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Mohamed Khalil

Mohamed Khalil moved to Paris at the age of 23, making a promise to himself that he would succeed as a photographer - failure was not an option. Entirely self-taught, he went on to take photographs for some of the world's biggest brands: Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Guerlain and Jean-Paul Gaultier. He has photographed well-known stars in fashion and film. We discuss his work ethic, the highlights of his career and what it means to remain true to one's self.

Jean Paul Gaultier Classique starring Michelle Buswell and Robery Perovich. Directed by Jean Baptiste Mondino. Photo by Mohamed Khalil.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Casablanca in 1970. My parents moved to France when I was four years old, and we settled in a town near Lyon - my father had come to find work in France, as quite a lot of Moroccan people did at that time. I’m one of seven children, and the eldest son, so that’s why I’m called Mohamed. Although we were Muslim by culture, my father raised us as atheists, and told us that we were allowed to believe whatever we wanted. I became fascinated by photography at the age of 17 and bought my first camera. I decided to become a photographer, and at 23, I moved to Paris.

Jean Paul Gaultier Classique starring Michelle Buswell and Robery Perovich. Directed by Jean Baptiste Mondino. Photo by Mohamed Khalil.

So Paris has played an important role in your career...

Oh yes - Paris and photography are completely linked for me, to the point that, if I stopped being a photographer, I would have to leave Paris. I cannot separate the two. When I was a teenager, it was the photographers who came from all over the world to work in Paris that inspired me the most. Before I moved there, I promised myself that I would never make a single penny from anything else but photography. And I have kept that promise to myself. I just couldn’t live in Paris if I wasn’t living off my passion.

Dolce & Gabbana The One starring Matthew McConaughey. Directed by Jean Baptises Mondino. Photograph by Mohamed Khalil.

Dolce & Gabbana The One starring Matthew McConaughey. Directed by Jean Baptiste Mondino. Photograph by Mohamed Khalil.

What was your early experience like, working in photography?

I started out an assistant in a fashion photography studio. For the job interview, I assumed that I had to know the whole history and culture of fashion photography. I lived in a small town at the time, so I went to the public library and found a book called The History of Fashion Photography. I read the whole thing from cover to cover! So when I arrived at the interview, I had it all in my mind. It turned out that the guy didn’t ask me a thing, he just asked me if I knew how to make coffee! But all of my research ended up serving me well, as it turned out that I knew a lot more than many of the photographers there.

Are you pretty much entirely self-taught?

I learnt the technique of photography on the job, but I learnt about the history and culture at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. They have a beautiful library there. I would spent my afternoons looking up everything I could. I noted the names of the photographers I liked, and looked up their work afterwards. And that became my ‘school’, if you like. During one lunchtime at work, one of the big fashion photographers started talking about a photographer from the 1930’s who kind of invented movement in fashion photography. Before that photograph, fashion photography had been very static. She couldn’t remember his name. Nobody knew it - but I did. I didn’t want to say anything, because I didn’t dare; I was just the assistant. But after a moment or two, I told her his name, Martin Munkacsi. She looked at me like, 'how does he know that?' And from then on, she always wanted me on her set, because she thought I was cultured! Yes, I've always learnt best on my own.

Photograph by Martin Munkacsi. 1933.

Which photograph that you have taken recently are you particularly proud of?

I'm quite fond of one I took of a woman in the street in black and white. The woman is walking past a florist and it’s raining. It’s very simple, but it's funny, because I nearly didn’t take that photo. I was hurrying in the pouring rain when I saw the girl’s silhouette. The contrast between her summer clothes and the dreary weather intrigued me. I almost didn't stop as as I was tired at the end of a long day. I only had one shot left on my camera and was on my way to the lab to get the photographs developed. Then I just thought, 'I’ll give it a try'. I reached for my camera, turned around and shot it. That was it. I hardly even aimed. She didn’t even notice.

Photograph by Mohamed Khalil. Paris.

How did you get into 'behind the scenes' photography for fashion shoots?

When I was taking photos for Première magazine, they sent me to photograph film sets. Cinema has always fascinated me, and I really enjoyed photographing it all while it was happening. I liked the team spirit amongst everyone involved. I was lucky, because the first 'behind the scenes' that I ever did was for Chanel. It was in 2006 and the director was Bettina Rheims. As it involved a nude model, Bettina wanted a photographer who would be discreet - I was recommended. When I arrived on set, she said 'I trust you. You really mustn’t disturb the set, the model is naked'. Just before the shoot, I had read lots of books on photographs of sets and was very inspired by photos from the ‘50s and ‘60s. All of that was very fresh in my mind and I remember being so focused. It worked out really well, and Chanel liked the photos so much that they created a special website for my photographs. It’s not easy to photograph a naked body without making it look vulgar, but being backstage with models and at catwalks over the years had taught me how to put people at ease, how to be totally discreet.

Chanel Le Rouge starring Julie Ordon. Directed by Bettina Rheims. Photograph by Mohamed Khalil.

Chanel Le Rouge starring Julie Ordon. Directed by Bettina Rheims. Photograph by Mohamed Khalil.

What did the 'behind the scenes' for Chanel lead to?

Funnily enough, there was a film producer there, who, three months later, went on to work on a project with Dior. They were looking for a photographer to do the 'behind the scenes'. She remembered me from the shoot, and recommended me to Dior. It was a five day shoot starring Eva Green. Afterwards, Bernard Arnaud, who owns Dior, told me that he liked the photos so much that he wanted to feature my photographs in a double page spread in Vogue Paris. He told Dior that they should choose me for all of the 'behind the scenes' shoots from now on. I was so delighted.

Dior Midnight Poison starring Eva Green. Directed by Wong Kar-Wai. Photograph by Mohamed Khalil.

Which is the most memorable 'behind the scenes' that you have done?

There are two that are really special to me. The first one is the Dior one with Eva Green. It was magical. We spent a whole night inside the Opéra Garnier of Paris. All night! Can you imagine? We started at midnight and had access to all areas. I remember wandering around the Opéra, just taking it all in. It was incredible. It’s odd because you don't realise at the time how surreal the situation is, because you're so focused on the subject. Years later, you look back and think, 'wow, what a privilege'.

Dior Midnight Poison starring Eva Green. Directed by Wong Kar-Wai. Photograph by Mohamed Khalil.

And the second?

The second was for Dior Homme Sport with Jude Law. It was filmed in the Bahamas. At the end of the shoot, the whole crew were invited on to a luxury yacht. There was a point when it was just Jude Law and me. He was sitting on an icebox, and said "do you fancy a beer?" So there we were, drinking beer and chatting. In that moment, I thought of all the women in the world who would have loved to be in my shoes - in the Bahamas, on a yacht, alone with Jude Law!

Dior Homme Sport starring Jude Law. Directed by Daniel Askill. Photograph by Mohamed Khalil.

You have taken portraits of well-known people such as Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour and David Lynch. Which portrait was most unexpected?

I think it would have to be my portrait of David Lynch. It was in Marrakesh, at the Film Festival in 2002. It wasn't planned at all. I just asked his press agent if I could possibly take a portrait of him, and said that I could be very quick. David Lynch was walking across the gardens to do an interview, and his press agent said, "ok, I’ll arrange it, but you’ll only have two minutes with him. Make sure you’re ready." I prepared my frame and got my lighting perfect. I knew exactly how I wanted him to stand in relation to the trees behind him. When he arrived, he was so nice, he just said ‘sure Mohamed, no problem’. I took 12 shots of him. It wasn’t with a digital camera, so I couldn’t see the result, but I knew that I had a good photo. His press agent said afterwards, 'you were even quicker than I hoped!' I had finished in 60 seconds.

Is there a portrait that you really enjoyed taking?

Yes - Monica Belluci was shooting a big film in a hotel near Deauville, where Marcel Proust used to stay. I was there to shoot the 'behind the scenes'. It was June, around 6pm. I waited until Monica had finished her interview, and then asked her if I could take her portrait. I remember her putting down her tea with a smile and and saying ‘of course!’ I looked towards the beach; there was a stunning light that you only get at the end of the day and it was deserted. I asked her if she would mind if we took the portrait on the beach. She looked a bit surprised and said ‘why not?’ She took her shoes in her hand and walked barefoot down to the sea. I took 36 shots of her. It was just the two of us, there were no agents, no pressure. It was so relaxed. I've learnt over time that the best portraits are the ones that go very simply. They’re the best moments.

Monica Belluci. Photograph by Mohamed Khalil.

Is it difficult not to panic when you have just a few seconds to get it absolutely right?

It's funny - I find that whenever I'm around well-known people, I become completely focused and calm. All I concentrate on is the end result - the photograph. In 2008, when Carla Bruni was the First Lady of France, I was booked to photograph her in her home. For one of the shots, she had to be lying on the lawn. I thought to myself, I'm at the official residence of the President of France, and I'm about to ask the First Lady to lie on the grass! It can be daunting. But she was very professional and kind.

Is there a particular place you would love to photograph?

Yes. I’d love to to to New York for one week, on my own, and to spend all day just taking photographs. All day, like a stray dog, for seven days. I would just take photo after photo, without having to talk to anyone or do anything else.

Photograph by Mohamed Khalil. Paris.

How do you think that the future of photography will change with social media and technology?

Everything has changed and it will change even more. Today, everyone is a photographer. There are many amateur photographers who are taking beautiful photographs on their iPhone, and who deserve to be seen as photographers. Before, there were only hundreds of us, now there are millions of us. But all of that will never make the role of a photographer disappear. Everyone can write. Everyone has a notebook - but not everyone is a writer. Photographers mustn’t be scared of change. There will always be a need for people who do things in a repetitive, professional manner. There’ll always be expertise. I’m not pessimistic about it at all. Technology will change things, but the human eye will never change. A very positive side of social media is that you’re no longer obliged to live in a capital city to get your work known. You can live in a tiny town, but if you have a fantastic Instagram account and you're creative, you can be discovered, and that’s a very good thing.

Photograph by Mohamed Khalil. Paris.

Has any single photograph taught you a life lesson?

Yes. A photo by Cartier-Bression, called ‘Derrière La Gare Saint-Lazare.’ It’s funny because so many art critics have analysed this photo. So much has been written about it. The fact that it was taken at exactly the moment when both of the man's feet are in the air. The fact that behind, there’s a circus poster where the jumping silhouette mirrors the man. It's as if Cartier-Bresson had calculated everything. The image is very, very complicated. But I read that at the end of his life, Cartier-Bresson admitted that he didn’t even see the man pass when he took the photo. He put his camera between the bars, took the photo and never even saw the man. He said it was just luck. That taught me that sometimes that the most beautiful photos require no effort. It’s not because the composition is perfect that a photograph must have been taken by a genius. Sometimes, it’s important to accept the role of luck. That’s the funny thing about photography - we can create great things, without suffering. We’re not always obliged to suffer for our art, like painters or writers do.

Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare. Henri Cartier-Bresson. Paris, 1932.

Do you have a life philosophy?

My philosophy is to always stay positive and optimistic, and to cut out any people who drain you. That part is really important. I had a very severe back problem last year, and was bed-ridden for seven days. I couldn’t even make myself a coffee. I started thinking of the people who always called me because they wanted something. I analysed the effect of those people in my life, and decided to write to those people to tell them not to bother calling me any more. That did me a lot of good. If I could pass on any wisdom to a young person, I would say: do not give more than 30 seconds of your time to someone who brings you down, who judges you, or who stops you from moving forward. Once you do that, you create space for positive people to come into your life.

What does it mean to you to be a free spirit?

Being yourself. I realise, now I have a baby daughter, that when she looks up at me, she sees me exactly as I am, with no pre-conceptions. Sadly, these days, it’s difficult to be yourself. Often, people are made to believe that they should belong to a circle. I’ve never wanted to join a circle, groups or clubs. Tomorrow, it’s Monday, and a lot of people will go and work for a boss, or a company, and won’t be themselves for five whole days. Just to fit into the mould. People admire artists because they say what they want to say, and they do what they want to do. What do people admire most about artists? The fact that they’re free. It requires a lot of courage these days to remain free.

Photograph by Mohamed Khalil. Paris.

The full interview with Mohamed Khalil is in Free Spirits, available to purchase here:

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