Faces in the Frame

by Linda L. May

Karim Ramzi

July 01, 2011 — Stately chestnut trees, colorful, fragrant gardens and historical structures like the Eiffel Tower line the famous avenues and squares of Paris. Writers, artists, students and thousands of tourists flock to this romantic city annually. Yet it is also a bustling center of commerce and famous for its fashion industry—a perfect setting for a successful portrait studio. Karim Ramzi, a well-known professional fashion and portrait photographer, knows the advantages of doing business in this exciting city, because he has been successfully doing it for over two decades.

Karim is noted for photographing some of the world’s most famous celebrities, royalty and top fashion models, as well as everyday people. Although he is based in France, his assignments have taken him all over the globe, including Europe, the United States, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The royal families of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and former royalties of Egypt and Yugoslavia have all posed before his lens, and his outstanding images have also been exhibited in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Algeria, Lebanon and Switzerland.

Karim grew up around photography because his father, Dr. Ahmed Ramzi, was a medical professor at the Tofail Hospital in Marrakesh and took pictures of bones (his specialty) for slide projections to show his students. Several assorted photo magazines were always laying around his house, so Karim got an early dose of this profession. Dr. Ramzi also had an extensive collection of cameras. In high school Karim used to sneak out his father’s old cameras and shoot pictures of his schoolmates. When his dad found out about Karim’s secret borrowing, he forbid him to use his cameras again, with the promise to buy him one of his own in the future. During his second year at college, his father kept his word and purchased an Olympus OM-10 with a 50mm Zuiko lens, which his mother, Khadija delivered. Karim never received a formal degree in photography. Instead, he majored in Political Science at Ottawa University and Communications at Carleton University. Little did he know back then that one day his Communications degree would help him with his photography career.

“I believe things happen naturally and we are all where we are supposed to be in life. I’ve always been a spiritual person. I believe in the concept of letting go and staying away from ego as much as possible. In my opinion, there are two types of lives: the one we want and the one that just happens. No one is born with a manual as to how to live. There are no GPS systems for humans to tell us which direction we should take, or if it’s the right one. But with experience and age, I have learned to feel if something I am doing is right or wrong for me. I just accept the opportunities that come to me and read whatever message I receive from each. Numerous opportunities come to everyone daily, but we have to choose the best ones for ourselves. Photography is a good fit for me and has turned out to be a wonderful career choice,” Karim says.

It was sort of a fluke that Karim got interested in photographing people instead of the numerous other types of work he could have done. In 1984, he went to Cancun, Mexico on a shoestring budget with a group of college friends. Because he had the best camera, the trip organizer bought film for him to document the trip. On the second day there, Karim hiked up a hill among the Maya’s monuments to capture a sunset. Out of nowhere came a former model with her mother to take pictures of each other on the hill. After a while, Karim asked if he could shoot a few photos of her alone, so she started posing quite naturally for him.

“I was so impressed and happy. I felt so content photographing her. It’s like I just discovered something new about myself and my work. The next day, I started photographing the girls on the trip.

“When I returned home and developed the pictures, the girls loved them. All the girls in the class began asking me to take their picture, and that’s how I learned and trained myself to photograph people. The girls only bought my film and paid for the processing, so I wasn’t getting rich off the venture, but the knowledge and practice were priceless,” Karim says.

Later, Karim gained greater knowledge and skills by working at the University of Ottawa photo lab. Although Karim never formally studied photography, he did learn the craft from others, like the famous Yousuf Karsh, whom he became friends with after studying his books in college. Karim was honored when he got the rare opportunity to photograph this great master and in turn be photographed by him. In those early days, Karim photographed any job he could land to financially support himself, but after a while, he realized he needed to specialize in one particular type of photography. He chose fashion and portraits, and has earned a handsome income ever since.

Karim feels his job is as much about the psychology of dealing with people as it is about shooting skills, although he is proficient at both. Karim’s images are alluring and captivating because he seeks to find the true essence of his subjects, going beyond the glitz and glamour of the fashion world.

“It’s an intimate and intense relationship between the photographer and the models,” Karim explains. “I want to know the ‘who’ in each model and subject. The best way to do that is to be so transparent to my subjects that I become their own mirror. It’s not the way I see them that is so important, it’s the way they see me. I try to get them to relax as if they were in front of a mirror in the privacy of their own bedroom at home, where they give themselves the freedom to be the real them. It’s my goal to bring this out in my studio, and it’s a bit challenging at times. Especially if the model does not like the outfit or her hair, or the way the makeup artist did her face, then it becomes a real test of patience and tact. Thankfully, those nightmare situations happen very rarely for me.” 

Dancers are his favorite subjects, he says, because they tend to be more relaxed and move about more freely in front of
the lens.

Karim started out in this profession long before the digital age was even seriously thought of as impacting photography. So film was his medium of choice. Karim used Leica, Hasselblad, Mamiya and Pentax 6 x 7 cameras at the time. Now, thanks to the innovations by Imacon (now owned by Hasselblad) who created digital backs for these film cameras, Karim can still use those trusty old friends, along with the Canon 5D Mark II, 7D, 1Ds Mark III and Mark IV. Karim even adapted his Hasselblad lenses to the Canon bodies using a special adapter he purchased in a Hong Kong store.

When it comes to lighting his images, Broncolor is his equipment of choice. In 2009, Karim was honored by having one of his photographs chosen for the company’s 50th Anniversary calendar edition.

Right in the middle of Paris, near the Place de la République (one of the most famous spots in the city), Karim chose to locate his studio. In the same building where George Méliès (a seminal French filmmaker) was born, surrounded by many fine restaurants, galleries and shops, Karim operates his successful business. The studio has a homey feel to put clients at ease right away. Karim also serves coffee, tea and food to his clients, so they are as comfortable as possible. Since going digital, Karim has reduced his staff to himself, a secretary and one assistant. In the prior days of film, he had a much larger staff.

Exhibiting his work all over the globe has caused Karim to take risks at times. Karim recalls one particular instance, the exhibit he showed in Lebanon, as a great challenge.

“For this exhibit, I took enormous risk, both personally and for my career. The Minister of Culture personally asked me to show my images at the largest and most prestigious exhibition hall in Lebanon, the Palais Unesco. Knowing full well that this is a Middle Eastern country and the culture is different there, I still decided to display nude photographs. Some people in the press even suggested I reconsider my subject matter. But I did it and I am glad I did. More than 500 people showed up for the opening day and five television stations covered the event.

During the following days, I interviewed with 20 different TV stations and was on every major radio station, and covered by magazines and newspapers all over the Middle East. It was definitely a roaring success! Sometimes, we have to listen to our own hearts and take the risk, even when others disagree,” Karim says.

Karim’s future continues to look bright, promising and prosperous. As usual, Karim is working on yet more new book projects and scheduling new locations for exhibitions around the world, along with photographing celebrities, models and regular people daily. Teaching workshops is another area that keeps him busy. After so many years in this business, Karim is contented with the way his career and life are going. He never gets tired of the exciting city of Paris, or capturing faces in the frame.

Readers may contact Karim Ramzi via email at: karim@karimramzi.com or visit his Web site at www.karimramzi.com. To learn more about his workshops, visit www.internationalphotoworkshops.com. Readers can also find him on Facebook.


Linda L. May is a freelance writer/photographer based in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

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