Hajar Benjida’s Probing Portraits of Atlanta’s Dancers

Pin It
Atlanta Made Us Famous book Hajar Benjida photographer strip
Thursday Night, Mableton, GA 2020Photography by Hajar Benjida

The Moroccan-Dutch photographer’s new London exhibition, Atlanta Made Us Famous, captures the personal and professional lives of dancers from Atlanta’s strip clubs with an unwavering eye

In her ongoing series, Atlanta Made Us Famous, Moroccan-Dutch photographer Hajar Benjida shoots the personal and professional lives of dancers from the city’s strip clubs. In one of the project’s most striking images, a woman called Cleo breastfeeds her young son, Andy. Sat on a cord sofa in a grey-lit room, her top bears the Mona Lisa while her nails are painted a bold shade of green, and the Eye of Horus is visible on her forearm. “I wanted to capture motherhood because a lot of the women talked about their children,” explains Benjida. “Both parts – their jobs and their home lives – are equally as important.” Conceived as Benjida’s graduation project, direction from tutors helped anchor the series in this duality, while her gender allowed her to blend in, she says. “A lot of times I would sit for hours, just listening to conversations. It made me think about what I wanted to document.”

The latest recipient of the British Journal of Photography International Photography Award – an honour previously bestowed on Juno Calypso and Emeric Lhuisset – last week, an exhibition of Atlanta Made Us Famous opened at London’s TJ Boulting gallery. “This is my first UK show, and the first solo show of my photography. It feels good,” she says. “There’s a big following for the Atlanta music scene here too, so it’s a good bridge between Atlanta and London.”

Originally interested in pursuing fashion, a series of no-starts and a break from studying international business (“a safe choice, I wasn’t good at it”) turned Benjida on to image-making as she built up a portfolio to apply to art schools. “My last choice was photography, and I happened to get into that program,” she tells AnOther of her initial entry point. “There’s so many different genres [in photography], but whatever you’re doing, you’re visually presenting history. Even if you do fashion, it’s a visual representation of that timeframe, so that interested me. It’s like a history book.” In late 2015 she started shooting backstage at rap shows, while the following year another school assignment saw the Instagram account @youngthugaspaintings come into being (it now boasts 194k followers).

The bulk of the Atlanta series began in 2019, though Benjida made several early portraits in 2018 while interning for Cam Kirk. “I met him in 2016. It was festival season and Metro Boomin had him as his personal photographer,” she says. The pair stayed in touch and when Benjida was required to do an internship for school credit, she reached out, only learning on arrival that his studio was across the road from Magic City, the world-famous strip club with a formidable hand in championing new hip-hop talent, and where she met the first dancers. “I put in the location [for Kirk’s studio] and saw it was right across from Magic City. It was so crazy,” she says. Also known for its kitchen, the photographer frequented the spot for lunch before finally speaking with the housemother. “It really helped going there in person, because I had tried to email them [from the Netherlands] and it was almost like dealing with a celebrity.”

“These women that work in the clubs are used to cameras,” she continues, “especially Magic City, as it’s documented in music videos, album covers and magazines. It wasn’t a surprise that somebody wanted to take pictures there.” What set her apart was the relationships she formed and the sensitivity with which she approached the women, all of which radiates through the rich catalogue on the walls of TJ Boulting.

Still underway, Benjida travelled to Atlanta again in 2020, just before the pandemic closed borders, most recently returning a few months ago, though she didn’t take any pictures. Instead, she picked up the project in Miami to shoot at another club, KOD (King of Diamonds). “This girl reached out, she was like ‘I want to work with you, my sister works as a housemother’ – that’s how I got entrance, because that club is pretty exclusive.” Eventually she’d like to turn the project into a book she says, with the addition of a further New York component. “Atlanta, Miami, and New York, those are the biggest cities within the hip-hop industry in terms of strip clubs most frequented by artists. Atlanta Made Us Famous would be one of the chapters.”

Atlanta Made Us Famous by Hajar Benjida is on show at TJ Boulting in London until December 17, then from 10-28 January 2023.