An Interview with Wahb Mabkhout

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It reads like a movie script: a renowned photographer who has shot prestigious campaigns with the top straight-size supermodels experiences an epiphany. He realizes that the fashion industry must stop excluding full-figured women and stages a photographic exhibition featuring the world’s most gorgeous plus-size models. Despite roadblocks from the very industry that he is attempting to benefit, he perseveres, and promises to become one of the most transformative individuals in full-figured fashion.

This is no fiction, but a chronicle of real-life events—as we learned in our interview with celebrated photographer Wahb Mabkhout, whose recent “Glamorous Curves” exhibition at the About Face show in Los Angeles caused a sensation. Furthermore, Mr. Mabkhout has a project in mind for celebrating plus-size models that surpasses even his current endeavour in visionary boldness. What might that be? Read and find out…

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HSG: I’m delighted that we have this opportunity to speak about your fascinating exhibition, Mr. Mabkhout. The first and most fundamental question that I would like to ask you is, how did the idea for About Face originate?

WAHB: It’s a long story. I only recently moved to Los Angeles, six or seven months ago. And I moved to Los Angeles with the idea in mind to start tackling the curvy side of photography, shooting with curvy models.
      Five months ago, I was visiting the gallery where I had this show. I was introduced to the owner of the gallery, and I told her that I was a photographer. The gallery was having a show in April, so she asked me if I had something that I would like to expose. I said I would work on a theme and that I had something in mind. And that’s how it worked out. After a few days, I went back to her and I said, “This is something I really want to focus on—shooting curvy models.”
      I always dreamed of moving to Hollywood. I always loved the old black-and-white movies and the divas of Hollywood. I wanted to combine these two things together. And this is how it came about.

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HSG: That’s very interesting. The exhibition billing mentioned that you wished to create a celebration of the ’40s and ’50s portrait photography, evoking Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page. Did you first have the idea to celebrate this ’40s, ’50s photography, and then you found the models who evoked this time period? Or did you first have the idea to shoot plus-size models, and then you selected a time period that would suit their look?

WAHB: No, I first wanted to shoot curvy models. The project that I’ve been working on in the last five months is a reality TV show where I want to work heavily on promoting the changes that must happen, that we have to push, in the fashion industry.

HSG: Right.

WAHB: Moving to Hollywood has been a long-time project for me since I left Morocco when I was a kid. I was a teenager. I was 19 years old. I always looked at Hollywood as one day being a place where I would live and work, because I loved Hollywood glamour. I’ve always been attracted to what is highly sophisticated, elegant, sexy, beautiful. I’m enchanted by beauty. In my life, everything has to be beautiful. I see beautiful what no one thinks to be beautiful. I love beautiful people. Not only aesthetically, but inside and out.

HSG: That’s an admirable viewpoint. When it came to choosing the models, Sarah, a girl who spoke with you at the exhibit—(She was very impressed with you, by the way. She was very glad that you were so approachable and that you gave her some time.)—she mentioned that you know a stylist who got in contact with a number of plus-sizes models, and then you chose the ones whom you wished to shoot. What qualities were you looking for when you selected the girls for your exhibit?

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WAHB: When I just arrived here in Los Angeles, I was really desperate. I tried to contact some modelling agencies, telling them that I would be interested in shooting with plus-size models. And normally, wherever I have gone, modelling agencies have always been keen to work with me, because I have a certain background, and I have worked for top magazines. I created 13 looks that are quite sophisticated, and agencies, models, everyone would like to have that kind of quality in their books. But I was really surprised to see that there was a certain attitude and a certain disinterest involved in these—

HSG: [astonished] Disinterest? Really?

WAHB: Yes, yes, yes. I must say, some agencies… And this is something I have rarely seen before. In New York, people were elite, metropolitan, but everyone was delighted to have me to shoot with them. And here, I don’t know. It’s a different mentality.

HSG: That’s very disappointing. Why do you think you encountered such resistance? Since plus-size models are rarely given the opportunity to shoot something so creative, one would have thought that the agencies would have been enthusiastic for their models to participate in this kind of project.

WAHB: That was my first idea. I thought that they would be jumping up and down and thinking, “Oh, my God. Now we have this kind of photographer who would be interested.” And I was coming from the experience where top celebrity girls would actually beg me to do shoots with them, girls who have shot with really big celebrity photographers, really well-known and very well-published photographers. I have had their publicists calling me and saying, “She loves your work. She would like to work with you.” So I thought that since these girls, who are normally always on the covers of magazines and get to shoot with high-profile photographers are, I swear to you, begging me to find the time to shoot with them, you would think that the plus-size industry… The plus-size industry doesn’t have that kind of quality. It’s very commercial. It’s very catalogue. So I thought that this is a moment for evolution. It has to be transitioning. You need to make that transition to that level. It is time.

HSG: Right. Absolutely.

WAHB: Some agencies did not even bother to even reply to my e-mails.

HSG: Oh, boy.

WAHB: And yet I sent my links and my YouTube channel and my pictures attached. And I was really surprised. All I had was an e-mail, a response, three weeks later: “Maybe if we have something, we’ll call you.”

HSG: That’s appalling.

WAHB: If I was in Milan, or if I was in New York, people would be laying out the red carpet for me. I have been told that that’s a little bit of the Hollywood attitude, or something.

HSG: The Hollywood attitude?

WAHB: Yeah. That’s what I’ve been told. So I said, “Okay, if that’s the attitude…” I don’t agree that one has to have any kind of attitude. But if you have to have some kind of attitude, you have to be smart enough to know who you can have that attitude with.

HSG: That’s right.

WAHB: Because I don’t want to seem arrogant. I have lived in the four corners of the world. I have lived in Europe, and I worked with a top designer there for years. I’ve been a personal friend, personal model, personal photographer, for Dolce & Gabbana, Gianfranco Ferre, Alberta Ferretti, Jean Paul Gaultier, Romeo Gigli. I have done fashion shows for almost all of them. I transitioned to photography. I graduated as a fashion designer first before becoming a model. So my experience and my expertise in the fashion industry as a whole is very broad.

HSG: Yes, yes.

WAHB: And then I moved to South Africa. I lived there for almost five years. Then I moved to Dubai and lived there almost for five years. So I can say that I tested and tasted the flavours, the ways, of many different cultures. I’ve worked with many highly qualified professionals all around the world. And I could filter the best of the best and make it mine, and form it into my own expression. So to meet someone who maybe doesn’t have my experience of over 26 years—(I was 19 years old when I arrived in Milan, and I’ve been involved in the fashion industry ever since.)—you would not expect someone who has been in the industry for five to ten years, but mainly in the same spot, to have that kind of attitude with you, because the weight of experience and prestige is unmatchable.

HSG: Of course.

WAHB: I don’t want to really brag about it, but it’s a matter of fact. And I’m the first to be a very approachable person. I do not bring my background in front of me and say, “Ah, this is what I am. That’s who I am. You should not speak to me.” No, I’m open, and I want to work with people. I’ve always been the same. I actually worked on containing my ego and keeping it under control, not letting it get in the way. But unfortunately some people have that…

HSG: Well, first of all, as I’m sure you noticed, the public—once they saw who you were and what kind of quality you were bringing to the table—were wild about your work. So it was only the gatekeepers who had that terrible attitude. And second, maybe they just didn’t believe that someone of any calibre would want to shoot plus-size models. Perhaps their thinking was, “Well if he wants to shoot our plus-size models, he can’t be that significant.” They themselves had a negative attitude about the status of their models.

WAHB: Yes, you’re right. I have made that consideration as well. Especially when I tried to approach some plus-size models through Facebook. I didn’t have any reply or anything. And that might be a case where maybe they’re saying either he is no one, and he claims to be what he’s not, or maybe they found it strange that a photographer of my calibre would be—

HSG: Interested in working with them.

WAHB: Yes, yes. It might be that. I agree.

HSG: It’s sad, isn’t it? The industry gets used to a diminished level of expectation, so when someone finds plus-size models worthy of a higher level of accomplishment, no one can believe it.
      But what about the models themselves? As you mentioned, their usual background is commercial, with a little bit of editorial, so how did they respond to working with you and shooting in a more sensual, alluring context?

WAHB: When I contacted the stylist, Reah Norman, Reah told me that I was a rare breed, that normally photographers do not want to work with these models. And I said, “I want to create a revolution. I want to be the photographer who will be known for being so aggressive and for taking this to another level.” So she was very happy. And I kept in touch with her. So when I came up with the idea to do the About Face show—(About Face is the whole event, but my collection is called Glamorous Curves, within the event.)

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HSG: Right.

WAHB: —even she, at the beginning, said, “But you know, the girls, maybe they want to be paid.” I said, “I’m sorry. From my experience, even top models have asked to work with me. They ask me. I don’t ask them.” And I thought that any curvy model would be delighted because, I said, “It’s an art exhibition. It’s great pictures for them. It’s something that we’ll work on together. It’s not something that you do for me and that’s it.”

HSG: Yes.

WAHB: Nothing commercial. [AUDIO] She sent me some 16, 18 models, and I chose these because they all looked gorgeous. They looked beautiful, and I wanted to have a variety of looks and also sizes. As a matter of fact, she came back to me and told me, “But Rosie Mercado, I don’t know if you want to shoot with her, because she’s a 16/18 on the top and she’s 26 on the bottom.” I said, “I have no restrictions.”

HSG: Bravo!

WAHB: I need to shoot beauty. And I don’t want to set a limit. This is an art exhibition, and I want to show that I do not have that concern: “Oh my God, no. She’s too big. Oh, no.” I said, “It’s a free thing. I need to show how things have to be open.”

HSG: Right, right.

WAHB: She then sent an e-mail to all the girls, and I started receiving responses that they were so delighted, and that they were so happy that they could be part of this. This is how it happened.

HSG: Did you find any notable differences between working with straight-size models and plus-size models?

WAHB: Yeah, there are differences. With the “normal” models, I can be even more aggressive, and I can say things that do not make me concerned about offending them or not. With the plus-size models, I need to learn how comfortable they are.

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HSG: Right.

WAHB: And on top of that, I didn’t want… With normal-size modes, if there’s a bulge or something, I would rectify it in Photoshop. But with these girls, I wanted them to be as they are.

HSG: Bravo.

WAHB: That was the beauty: not retouching anything, the curves, or anything.

HSG: Thank you!

WAHB: The stomach has to be round, just as it is. Not even a slight retouching or anything. The retouching was very minimal, obviously, to just adjust some flaws on the skin.

HSG: And you didn’t hide curves. It’s so gratifying to hear you say that. Even many photographers who work specifically in plus-size fashion don’t understand this basic premise: not to airbrush away visible curves. But you do. I am delighted that you have such a size-positive philosophy.

WAHB: When I get involved in the commercial side, then some client or some commercial work may require that. I just find that sometimes it’s heavily done. Even in my area, Sports Illustrated, it became a policy not to retouch, just to rectify scratches or some blemishes on the face of the model. But not to airbrush too much. It’s almost non-existent. It became a philosophy not to retouch, to leave the pictures as natural as they can be. And in the commercial side of plus-size modelling, I can see that they go heavy sometimes, and it looks awkward.

HSG: Yes, it can end up looking almost like animation.

WAHB: Yes, exactly.

HSG: And it’s such a shame, because that only perpetuates the idea that curves are somehow flawed. It capitulates to the idea that skinnier is somehow better, rather than presenting the full-figured body as beautiful in its own right and on its own terms.
      Now, I have to ask this because, as you might have noticed, Kelsey Olson is certainly one of my readers’ favorite models: What was it like to work with her?

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WAHB: [AUDIO] First of all, when she walked in, I must say, her face is striking. She’s so gorgeous. She just has this pretty, beautiful, gorgeous face. It’s really quite striking.
      And she also has a kind of body… Now, my friends, and many people, find it a little weird that I do like big girls. I do like them kind of big. And Kelsey has that size that I really, really, really like.

HSG: How interesting to hear that this is your preference. And yet, as you told Sarah, you have never worked with curvy girls before.

WAHB: Well, I was in a market and in a situation where there had never been a need around me. If I think back to 20 years ago, in Milan especially, the brands that had big sizes, the only one I can remember off the top of my head was Marina Rinaldi. And it was not mainstream.

HSG: Right.

WAHB: But I’ve always been attracted to big-size girls. I’m attracted to any kind of shape. I’m not attracted in any particular way to a certain size. But I am very attracted to voluptuous women. This has been the case since I was a teenager.
      Then I worked in the fashion industry. I was a fashion designer for a good four years, starting in late ’84. And you kind of get conditioned by the mentality of the industry: slim, tall, this, this, this, and that. So while I was becoming a model, I don’t recall meeting any plus-size models back then. But I do recall that no matter that I was regularly in the company of gorgeous models, I had, here and there, some story on the side with… It was every now and then a need to be with a bigger girl. [laughs]

HSG: Sure. Yes.

WAHB: If I met a bigger girl, I’d go, “Oh my God.” I like big forms. What can I do?

HSG: Well, I’m glad that you’re on the side of curve appreciation.

WAHB: [laughs]

HSG: But why do you think the fashion industry has maintained such a tiny size as its standard, despite public pressure for the return of a full-figured ideal? In fact, why has the standard model size grown even smaller over the years, to the point that it is—

WAHB: Yeah, I know.

HSG: —a truly, truly unhealthy size 0? No one, even if they prefer thinner women (for whatever reason), can say that size 0, let alone double 0, is healthy or attractive. So why is this toxic standard maintained, and why has it even gotten smaller?

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WAHB: Well, when I was in the midst of the fashion industry, I really didn’t think about it. I always obviously preferred models with looks that are of more form. And I never had problems working with the plus-size girls for specific work, if it was some kind of very high-fashion, artistic concepts. But I never thought about it too much, refusing or accepting where the industry was going.
      But my career shows that I’m not so keen on the size-0 models, because I shifted my whole focus toward glamour, working with girls who are not size 0. They’re not plus-size, but they have great bodies. They’re beautiful girls.
      And I should point out that when I was in Cape Town, I was dating a girl who was a really big girl. And I realized how the way I was—even if I didn’t want it to, and even though I was attracted to her—the mentality of the fashion photographer in some way affected her.

HSG: A-ha.

WAHB: And I didn’t then realize or even bother about what was happening. Then I moved from South Africa to Dubai. And that’s where the whole revolution happened. I met a girl who was curvy. She was a big girl, and she was really beautiful. We liked each other. We started dating. And things developed into a love story, and then we got engaged. And then there’s a dramatic story that I will be telling, probably, in a movie. [AUDIO] She was very, very affected by… She hated her body. She was crying all the time. She was killing herself at the gym, trying to burn a thousand calories. She was totally destroying herself.

HSG: That’s terrible. I’m sorry.

WAHB: From my perspective, I didn’t look at her perspective. After that experience, I changed my ways, and I try to focus more on the person who’s affected, focus more on that person’s perspective, not on yours. Yours does not matter.

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HSG: Right.

WAHB: But back then I was so kind of not at that level of awareness. And the fact that I, as a photographer who shoots for GQ and Sports Illustrated and whatever, and who’s an expert on beauty, who can say more than anyone what is beautiful, what’s not—not in the sense that it’s an absolute; I’m just saying that being someone who, by education and by profession and by devotion, is devoted to what beauty standards are—if I am the one telling her that she is beautiful, that I love her, I love her body and everything, then, “That’s it. She should have no worries.”

HSG: Right, right.

WAHB: But that’s very simple to say. The girl comes from a whole life of feeling marginalized, because when she was a teenager, she was even bigger than when I met her. And obviously in high school, you know how some people can be very nasty. Especially some boys can be very nasty.

HSG: You’re right.

WAHB: And for her, there was always this clash between having this guy, who works with all these beautiful models and skinny models, and thinking, “What is he doing with me? Why does he want me?” But at the same time thinking, “No. I am worth it, and I deserve it.” And it was a back-and-forth thing. And it was really a difficult situation to deal with. From my perspective, at the beginning, I must admit, I was sometimes in doubt, because you kind of think of the judgment of others.

HSG: Right.

WAHB: But at a certain point [AUDIO] I stepped away from that mentality of being the fashion photographer, the fashion model, this, this, and that. And I just found myself at a certain point not even caring at all and just being comfortable.
      And I must admit, I had to do some work on myself too and finding how horrible… I myself was not comfortable with the idea of maybe being seen—(You know how our culture and our industry has affected us to think.)—to the point where I didn’t have any problems anymore.
      But something happened—which I don’t want to talk about. It’s very personal.

HSG: That’s quite all right.

WAHB: It’s quite dramatic, and affected our relationship and my life in general. And I became even more aggressive. Right after we broke up, I waited for almost eight to ten months. We got back together. She came to work in my company. We were an amazing team. As a couple, we were a power couple. I opened a production company. We got in contact again, and we started talking. She worked for me for three months, and we worked like an incredible team. We did magic. But things did not really work out.
      Then after a few months, six months, I met another girl, and I thought to myself, “You know what? Forget about it. You’re a fashion photographer. This is the kind of girl you shoot with. Just be with models. That’s what you’ve done your whole life.” So I met a model, and she was a model who worked for Armani, worked for big, big designers too. Very clever, very intelligent, very sweet, incredibly beautiful, more on the skinny side, but a very beautiful body. And I was very happy. We were dating and seeing each other. And two, three months later, she confesses to me that she was bulimic.

HSG: Oh, no. It seems to be inescapable. One girl with the body-image issues, then another girl with an eating disorder. It’s a real crisis, isn’t it?

WAHB: Yes. Starting with my ex, who was a big girl, but she hated her body. So I would be working on my computer, maybe retouching some Sports Illustrated pictures, and she’d go, “Oh, that’s the kind of butt I want, but I know I’ll never have.”

HSG: It’s very sad.

WAHB: Part of it made me feel guilty. Part of it made me feel sad. Part of it made me feel like I wanted to scream, “My God! I don’t want that girl. I don’t want that girl with that butt. I want you. And I want you with the butt you have. And honestly, that’s what attracted me to you first.” It was the first thing I noticed in my ex-fiancée. I said, “Why do you want to have that, if you have the man who takes pictures of that wanting yours?”

HSG: Right, right.

WAHB: Yet that would not… What would be needed is therapy. A few words like this will not do anything.
      I know that what I’ll be doing is a little drop in the ocean, but it’s one drop in the ocean that will precipitate other drops in the ocean. I can see that there is a whole change coming in the industry. And I can see that there is a need, and I can see that even the mainstream fashion industry is approaching this side of things. And I can see, from all the people I know, how they agree and how they encourage me, and how they appreciate that I’m doing this.

HSG: Right.

WAHB: And this is really happening a lot. I was just watching the TV the other day, and it was Tyra Banks on Piers Morgan, and she was saying the same thing. [AUDIO] Advertising tells us how we should be, but at this time, and in this age, we should be well aware how not to be enslaved or conditioned by advertising anymore. Because maybe 20 years ago, we didn’t know what was happening behind the scenes of the advertising world. But now we can see it. We can see the lies. We can see the before, and we can see the after. We can see the products that work and the products that do not work. Why are we still being conditioned by what an ad says, just because an ad is repeated in front of our faces? It says this, this, this, and that. But we know it’s not the truth. Yet we are still being conditioned by that. I think it’s an era where we have to start making a little bit of a revolution, because now we know better.

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HSG: That’s very true. Tell me about the reality show that you’re planning. What else will it involve? I know that you shot some footage for it at the About Face premiere. And by the way, speaking of film, your teaser video is very exciting. Talk about a teaser! That does have us teased. We’re teased. We can’t wait to see more.

WAHB: I have to shoot the pilot, because I have a producer who’s very interested in the show and who loved the concept. And I said, “Look, a photographer who’s a regular plus-size photographer, who would like to say something, maybe what he has to say is not that special, or it’s obvious. That’s what he does for a living, shooting with plus-size. But the special thing is the ex-model, photographer who shot for Sports Illustrated, GQ, Maxim and all these things who suddenly is saying, ‘Hey, wait, hang on.’ That is what will capture people’s attention.”

HSG: Agreed. There’s a story in that.

WAHB: I’m not changing direction. I will still be shooting the regular models. But I’m embracing the area that, as a person, I’ve been always attracted to. In my life, I’ve had a lot of girlfriends, and a fiancée, who were big-size girls. But as a photographer, the industry I was involved in and surrounded by, there was no market, or there was no client, there was nothing that I could do choosing plus-size girls. It never occurred to me. I was planning to do some photography with my ex-fiancée. But then things went wrong, and we never had the chance to do that. Even the story of my ex who’s bulimic affected me and added more to the intention. Because I really got upset that many of my girlfriends were not happy with themselves.

HSG: Right.

WAHB: How can a beautiful girl with an extremely incredible, beautiful body be bulimic? There’s something wrong. There is something wrong. So we have to fix it. We have to really fix it. And we have to start moving towards telling everyone, and also in the industry, stop.
      [AUDIO] I see so many of these girls who are obsessed. Obsessed. Now we have to do something to eliminate that obsession. And we have to tell everyone, “If you’re this way, if that’s your body type, stay there. That’s where you belong.”

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HSG: I think that’s very true. And you do acknowledge that, for all the beauty of fashion, it does have influence on body image. The two girlfriends you had with these body-image issues, they were certainly affected by the fashion ideal.

WAHB: Of course.

HSG: As you pointed out, one of them was even negatively impacted by viewing your own images while you were working on them. So there’s no question that fashion has to change.
      Now, as I was looking through your YouTube channel, I was amazed at the quality of work that you have done—for example, for
Sports Illustrated. Might you ever get the chance to shoot plus-size models in the Sports Illustrated style?

WAHB: You just hit the nail on the head. [AUDIO] It’s a project of mine to be the first photographer to launch a yearly swimwear issue that will become as prestigious as the normal Sports Illustrated with plus-size girls.

HSG: Wow!

WAHB: And that is what my reality TV show will be working on. This is what will be illustrated.

HSG: Oh, my goodness! If anyone can make it happen, you can.

WAHB: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I will make it happen. There is no question. And I will not let anyone beat me to this. Because I said to the girls, I will be the most aggressive photographer. And I’ll tell you honestly now, I’m actually dating a plus-size girl right now. And I can say I’m more attracted now, 70 percent, to plus-size girls than to the regular girls.

HSG: That’s fantastic. People have been asking for a plus-size equivalent of Sports Illustrated for decades, so when you make that happen, that will truly constitute a revolution.

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WAHB: Well, once I arrived here, I was desperate to find plus-size girls to shoot with. And as the months passed by, I thought, “What happened?” But now that the girls have experienced the quality… Because honestly, when they came, it was in the living room of my house, and I had one light, and there was no professional setting. There were no reflectors. There was nothing. But honestly, the picture is not if you have any studio, or how much material and equipment you have. The picture is in your head.

HSG: That’s right.

WAHB: You know the picture you will be taking. It doesn’t matter what you have. I used one light only for the project, which was given to me by a friend of mine who is a super-enthusiastic photographer. He has the best and most expensive equipment but does not get the chance to shoot regularly, as it is not his real occupation. And I asked him, “Does it make any sense that you have way more equipment than I do, but you are not earning your life with photography?” I said, “Stop buying too much equipment, and start taking pictures.”

HSG: Right.

WAHB: It won’t make you a better photographer if you buy the next, best camera. First it’s better to master the skills with the bare minimum, and then upgrade your equipment in proportion with the increase in demand—and more importantly, when it makes a certain commercial sense.

HSG: Speaking of the role of the photographer, I wanted to ask you something on that score. You employ professional stylists, make-up artists, and hairstylists for your shoots. What is the photographer’s role in interacting with these talents? How collaborative are the decisions? Do you make the aesthetic decisions and then they carry out your vision? Or is there some kind of interplay?

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WAHB: No, no, no. You come up with the concept, and you know how the make-up, the hair should be. You know what kind of clothes. So you give direction: “I want this. I want this style of clothing.” You give these directions, and then they submit them to you, and you choose what’s going to work for the shot. And you explain. You give references. And you say, “This is what I want.” And actually, it happens that I had to have the make-up corrected, in some instances, because maybe the eyeliner was a little too much.
      It also depends on the years of experience. Thanks to this experience, you can have more eye than, say, a make-up artist.

HSG: What about posing? How much do you pose the models versus offering them notes and watching as they perform?

WAHB: I pose them a lot. [laughs]

HSG: You do? That’s interesting.

WAHB: I pose them a lot. I give free license, but then I start pushing them to give me more of what I want. Because most of the models, let’s say that they stay on the standard side of posing. They have a couple of poses here and there. But they don’t go far beyond that. So then it is up to me to start saying, “I want you more like this.” And I do coach. I do coach a lot of models on how to get some poses that might feel awkward, but how to get them to be natural. And I show them that in picture, it looks amazing. Sometimes I say, “Incline your shoulders. Lean, lean, lean. Stand with your back straight, but lean more, more.” They say, “It’s awkward!” But I say, “It feels awkward to you because the position obviously is awkward. But in the frame, look.” The composition in the frame is amazing. So they start getting a little bit more confident, and they start following my direction more and more.

HSG: I imagine that your own modelling background probably helps with that.

WAHB: Oh, totally. When I was still in Dubai, I did a lot of modelling. Sometimes my modelling work exceeded my photography work in Dubai. I can say that I was one of the best posing models. This was both on photography sets and on video sets, where I was always asked by the photographer or the director to lead the others. There were some models who were a little bit stiff, who were a little bit embarrassed. “Wahb, try to involve them with you, and try to tell them, ‘Do this, do that.’” Better from a fellow model than if it’s dictated. Due to the fact that I’ve been a model, many models relate to me as a model. And I never, ever, ever get upset or get irritated with models when I can’t get really what I want, because it’s the most stupid thing that many photographers do.

HSG: Okay.

WAHB: [AUDIO] Some photographers are insecure themselves. They sometimes just hope for the best and that the model will grant the poses. But they don’t really know exactly how to convey that mood and that feeling to the model. You need to not only know how you pose, but also tell the models how [to express] some kind of emotion, whether it’s sad, or angry, or happy, or whatever…
      Modelling is acting. Posing is acting. It’s acting for the still photograph. And you have to convey a certain emotion. It can be happiness. It can be that you’re a mysterious person. Whatever it is. So you, as a photographer, are not only someone who tells the models how to pose, you also need to tell them how to convey a certain emotion. And you have to master a certain language, just as a director would do with actors on a set.

HSG: With regard to another aspect of your exhibition, a number of viewers commented on the interesting frames for your portraits—the wild animal prints. This motif that comes up in your work time again, for example in your short film Water and River.

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WAHB: Well, I’m a fashion person. I’m a fashion designer. I’m a fashion model. I’m a fashion photographer. I spent almost eight years in house working as a fitting model and an in-house photographer for Dolce & Gabbana. And you know, Dolce & Gabbana is well known for animal prints: leopard, zebra So it stays in your style. It stays in who you are and what you do.

HSG: What was it about photography that finally made you decide that this would be your primary focus of interest?

WAHB: When I was a kid, 12 or 13, my father bought me a film camera, an 8mm camera. And he bought me a kit, and I used to do all the editing myself. And I also used to dub everyone, because the camera didn’t have a microphone. But the film I was using had a soundtrack that I could register a voice-over, and I used to dub everyone myself. Anyway, that’s where I got trained on working with images. And I never thought of doing photography until I moved to Milan, and I started working with a fashion designer. And he said, “You should be a photographer.” And I said, “Oh, yes, I’d love to.” I tried to go to school, but it was really late to subscribe to that school. But then I got passionate about fashion design, working with a fashion designer and having to deal with fabrics, and I just loved the whole atmosphere.
      When I graduated and I started modelling, I had contact with many photographers. I loved the camera. I wanted to be on that side, on the other side of the camera and just holding one. I knew that. It’s glamorous work, and you work with so many beautiful people. Being a fashion designer who had been designing and creating beautiful stuff, I thought, “Wow. I want to have a camera.”
      I bought myself a camera, and I started taking pictures of girlfriends behind the scenes at fashion shows, my female friends, my model friends. And after a couple of years, everyone said, “Wow. My God, you’re so good.” Everyone was encouraging me, because up until that moment I was still thinking that maybe I would be back to just being the fashion designer I was supposed to be. Or going into acting. But photography has evolved consistently. And when my modelling career started slowing down, I had almost a year of crisis about where to go, what to do, whether to pursue photography, whether to go into acting. And I just found myself in a surrounding that was already comfortable, because I was already doing photography. I was working for Dolce & Gabbana as a fitting model, and I knew that I could have some in-house jobs working as a photographer.

HSG: Reading up on your background, I was especially fascinated to learn that you have aristocratic blood. One article identified you as a direct descendant of King Idriss.

WAHB: The first Moroccan king.

HSG: I find that extraordinary. Do you think that your aristocratic lineage affects your approach to art and photography?

WAHB: My father, even though he was a magistrate, a judge, he was also an artist. He used to draw a lot. There were a lot of paintings hanging in the house that were painted by my father. He was an incredible writer. He used to write for magazines and for newspapers about many subjects and topics. And he is the one who pushed me towards the creative. He always bought me stuff to design, and he said that you have to get interested in painting, in music. He always pushed us to do artistic things.
      [AUDIO] From the aristocratic point of view, I think that it’s a certain way of being rebellious, and always wanting to be different than the others, wanting to be the spearhead or the revolutionary person who would do something different. Unchained. I worked with some top people, but I’ve never been chained by anyone. Even when I worked for Dolce & Gabbana or worked for big, big designers, I’ve never been the person who can be subdued in some way.

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HSG: It’s a very interesting personal detail on your part. One of the reasons why I ask is because historically, as you know, the Western ideal of beauty up until the 20th century was full-figured. From the Greeks through to the Baroque and onwards, it was always a plus-size ideal. But then, at the end of World War I, when the aristocracy lost its political and cultural power, that’s when this timeless ideal was displaced in favor of an underweight standard. Afterwards, there were brief interludes of curvaceousness—like the ’50s, which you celebrate in your exhibition—but other than that, it seems as if the full-figured ideal was tied to the aristocracy. And now that ideal been replaced by thinness, which presumably represents democratic utilitarianism. The end of the aristocracy as a political power and cultural power meant the end of the full-figured ideal that went all the way back to the Greeks.
      Anyway, the central question that I always pose in my interviews is, why does the media suppress plus-size beauty?

WAHB: It’s all about business. Knowing that the majority of the people are not size 0 and convincing them to be size 0, that sells more weight-loss products. It’s almost like brainwashing someone to have some kind of control over them and always have them spending money to follow that kind of lead.
      But this is where the community has to wake up. It’s over. Wake up! That’s it. Advertising cannot be dictating to us what we have to do.
      A person told me, “But doing this, aren’t you afraid that you’re promoting obesity?”

HSG: Oh, God.

WAHB: I’m sorry. To see an amazing model who has an amazing body, yet she’s bulimic, that’s atrocious. That’s crazy. I said, “I need to be taking pictures of all kind of shapes of bodies. I need to say, ‘This is beautiful, and this is beautiful, and full-figured women are beautiful,’ so that girl will not destroy herself by being bulimic.”

HSG: It’s true. It’s so insulting whenever the “obesity” canard comes up, because unlike the size-0 models, plus-size models are not dying of eating disorders. Plus-size models are not collapsing on the runway from heart attacks. But that is happening to anorexic models. So who really are the healthy models? Plus-size models are much healthier than size-0 models who are starving and living on cigarettes.
      It’s a ruse really. People who say, “Oh, you’re just promoting obesity” are just using that as a cover, when all that really matters to them is that they don’t want to see full-figured beauty. They’re just using the health line as an excuse.
      Are there any more tidbits of information that you can give us, any more teasers about your future projects?

WAHB: There’s my movie about my personal story, where I’d show how the fashion people have been presented as if they are from another world. But they’re not. Everyone is normal. Even when I met my ex-fiancée, she asked, “Oh, do you ever date normal girls?” And I said, “Models are normal girls.” They’re just models, but they’re normal girls. They work as models, but they’re normal girls. I want to show that a fashion person like me, how I lived in the normal world, how I lived in the fashion world, and how I transitioned from one to the other with ease, and how I refused the flaws of one and the flaws of the other, because each side has prejudices about the other.
      The non-fashion people, they always say, “normal.” What is normal? And what is not normal? The models are normal girls, and the non-models are normal girls. It’s not like, “Oh, do you ever go with normal girls?” What is a normal girl? What is a model? Is it a new human species?

HSG: [laughs] But they are seen that way. There have a glamorous power. If you read what Sarah wrote on my forum about going to your show, she wanted above all else to meet Kelsey. She wanted to meet the model who had inspired her toward accepting her own curves. Models do have this iconic status. It’s just that it can be a power for good or for ill. If the models embody positive body image, then it’s good because they help women feel better about themselves: “Oh, I can be curvy and glamorous.” But if they’re promoting anorexia, then the influence is harmful.

WAHB: As in the normal world, in the fashion world you have the good and the bad.

HSG: You do have a compelling story and a unique perspective. You have a leg in both worlds, so maybe you can be the bridge that helps each side to understand the other.

WAHB: That’s what my movie is about. It’s about the misconceptions of both sides, and how those misconceptions affected my life.

HSG: Indeed, they affected your life a very personal way, as you pointed out. Well, we’re all eagerly looking forward to your future projects celebrating curvaceous beauty.

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WAHB: Thank you very much. I’ll be shooting pictures in the Sports Illustrated style with a few plus-size models for my pilot for the reality TV show. That’s going to be in a month or so. My future is not only photography but also features—as I said, TV programs. I’ll be shooting documentaries about a lot of things that are close to my heart, a lot of issues. And also movies. I have a few scripts that I’ve written myself.

HSG: You’re in the right place then: Hollywood. You’re living the dream that you had as a youth. And I’m sure that there were many young men in Morocco who also had dreams of someday doing something glamorous.. But you have made your dream a reality.

WAHB: Yes. Everyone challenged me. They said, “You’ll see. You’ll be back.” There is one thing I always tell anyone who wants to challenge me: If you want to win, never, ever challenge me, because I am willing to die for my challenge.

HSG: Wow.

WAHB: If you’re not willing to die, don’t even attempt it, because I know I’ll get there. And so far, I have proven everyone wrong over the last 13 years.

HSG: That’s a very powerful statement. I’m going to quote you on that.

WAHB: Yes, yes, yes. That you absolutely can.

HSG: Is there anything else that you would like to add at this point?

WAHB: Yes. Any plus-size model who wishes to get in touch with me, please do so. I want to keep in contact with many plus-size girls for my next project, so they can reach me on Facebook.

HSG: I imagine that many California models will keep in touch.

WAHB: I will be going to New York as well. New York was the first place I went when I first visited the U.S. I’m in love with New York. I came here because I became more of a celebrity photographer, and that’s why I came to Los Angeles, but I cannot miss out on New York. I have to work with New York, absolutely. And I need to get back to my fashion roots. It’s the real me.

HSG: Again, congratulations on such a magnificent project, and thank you very much for your time, Mr. Mabkhout.

WAHB: Thank you so much.

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Interview recorded April 12, 2011.

Timeless Beauty

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