Mous Lamrabat: “The rules have changed”.

Mous Lamrabat: “The rules have changed”.

The work of self-taught fashion photographer Mous Lamrabat is unmistakable. A native of Morocco, Mous moved to Belgium at a young age. Having no formal training in photography freed him from industry norms and technical concerns — pursuing ideas instead of images. These ideas disregard borders and merge cultures, be it Moroccan or American. Behind the clothing is an approach that entirely subverts our expectations in his personal work or projects for brands like Louis Vuitton, Nike or Balenciaga. From his studio in Ghent, Belgium, we chat to Mous about seeking inspiration in a new decade, how his home country has remained one of his greatest sources of inspiration, finding his confidence and the power of photography.

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On falling in love with Ghent

I love Ghent. I live here, I studied here. It’s the only place in Belgium where I forget that I’m an immigrant. People here are more open-minded. It used to be a hippie-ish city: there’s a joke that in Ghent you can find people walking about barefoot. No one judges. 

On moving to Belgium

We’re nine kids in the family. We were very young when we moved to Belgium. My dad got married in 1969 and moved here alone to work in a coal mine, which he did for about 20 years. There was no other way; there was no money and no work in Morocco at the time. He came back to visit only every two years in the summer. So he didn’t see his family. Then he started to work in a textile factory. His boss there was a very nice person, a good soul, and he helped my dad fill in all the paperwork to get us over to Belgium. 

On the tougher side of fitting in

It’s a very rules-based country. They’re not written but everyone here lives among them. I hate that. I love the idea of being free. When you have a little color here you don’t have the luxury of doing what a white person would. 

Traveling around the country, I used to become my white alter ego: best Flemish accent, very polite, always smiling to comfort people. Something like that. I know now that I would do it, but I can see that my siblings, who live in a slightly more complex city, don’t. It’s only when I make fun of them for it that they realise what they’re doing. 

Photography by Mous Lamrabat.

On becoming a photographer

Everything I’ve done in life has developed quite naturally. I graduated as an interior architect and got headhunted by an architectural company because my final project was quite good. (I designed a conceptual, flagship store that broke from the idea of brands.) They wanted me to work with them and invited me to the office on the following Monday to talk about contracts. The whole weekend I didn’t feel good about it; something was tearing me apart inside. And I just didn’t show up. I didn’t even have the energy to send them an email. The moment I decided not to go, I felt elevated and relieved. I wanted to be creative all the time instead of just working on projects, where the creative part is only 2%. 

Soon I started assisting a photographer. It wasn’t really my universe. We did shoots for car insurance companies and portraits for law firms. But I was hungry to learn. ‘If I can see how this works, I’ll learn something,’ I thought. After two years, I started doing my own thing, mainly fashion.

Ghent used to be a hippie-ish city: there’s a joke that here you can find people walking about barefoot. No one judges.

On reconnecting in Morocco

Going back to Morocco during the summers was the only time that the whole family was together, as one unit. Because normally in Belgium, you know, someone’s in their room, someone’s at school. In Morocco it was the opposite. We got to know our parents again. And I still promise myself that, every time my parents go home, I’ll join them – because I really get to know them again. I love the easy life there. I know it sounds idyllic but it’s so easy. You start appreciating the everyday things. It’s waking up and having breakfast together, laughing together. 

Photography by Mous Lamrabat.

On where you find inspiration

When I was little I was obsessed with covered-up women, because I didn’t know the meaning behind it. There was so much mystery, in the beginning I was even quite frightened by them. That’s something that has appealed to me since then, how mysterious something is if there is no face. The norm is to see the face to judge it, to put it in the category box where it belongs. But when you can’t see the face, you feel in trouble. ‘Where do I put that person?’ It’s like in the movies, when they don’t reveal the bad guy till the end. 

So your imagination has to create that person. I’ve learned so much about my own work just by listening to people at my first exhibition. I had people coming to me laughing, telling me my work is humorous. At the same time, there were people with tears in their eyes, saying that what I’m trying to do is so powerful. I realised that when you take the face out, people project their own image and how they feel at that moment. 

The moment I decided not to go, I felt elevated and relieved. I wanted to be creative all the time instead of just working on projects, where the creative part is only 2%. 

On creating meaning in your images

The rules have changed: there is no more definition of what is art, what is photography, what is fashion. In fashion, having a collection that looks good is the minimum, but who’s behind the brand, behind the clothes, what is your vision on life? This is something that I found attractive. Recently people have been asking for my humanitarian perspective and I got a request from a brand to come up with a list of international causes from the past year that they can support. 

In my work I try to put out a message. To show the world how it is and how it should be. If there are things going on in the world that bother me — the Black Lives Matter movement or the war in Syria, say — my reflex is ‘What can I do?’. And most of the time the answer is photography. I try to bring the ideas into an image and a creative awareness. The challenge is to do it colourfully and in a creative way, because you need to get people’s attention, and in the second layer you can have the message. 

Sometimes I get shit for it. I don’t have to explain how sensitive people are, especially on social media. If there is something people can be offended by, I assure you they will. 

“My grandpa was old — over a hundred — and a beautiful man, always laughing. Apparently it’s a family thing. He laughed so hard his eyes teared up most of the time”. Photography by Mous Lamrabat.

On building self – confidence

From the start, I wanted to be different. But when you start off — I think this applies to every category of work — you mimic someone. You have a hero; you work hard to be like them. For me it was Helmut Newton. He gave me the confidence to do it. There is a film called ‘Helmut by June’, a small documentary by his wife, who films him while he’s shooting. This guy has genius ideas, especially at an age when you think, ‘How can you be so creative?!’ Newton was still doing it when he was quite old. And in the film he’s bragging that his camera is on automatic, that the light is just a pop-up flash: he was really promoting the fact that he didn’t know a lot [technically] and his focus was on what’s in front of the lens. This is where I got all my confidence from, because I’m bad technically but I know I can create something in front of the lens. If I do something artistic, it doesn’t matter what shutter speed I use.

The rules have changed: there is no more definition of what is art, what is photography, what is fashion. In fashion, having a collection that looks good is the minimum, but who’s behind the brand, behind the clothes, what is your vision on life?

On your favourite piece of work

There is a photo, the last photo, that I took of my grandpa before he passed away. When I took this shot, I had never felt more confident in my ability to be a photographer. My grandpa was old — over a hundred — and a beautiful man, always laughing. Apparently it’s a family thing. He laughed so hard his eyes teared up most of the time. And in the photo, he’s wiping his tears away with his beautiful hands in front of this face, with their old skin and its texture. It’s still my favourite picture. In the early years, people asked me to exhibit it in their shop, and every time it was sold, I pulled out and couldn’t sell it.

On window or aisle seat

Aisle — you can pee whenever you want.

On Ghent in one word

Freedom. 

Above: Photography by Mous Lamrabat. Below: Self-portrait by Mous Lamrabat.

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Nuggets in this interview

inspiration

Gentbrugse Meersen, Ghent

“My favourite place for walking: it’s something between a park and a little forest.”

–Mous Lamrabat

inspiration

Keizerpark, Ghent

“I play basketball here in the spring and summer.”

–Mous Lamrabat

food and drink

Clouds In My Coffee, Ghent

“A coffee place on my street.”

–Mous Lamrabat

food and drink

Bidon Coffee & Bicycle, Ghent

“Café by the river.”

–Mous Lamrabat

food and drink

Frittur Sint Jacobs, Ghent

“Best fries you will ever taste.”

–Mous Lamrabat

need to know

Curb Skateshop, Ghent

“Cool skateshop that I collaborate with every now and then.”

–Mous Lamrabat

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