Fish & chip shop owner Kazem Hakimi has been snapping his customers for years, and now puts them on show at Modern Art Oxford. James Attlee and Tim Hughes take a look at his unrivalled document of a city

In July 2016 a cameraman from BBC Oxford visited a popular fish and chip shop on Iffley Road to film a short interview with its proprietor, Kazem Hakimi, writes James Atlee.

The station had broadcast an interview with him a few days previously about the extraordinary photography project he was undertaking, making portraits of his customers against the white wall behind his shop.

Each portrait was taken “between 15 seconds and 60 seconds”, Hakimi told the cameraman. “Mostly one shot or two shots, then I have to come back, or otherwise my food will burn!”

The film showed the shop, the wall where the pictures were taken and a selection of them that Hakimi had collected into a book, creating a collective portrait of the diverse and colourful community he has worked within since 1988.

Within a week of it being uploaded it had gone viral, viewed one and a half million times worldwide.

Why did the story, and the pictures, strike a chord with so many people?

Perhaps it was because, at a time when division and conflict seem to dominate the headlines, Iranian-born Hakimi’s work shows a very different side of contemporary life in urban Britain, revealing a place where people from a wide range of backgrounds live harmoniously, side by side.

"Nowadays unity seems to be breaking up in the world, because we keep looking for the faults or shortcomings in people", Hakimi says.

"Every day in my shop I see so many lovely people. Each person is unique. I take photographs of my customers as well as cooking for them because I care about them".

This mutual respect and affection, built up over the years his shop has served the people of East Oxford, has allowed Hakimi to get beyond conventional poses and capture the essence of his subjects in portraits of startling honesty and power.

Portraits from a Chip Shop’ is far from Hakimi’s first venture into photography.

He has been taking pictures for 30 years and his work has been shown at a number of art spaces in Oxford in recent years, including Art Jericho, the Jam Factory and the Pegasus Theatre.

He is particularly known for his street photography, undertaken both in Britain and abroad, notably in the photographs he made in 2004 in Iran which were the subject of a one-man show at the North Wall in 2009.

Like many creative people, Hakimi struggles with the challenge of finding time for his passion while putting in extended hours behind the counter providing for a family.

The solution he has found, which will be inspirational to many, has been to make his workplace his subject, the limitations it imposes shaping his project.

"I like working under pressure," he says. "I like to have a camera with me all the time. I’m always looking for beautiful compositions. Ordinary things are happening constantly but for a few seconds you see the extraordinariness of it.

"With photography you can make a small moment of life immortal."

The Oxford Times:

The real face of East Oxford

Kazem Hakimi’s pictures speak volumes about the reality of modern Oxford, writes Tim Hughes.

The eclectic nature of the faces he captures on his camera reflect the rich diversity of his community better than words could ever do. Young and old, eccentric and conservative, narcissistic and modest and from all corners of the globe, this is the East Oxford we know and love – but all too easily take for granted.

Whether hipster, student, bodybuilder or nun, these people are united by two common threads: they are all residents of a welcoming and impossibly mixed-up community – and they are all partial to a bag of chips. And very good chips they are too.

Kazem has deliberately refrained from naming his Iffley Road sitters to avoid getting in the way of the powerful statement made by the images themselves. It is, to a journalist, frustrating, but ultimately admirable. The aesthetic is everything – free of baggage and cultural preconceptions.

The pictures entreat us to ask our own questions about these enigmatic, semi-familiar figures. Who are they?

What we see is what we get: hungry customers snapped without ceremony in front of a simple white screen in Kazem’s back yard. What could be purer as a snapshot of a community at a moment in time? Forget those fancy images of dreaming spires, this is the Oxford we should all be celebrating.

  • Kazem Hakimi: Portraits from a Chip Shop will be shown in a joint exhibition at Modern Art Oxford and the Old Fire Station from 6 May to 2 July.
  • Are you the subject of one of Kazem's portraits? If so, we'd love to hear from you. Please email tim.hughes@nqo.com