me.”
How did a civil engineer and aspiring photographer end up running a chip shop?
“I was working in an Italian restaurant, and a friend of mine, another Iranian who had a fish and chip shop, asked me to come and work with him. I fell into this business. Strange. I never thought I would be doing this.”
He’s been at it since 1988, seven days (and nights) a week, becoming a local fixture along the way. Initially, photography wasn’t part of the picture.
“For about 20 years I didn’t do any,” he said. “Marriage, work, children: I was too busy.”
Then in 2004 he took two of his children to Iran.
“We went to Isfahan, Shiraz, Tehran, Mashhad, and I took a series of photographs – just for myself. When we came back, I was too busy to print them, but in late 2007 I started work on them,” he recalled. “People saw them and started saying, ‘You have to show these.’ I hadn’t done that before.”
“I said ‘What are you talking about? These are my private snapshots.’ They insisted, God bless them. And lucky for me to have listened to them.”
The result was Mr. Hakimi’s first solo exhibition at Oxford’s North Wall Arts Centre. It was called an “An Eye for Iran,” and it “caught the public’s imagination. It went very well, so I got encouraged.”
“Portraits from a Fish Shop,” taken with his Nikon D700 and Nikon AIS 50mm lens, is Kazem Hakimi’s first portrait exhibition.
“This project started in January 2014. When people come in and order, I say: ‘Okay, your food is in, would you mind coming around to the back of the shop with me?’ And I just take them. I don’t give them a chance to understand what’s going on.”
His shop, simply called “Fish and Chips,” is a community hub. “I know the characters, I know what I know of them, what they show me, and I try to capture that in my images.”
Kazemi said that in general, he liked street photography and was “more interested in people than anything else.”
He said he had previously done some work at the counter, called ‘Counter Attack,’ shot in black and white. Sometimes it was just a surprise point-and-shoot. Then he thought there were “too many things in the background” and took his subjects over to a blank wall.
How do the personalities of his subjects come through in as little as 15 seconds?
“You have to have a knack,” he explained. “I do it fast before they start posing, before they realize what’s going on. I just take it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, because sometimes people are very nervous at the beginning, so you can’t do it.”
“Also, the composition must be different for every photograph, because the personality is different and what they are wearing is different. I must decide what I am going to show: the torso? Just the face?” Mr. Hakimi explained. “I take the pictures truthfully. I want them to be honest pictures. I am not interested in pretentious photographs.”
Are people responding positively?
“Yes. I love them and they love me.”
The exhibition runs until July 2 at both venues.