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Hajar Benjida, Atlanta Made Us Famous
Hajar Benjida, “Nunu”, Atlanta Made Us FamousPhotography Hajar Benjida

In pictures: the real strippers of Atlanta

Atlanta Made Us Famous is the ongoing photo series paying homage to the dancers behind the ‘raining dollar bills’ on the stage of the legendary strip club, Magic City

Hajar Benjida’s first night out at Magic City, Atlanta’s legendary strip club, was on one of the infamous Magic City Mondays. “It happened to be a really crazy night,” the Moroccan-Dutch photographer recalls. “Migos started to show up, then Cardi B. It was 2018 and all eyes were on the QC label.” But as the crowd gathered round the “smaller than expected” stage in a haze of watermelon-flavoured hookah and raining dollar bills, these behemoths of the hip hop industry faded into the background, and the focus became the dancers. “They are the real stars of the city,” says Benjida, 27, who spent the next few years photographing them for her ongoing series, Atlanta Made Us Famous.

While studying at art college in the Netherlands, Benjida cut her teeth taking backstage portraits of hip hop stars at concerts. “My camera was basically my backstage pass. I’d just turn up at the stage door and talk my way in,” she says. Playboi Carti, Cardi B, Lil Yachty, Metro Boomin and Princess Nokia, to name but a few, have all relaxed in front of her lens, with some inviting her to shoot them in their home cities – a testament to her open, laid-back presence and the comfort she brings her subjects.

“I really wanted to get to know these women. You often see footage of them in the shadows, or only their silhouettes. That’s why I wanted to do portraits... to have them look deep into the camera” – Hajar Benjida

An internship at Cam Kirk’s photography studio brought her to Atlanta in 2018, and right across the street from Magic City. A powerful launchpad for hip hop talent, and a daytime hangout spot for artists in the sprawling city, Benjida learned of the mythos of the club through music videos and song lyrics, but it took visiting in person to fully appreciate the influence of its dancers. “Magic City is where records become hits and careers are formed, and the dancers are a vital part of that,” she says. “I saw a lot of collaboration between them and the DJs. They’ll tip the DJ to play their favourite tracks, this song, not that. I even saw whole songs being cut off because the dancers weren’t feeling it.”

After taking a few backstage shots in 2018, Benjida returned the following year, intending to photograph the dancers over the course of several weeks for her graduation project. Unable to get through by calling or emailing, she did what she’d done at concerts: “I just showed up on the spot.” After befriending the house mother, Ms Elaine, and gaining access, she spent days and nights documenting “the calm before the storm moments” behind the scenes. 

“I really wanted to get to know these women. You often see footage of them in the shadows, or only their silhouettes. You don’t really get a sense of who they are. That’s why I wanted to do portraits, just like I did with the music artists, to have them look deep into the camera,” she explains. “When I told them I didn’t want to focus on the music scene, just the women, some of them got really excited. They were happy to be the ones fully in focus, instead of another video girl in the background.”

Some days, Benjida wouldn’t take pictures at all. She’d sit for hours, just listening to conversations and talking to the dancers, who’d open up about their own artistic passions, or their experiences of motherhood. Some of the most sensitive shots in the series were taken in their homes – we see Thursday Night resting on her bed caressing her baby bump, and Cleo breastfeeding on her couch.

Benjida’s empathetic approach is ever-present in the photographs, which are at once powerful, personal, and peaceful, with the women taking ownership over how they’re presented. “I’d always let them pose and see their natural reactions, before gently directing them,” she says. “Shooting film meant that we had to put our trust in the camera, and that helped to be more in the moment.” 

Their personalities, and the distinctive characters they’ve developed around their stage names, shine through, and Benjida’s intimate images have resonated worldwide. She’s the latest recipient of the British Journal of Photography International Photography Award, and her first solo exhibition is currently lining the walls at TJ Boulting in London.

Benjida’s aptitude for building trust and relationships led her to continue her series in Miami in 2022, after being invited to shoot at exclusive strip club KOD (King of Diamonds). She’s recently moved to New York and hopes to capture the strip clubs intertwined with the music scene there. “Drill has really kicked off in New York, putting the city back on the map for hip hop,” she says. “I want to document this chapter of history, so in 20 years’ time we can look back at these women and appreciate their power and importance in the scene, and beyond it.”

Head to the gallery above for a closer look at Benjida’s images. Atlanta Made Us Famous is showing at TJ Boulting in London from 10 - 28 January 2023. 

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