What Makes Me Tick: Photographer Mr Michel Haddi

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What Makes Me Tick: Photographer Mr Michel Haddi

Words by Mr Josh Sims

15 September 2023

Mr Michel Haddi once tried to buy his two sons a Rolex each on their 18th birthdays. They both declined. “It wasn’t that I wanted them to have a watch in the traditional way,” Haddi says. “It was more I know that if you’re somewhere around the world and in deep shit, a Rolex can be converted into cash anywhere. It’s security.”

Haddi, the acclaimed fashion photographer and celebrity portraitist, has often found himself in such situations – caught up in tribal disputes in war-torn Yemen; facing down East German soldiers as the Berlin Wall tumbled. “But I’ve only ever had to pawn a camera myself so far, and that was because I got carried away, spent too much and ran out of money,” he laughs. “I think my boys just think they’re never likely to be in a tricky situation.”

He has always had an attachment to Rolex, ever since he spotted the Submariner his stepfather, a professional diver, bought in 1961. Haddi learnt to dive when he was nine. He says he’s not sentimental, but nonetheless wears a vintage black bezel Submariner himself. He likes, he says, watches that are well-built, “like a good Hasselblad or Nikon camera”.

“I’m often taken aback by the precision of the mechanics in watches. It’s like surgery”

“I’m often taken aback by the precision of the mechanics in watches. It’s like surgery,” says the London-based French-Algerian who started out training in electrical mechanics. He is a qualified electro-technician, he notes. “Given my training you might think I’d wear a smartwatch. They do more, yes, but they don’t come close to matching the cleverness of a mechanical watch. I mean, an automatic? A watch that powers itself as you move! That’s still amazing to me.”

However, the way things look still matters to a fashion photographer. Haddi is particularly fond of stainless steel, in part for the complexity of its production, in part because it matches the silver rings he designs and makes as a hobby, something he shares with his wife.

“I think the best watch designs you can just sit and admire, as an object,” he says. “They look simple but actually pulling that off is extremely difficult. People say the same about taking a good photograph, too.”

After all, this is a man who is similarly “very particular” about his clothes. His wardrobe is largely bespoke tailored, mostly by Anthony Sinclair, of Sir Sean Connery-era Bond fame – he’s currently having what he calls some Dr. No jackets made. That’s with the exception of the selection of adidas sweatpants and Hoka One One sneakers he wears every day. “I live in the UK so thought I may as well adopt some of that British eccentricity,” he chuckles. “You Brits just have a way of putting things together.”

He has always loved the statement that a good watch can make. Not a flashy one, though – “Why would you ever put diamonds on a diving watch?” – just one that brings a focal point to an outfit. Or, indeed, the lack of one.

“Shooting watches still-life is incredibly hard. A watch comes alive when it’s on somebody”

“I once did a shoot for Playboy and insisted that the model wear a watch,” Haddi recalls. “I mean, as much as I like to see a woman naked, the watch was a small but important detail. And somehow it made the whole image sexier, too. In the same way adding a great watch to just a pair of jeans and a T-shirt can make all the difference.

“Shooting watches still-life is incredibly hard. I’ve done it for Armani and Swatch in the past. But a watch comes alive when it’s on somebody. There’s an interaction.”

Interaction is, of course, his stock in trade: an ability to get maximum expression from a still image captured over just a few hours with his subjects, be they Mr Clint Eastwood, Ms Uma Thurman, Mr David Bowie or Mr Tupac Shakur – shots of the late rapper form the basis of Haddi’s latest book. And he is very particular about working to schedule.

“Celebrity portraiture is very regulated because your subject’s time is limited, and with a model they’re being paid by the clock. I like to start at 9.00am and have the first image done by 11.00am. And so on, finishing by 5.00pm,” he says of his synchronised working day. “It’s so important to be respectful of other people’s time. I once did a shoot with Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love and she turned up an hour late. And he went crazy at her. I understood why.”

Not that Haddi has to look at his watch all that often, as much as he almost never leaves the house without it. “I’m one of those people who can just tell the time pretty well without looking,” he says. “I have some kind of intuition for it. My wife will say ‘guess the time’ and I’ll go ‘about 20 past three’ and that will be right. It flabbergasts her. All the same, I still like to have a watch on.”

01. The one to wear the hell out of

Cartier Tank Française Automatic

“This is just the perfect all-rounder, just right to wear anywhere and any day. It’s solid, but still gorgeous. And, of course, it’s a Cartier. As a Frenchman, I am sentimental about Cartier, it’s part of my heritage. If I’m in Paris, I go by the shop on Place Vendôme and have a look.”

02. The one for special occasions

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Classic

“I love how simple this is – just a little block really – and yet it looks so expensive. I think you’d have to be careful where you wore this one. It’s so impressive it would make everyone around you feel insecure.”

03. The one to keep for life

Cartier Pasha De Cartier Automatic Skeleton

“This looks like a watch that’s worn by an astronaut who’s been away for years and returned with new technology, with this perfect machine. It’s has this fantastic emphasis on details. There is something meditative about it – you could just sit and look at it and your mind would be transported somewhere.”

What makes us tick