FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER best known for his work in the comfortable, rarefied world of superstar celebrity, Michel Haddi has spent a lifetime just about avoiding serious trouble.

“For example,” he says, “I was asked to shoot the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Berlin. I’d never heard of them. While we were in the studio there was all this noise. The people said, ‘Right, now we’re breaking the wall,’ so I suggested to [the band’s frontman] Anthony [Kiedis] ‘Let’s go to the wall and you can break some of it’ – us and one million other people.

“I’m so clever that the next day I thought we’d go to East Germany, through Checkpoint Charlie, and it’s dead there, so we start to shoot, and suddenly – oh my – there are five army trucks, 75 soldiers with their Kalashnikovs and, because I’m so clever, I tell them to ‘Fuck off!’” He adds: “Fortunately, our cab driver told me, ‘Shut the fuck up and get in the car!’ He said soldiers wanted to take me into the woods and finish me – after all, this was the last day they’d be part of the East German army. Thankfully, I listened to him. Really I’m such a stupid fuck. My life has been like that all the time: ‘What am I doing here?’”

Take, for further example, one shoot in war-torn Yemen – yet more annoyed people, some kids this time, also with Kalashnikovs – when only his surname – coincidentally meaning ‘boss’ among local tribes – saved him from an abrupt end. “Two weeks later, they abducted two tourists and cut their heads off,” he notes. Or shooting in Ecuador – with the junta not so pleased about it. “Somehow, I’ve seen a lot of guns over the years,” Haddi says.

It’s perhaps no surprise that among his heroes are war photographers Don McCullin, Tim Page and Sean Flynn. Indeed, they’ve inspired his intuitive, from-the-hip, “one photo from one moment” way of shooting that has resulted in characterful, unconventional portraits of everyone from Clint Eastwood to Cameron Diaz, Tupac Shakur, Uma Thurman and David Bowie.

Kate Moss for British GQ, New York, 1991
Cameron Diaz, Vogue Homme Magazine, Venice Beach, California,1993

“It seems magazines have given me celebrities to work with because I’m not scared [of them], I respect them and I’m at ease with them,” he explains. “You have to find the one thing that [makes them tick]. When I met Al Pacino, for example, I asked him if I could call him Al, and told him I was ‘Tony Montana, and I’m a political refugee’. He laughed and knew then he was going to have a ball. When I worked with Faye Dunaway I knew she liked to be surrounded by men. I went into the make-up room and introduced myself and told her she looked incredible and that I’d be taking her to dinner that evening. That’s what she wanted to hear: that a heterosexual guy still liked the way she looked. It’s not about pleasing [your subject] but building some kind of trust. There are people I wouldn’t work with because the vibes are bad.”

In others words, Haddi is a bit of a chancer, a charmer, a man whose life experience has seen him have to deal with all sorts of people, who understands, as he puts it, that so many of his subjects “walk a fine line with fear – they fear not being loved [as a performer]. I’ve acted once and understand that what they do is like walking naked in front of a million people, and that it can be a terrible feeling.”

Certainly, relative to the professional circles in which he has circulated since the 1980s, Haddi is from the wrong side of the tracks. Born to an Algerian woman, he never knew his father – a well-to-do French soldier – and was raised in a Parisian orphanage.

It was the old-fashion magazines his mother would bring him that first turned him on to photography. And it was his determination to become a photographer that kept him on the straight and narrow.

Well, just about: in his early 20s he lived in Saudi Arabia for a while, where he crossed paths with Osama Bin Laden and got by peddling bottles of Johnny Walker on the side, on occasion using that charm – and a small bribe – to see off nosey traffic cops.

Uma Thurman, British Vogue, London, 1990
Veruschka Von Lehndorff, Interview Magazine, London, 1989

He almost did the same in Iran, of all places, where smuggling, if he was caught, would have seen him lashed or executed. Tempted with £5,000 to drive a BMW “with Ahmed” from Romania to Paris – the boot loaded with gold from who knows where – he declined a job that could have gone south very easily. Some of his exploits, he says, his wife knows all too well. They still have him waking up with nightmares.

“I understood the concept of greed, but knew I had a tendency to go off track and do what I knew I shouldn’t be doing,” he laughs. “Photography helped me. I knew I had to focus on what I was good at, which was taking photos. Back when I was 19, I realised that either I was going to be a gangster, or join the army or do something totally outside of the box [for someone like me].”

That, he’s convinced, would also mean he had to get out of Paris – indeed, he’s lived here and there but most of his life in London. If the latter, he says, has offered him a culture of creativity and acceptance, the stuffiness of the French capital would, he’s convinced, have closed doors to someone of Algerian descent. “I could be Arabic or Jewish to them,” he says – neither great for advancement, he suggests.

“Of course, I came to England for the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll too, but France is an extremely bourgeois society, deeply conventional and you can’t stand out too much,” Haddi adds. “They don’t want to accept that someone [who doesn’t follow the prescribed social pathways] has been successful abroad, made it in Milan or London.

“Every time I go to Paris I still get a knot in my stomach because they look at me differently. They just don’t understand why I’m such a cool guy….”

How annoyed they must be then that Haddi has produced so many iconic images over his four decades of photography. Intriguingly, he attributes this to having – wisely, it might seem – practised martial arts for years. It’s been about mastering – his analogy – the repetitive, steady brushstroke up, brushstroke down of The Karate Kid, to the point where it finally becomes “a scraping off, back to the essence of something, so you end up with just short, very precise movements up and down instead,” he explains – kind of.

“An iconic photograph scrapes off all the unnecessary [visual clutter] too. No tricks. No palaver. The bare minimum. But you can’t force that. It has to come naturally. I think a lot of [portraiture] today is just trying too hard. Of course, you can’t decide to make an iconic image. It just happens, or it doesn’t.”

Either way, Haddi must feel on slightly safer, calmer ground – fewer egos, fewer AK-47s – with his latest project, a series of still-life flower photographs, ready for an exhibition and book later this year. The result of a pandemic lockdown project – “my wife, who is also a photographer, and I made a pact that we would work every day, train every day and drink wine every night!” He laughs – these are not the usual flower photos but as close to pornographic as flower photos can get.

“It’s flowers with sex and blood,” Haddi enthuses. “Lots of photographers have done flowers before or seem to be doing them now – Irving Penn, Nick Knight, Rankin – but it’s always pretty, very nice. That’s fine but I want to push the envelope.

“Friends are saying when they look at these photos they see cock and pussy. Since I can’t publish pornography in a fashion magazine,
I have to do it a different way.”

Of course he does. Michael Haddi, ladies and gentlemen: French revolutionary, hooch runner, bullet dodger, fetish florist, and really quite a good photographer.

Linda Evangelista, Party Milan, Vanity Fair Italia, 2010

29 Arts In Progress Gallery this year celebrates its 10th anniversary and presents a new exhibition for fall of the eclectic work of Michel Haddi - Beyond Fashion. The show will unfold over two consecutive exhibitions, the first from 19 October to 22 December 2023 and the second from 16 January to 16 March 2024.