When I first met Karima, she was 14 years old and selling bracelets in Djemaa el-Fna, the bustling central square in Marrakech. She’s the girl on the very right here, leaning to the side. They’re all henna girls now, Karima and her friends, and they posed for this in 2010, in front of the Theatre Royal in Marrakech.
Djemaa el-Fna, which means “internal space”, is where all the snake-charmers, storytellers and belly-dancers work, in among food stalls and other types of entertainment. The square’s been there for centuries. It’s like a vast piece of street theatre, full of people all day long – tourists and Moroccans alike, there to buy food, have henna done on their hands, or just become part of the big play.
Karima and her friends understand the camera: they know how to play to an audience. They are artists. The bikes are their own: Marrakech is famously a bike city. Because of the way the Medina – the old Arab quarter – is built, it can take you 15 minutes by bike to reach the main road and the new town, but half an hour if you’re walking. So everybody goes by bike.
Although I was born in Morocco, I spent part of my childhood in England, so have a different perspective on my country. I like to push buttons. Here, I wanted to play with the way a veiled woman riding a motorbike might seem jarring from a western perspective. I called them Kesh Angels, with Kesh short for Marrakech, and Angels from Hell’s Angels.
It can be hard to tell, because of the way I usually set up my images, but here they’re all wearing their own clothing. The only props I gave them were some socks and the heart-shaped sunglasses, just to have a bit of fun with the cliche of the rock star, the biker in the leather jacket. I work with whatever I can find cheap in markets. I think the glasses came from Camden in London.
I’m constantly collecting stuff and pulling it out at the right moment – either to use as props, or to put borders around my images. The borders are partly just a graphic pattern, but I also like mixing recognisable western brands with Arabic writing and goods. Sometimes they reference the subject of the shot: I’ll use beef stock cans, for example, when I’m shooting a beefy guy.
A lot of planning goes into a shoot and I always start with a sketch. But then I go with the flow. This was an extremely lively shoot. Once I set up the scene, the women started loosening up. I have some other images of us all riding en masse, from location to location, messing about. We had a lot of fun.
I used a wide angle, shooting from below, to create something cinematic. I was looking at classic photography from 1950s Italy and America, as well as the martial arts movies and music videos I grew up with. And I chose this location for its movie-like quality. The theatre is one of the biggest in Africa: I liked that it is obviously Arabic – and unfinished. Also, its modern appearance contrasts with the women’s traditional garb.
There were four cinemas in my town when I was growing up in Morocco. I remember the movie posters they’d put in their windows. They had these powerful single images your mind could latch on to, allowing anyone who couldn’t afford a ticket to imagine the whole film. That’s what I wanted to create here – a still from a movie you haven’t seen.