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Behind the scenes of Tupac’s iconic photoshoot

By Zoe Whitfield, CNN

(CNN) — “Photographing a rapper was not on my agenda,” said Michel Haddi, the French-Algerian photographer whose new project is a heavyweight monograph dedicated to the late Tupac Shakur. “But when I moved to America it was different,” he continued. “(Rap) became my culture.”

During a career spanning more than 30 years, Haddi has photographed some of the world’s leading celebrities and models for magazines and advertising campaigns — work that has become the subject of numerous exhibitions and coffee table tomes. His latest book “Tupac: The Legend”— released on the anniversary of the rapper’s death in Las Vegas in 1996, at the hands of an anonymous shooter — revisits the photographer’s portrait session with the star, originally commissioned for hip hop magazine “The Source”.

The shoot was kismet, Haddi told CNN in a phone interview — referring to the correlation between the pair’s early lives. By his own admission, the photographer was raised “in the worst scenario possible,” living in various orphanages in the suburbs of Paris, arriving at photography aged 18 after a chance encounter with another photographer while working as a hotel night porter. The son of Black Panther Party Members, Tupac’s own tumultuous start, moving with his mother and sister often and leaving home altogether as a teen, has been widely documented, with his strained maternal relationship informing the lyrics to 1995’s “Dear Mama”.

In 1993, when Tupac and Haddi first met for the shoot, the then 22-year-old rapper was preparing for the release of his second film, John Singleton’s Poetic Justice, a romantic drama in which Janet Jackson plays his love interest. “I didn’t know much about his music,” Haddi said on a Zoom call with CNN. “I was much more interested in him.”

The shoot took place near to Haddi’s home in the Los Angeles suburb of Venice Beach where Haddi made establishing common ground with Tupac — who had brought John Singleton along — his priority. “Right away I said, ‘Do you know, if I became American people would qualify me as an African American, because my mum is North African’ – and they burst out laughing. They said, ‘well, in theory you’re right, but you’re a bit pale my friend’. The ice was broken then, and they saw me as coming from another place, without any judgement.”

A man of empathy

Haddi’s vision for the shoot was to portray Tupac — who he described in a previous interview as “elegant and polite” — as Martin Luther King. “I asked him: ‘Are you okay with that? I want to dress you in a black suit, white shirt and black tie’. John (Singleton) asked why, saying ‘I don’t really see Tupac like Martin Luther King’. So I said, ‘All right, I think that you want to take the photograph, here’s my camera.’ Tupac was sensitive and an artist, and he said ‘John please, leave the man alone, let him work’. We did the pictures and got along very well, working for two or three hours.”

The book, which immortalises this iconic photoshoot, also employs quotes from Tupac, pulled from various third-party interviews. “I wanted to show a man full of empathy,” asserts Haddi. “Violence was not his primo direction, he was really a poet and an artist. That’s why everybody was totally wowed by him. I wanted to show the character of a man who is, as far as I’m concerned, a legend.”

What is maybe most intriguing about “Tupac: The Legend”, away from the book’s protagonist, is that Haddi doesn’t have the negatives from the shoot. “All the negatives got stolen at the lab (in 1993 when the photos were developed),” he says. “Everything has been in storage for 28 years but we recently found some Polaroids and some contact sheets, then a few weeks ago my wife Sarah opened another box and found some original prints from the shoot which have never been seen before. Looking at them carefully, you can see the mildew starting to eat the paper.”

The book closes with an additional set of images, shot in 2022, of the Tupac’s former yard at the home in the Woodland Hills neighbourhood of LA, where he and his then-girlfriend Kidida Jones were living in 1996, ahead of his death. In one photograph a group of signs asks fans not to trespass and acknowledges the 24-hour security camera, while the others highlight markings left on the ground by the rapper: lyrics to 1996’s song “Made Ni**az”.

“I’m staying at my friend’s house and he says ‘Michel, are you aware down the street is Tupac’s (old) house? I’m gonna call my friend who lives there’,” remembers the photographer of his finding the last chapter. A suitably fortuitous event.

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