Mazen Saggar’s journey from the streets of Baghdad to the runways of Paris

He may be one of Louis Vuitton’s go-to photographers, but the Iraq-born photojournalist is as much at ease amid the bright lights of the catwalk as he is shooting the harsher realities of the world around us.

Models walk the runway at the Louis Vuitton fashion show during Paris Fashion Week on October 6, 2010. Photo by Mazen Saggar
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Soul. It’s what some claim is the difference between true art and something masquerading as such. But for the Iraq-born French photojournalist and fashion photographer Mazen Saggar, “soul” is the defining characteristic of those he considers truly photogenic. It is not the clothes, the facial features or even the body type but, in Saggar’s words, “the beauty on the inside” that really makes a person shine in front of the camera.

I chat with Saggar, by way of a translator, amid a fairly heavy Dubai crowd. But the conversation is surprisingly fluid, despite my limited knowledge of French. Saggar’s answers are rolled out with a striking amount of emotion, and much of what he says is punctuated with a compelling smile. Saggar, who spent the first 10 years of his life in Baghdad before moving to Paris, was in Dubai to unveil the DXB Fashion Photography exhibition at the Mall of the Emirates. Part of the Dubai Shopping Festival, the showcase consisted of a collection of images from the Cannes International Festival of Fashion and featured the works of both local and international fashion photographers.

Saggar has worked with some of the world’s leading fashion magazines and is one of Louis Vuitton’s preferred photographers. He has shot a number of campaigns and fashion shows for the French label, and teamed up with architect Frank Gehry for the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation project in Paris. His portfolio also consists of portraits of well-known faces such as Zaha Hadid, Dita Von Teese, Louise Bourgoin, Anish Kapoor and Kate Moss, to name but a few.

I’ve always been intrigued by the world of fashion photography – the fluid motions, stunning angles and perfect lighting all coming together to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a far stretch from the Instagrammed selfies and tagged Facebook photos that we are bombarded with on a daily basis.

But the process of capturing those stunning images cannot be as effortless as the end product suggests? Surely even the most striking, famous and “soul-full” of subjects must have their off-days? For Saggar, the key lies in his interaction with the subject and his ability to make them relax. “You have to take into consideration the mood and soul of the person you have in front of you,” he explains. “In the end, it is about discretion, interaction and feelings.”

Feelings are certainly a defining feature of Saggar’s work. From Tracey Emin’s cheeky smile to the brooding expressions of the Vuitton models, Saggar has a way of drawing a wide spectrum of emotions from his subjects – often leaving you wondering whether you, as the onlooker, have missed something. It is almost as if you’ve entered the scene three seconds after the punchline to a good joke has been delivered. His portraits are also an indication that the softly spoken and unassuming Saggar sees the world very differently to the rest of us — something he acknowledges with a hearty “oui, bien sûr [yes, of course]”.

It is, perhaps, a propensity towards introspection that allows Saggar to drift more flawlessly between photojournalism and the world of fashion photography. He has travelled the globe capturing scenes that are the very antithesis of the world of fashion, and readily admits that the realm of photojournalism is a dark one. “It is about suffering people, war and conflict,” he says, while acknowledging that fashion is far more “light and glamorous”.

Saggar journeyed to the disaster area of Nigeria’s Ogoniland in 2012, after a 2011 oil spill had all but destroyed the livelihood of residents who relied on fishing and agriculture to survive. Saggar’s images capture the debilitating impact of the catastrophe, which the United Nations Environment Programme estimates will take the area 25 to 30 years to recover from. More recently, Saggar shot the 2014 May Day protests in Paris, part of a series of events that saw millions of people around the world speak out against the continuing global economic crisis. Early last year, he visited his birthplace of Baghdad in the run-up to the 2014 elections. His resultant pictures depict everything from the aftermath of an attack on a checkpoint to political advertisements lining roadsides. Finally, in what is perhaps one of his most poignant photographic collections, Saggar took pictures of Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa in December 2013, beautifully capturing reactions to Mandela’s death, from smiling groups of people celebrating the politician’s life to inconsolable individuals lamenting his death.

Saggar studied photography at Claude Garamond Colombes, a vocational school in Paris, before beginning his career as a freelancer. He jetted off to Madagascar in 1999, where he and a few local photographers started what would become the first photo agency in the country. Three years later, Saggar returned to Paris, where he set up his own agency and began working on small projects with Louis Vuitton. The evolution of this partnership was a gradual one – it took him time to establish himself as one of the brand’s go-to photographers. “The fashion house has a high standard for their images and visual communications,” he explains. “As I continued to work with them, they realised that I met those expectations and understood what their needs were.”

And is there is one particular individual that Saggar enjoys photographing above all others? “Freida Pinto,” he says, without skipping a beat. “I was asked to shoot [her] dressed in Louis Vuitton,” he explains. “I couldn’t stop shooting and was amazed by her stunning beauty. The next morning I met her in her hotel room when she had just woken up, without any make-up. She was even more beautiful. ”

Time is running out: there are plenty of people eager to speak to Saggar. But before we part, he conveys his excitement about his first trip to Dubai, which has left him with a positive first impression of what local talent has to offer. Picking up on the emirate’s many cultural influences, Saggar describes the photography he’s seen in the UAE as “fresh, very inspiring and promising”.

Encouragement indeed for the local photographers on show, who could do a good deal worse than to emulate the style and success of this quietly charming French man.