Kazem Hakimi is showing me a photo he took yesterday. The man on the camera display screen has a red mohawk and a stick and poke tattoo of a skull on his forehead. He’s taken his shirt off, and is standing against a whitewashed wall out the back of Kaz’s fish and chip shop. It’s an intimate portrait and, I suggest, a hard one to set up – his model does not look approachable. Kaz finds my lack of faith amusing: “You’ve only got to ask!”
In east Oxford, where I grew up, Kaz has been a local celebrity since before I was born. Father of nine, grandfather of four and the friendliest man for many miles, he has fashioned an unlikely community hub out of the standing-room-only chippie on Iffley Road.
For the past two years, Kaz has been channelling his love of east Oxford and his steamroller charm into an artistic side hustle: he has persuaded more than 400 regulars to pose for portraits while their food is frying. Now the resulting photographs will be on display in a major solo show, Portraits from a Chip Shop. The exhibition, split across Modern Art Oxford and The Old Fire Station, is a stunning achievement for a hobby photographer working with a “nifty fifty” lens and a maximum session time of a minute – “I have to get back to the cooking”.
Over coffee on a rare break from a 13-hour shift, Kaz explains what sparked the idea. “People always say ‘Oh, I have to go to this place or that place to do photography’ but I think they delay themselves,” he says. “My challenge was that I was always in the chip shop so I thought, OK, I can do this project here on my doorstep.”
Portraits from a Chip Shop is the result of a series of fortuitous events: a phone call from a local paper on National Chips Day 2016 which brought the project to light, a flurry of media interest in the emerging body of work and, finally, the offer of a show at two of Oxford’s most prestigious arts venues. Kaz, who started taking portraits simply to create a “family album” of friends and neighbours, says that the offer was so unexpected that he’s only just finished tracking down his models to get them to sign consent forms.
Short and stocky, with white hair and a salt-and-pepper beard, 57-year-old Kaz cuts such a well-known figure locally that it’s hard to describe him without it sounding like a caricature. By the time we sit down for our interview in the coffee shop on Iffley Road we have stopped to exchange personal greetings with two builders, a new mother pushing a pram, a barista, an electrician, a woman with a haircut that Kaz approves of and a baby whose “chubby-wubby” feet he thinks are exceptionally sweet. For me, it has been an exhausting five minutes. For Kaz, it has been delightful. “Everything in the whole universe is amazing,” he says when I express my amazement at his hyper sociability. To prove it, he points to a fly – “Beautiful under a magnifying glass.”
Kaz was born in Iran, and says he acquired his own rose-tinted lens as a child growing up in Shiraz. He recalls a moment that changed him: “I said to my dad, ‘That man is really ugly.’ My dad said, ‘Son can you create a better one?’ I shut my mouth ever since.” He first came to England aged 14 to attend boarding school – a family tradition – then studied civil engineering at the Oxford Polytechnic, where he also dabbled in photography. After 1978, when the Iranian revolution made it increasingly difficult for his parents to wire money to sustain him, he started working in a friend’s fish and chip shop. He took over the Iffley Road lease in 1988.
Kaz has been back to Iran a few times, and even published his record of one trip in An Eye For Iran (2008) – a book of black and white photographs from Mashhad, Isfahan and Shiraz. Then, his passion was street photography. In Portraits from a Chip Shop, it is something far more personal. Leafing through a photobook in which he has compiled the portraits, stories spill from each well-thumbed page: there’s a laughing nun from the convent down the road – “Lovely people, they come in for a chat” – a heavily pregnant woman who Kaz thinks looks like a mermaid, a bare knuckle fighter whose recent retirement Kaz laments. Some of his sitters have died, and he lingers over these images. “God bless him, I’m glad I got this photo,” he says.
The people in these photos belong to the eccentric Oxford I grew up in, a community tucked away just east of the dreaming spires. It’s a joy to see how Kaz has captured their quirks and their kindness. “People get happy looking at these photos because they see the goodness of every human,” he says, when I ask why he thinks the project has proved so popular. “I haven’t put names, I haven’t put dates, because you don’t need it. The person you are seeing, each one of them has value.”
Once Portraits from a Chip Shop closes in July, he says he’d like to tour the photos nationally – “I hope it will have a positive effect on communities.” But Kaz himself is staying put. After almost 30 years holding fort in the tiny Oxford Fish Shop, he has no desire to upsize.
What’s his secret? It’s a question I feel compelled to ask. “You know that expression, the cup is half full? My cup is half full,” he says. He looks down at the coffee in front of him, so far overlooked in favour of conversation. “In fact, it’s three quarters full. I’d better have some, shall I?”
Kazem Hakini: Portraits from a Chip Shop at Modern Art Oxford until 2 July and at the Old Fire Station, Oxford, from 6 May to 2 July 2017
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