For Omar Khaleel, fashion is personal. Using his native Birmingham as a backdrop for his editorial commissions and portraits, he shapes his work according to the details and textures of British urban life. From the streetwear his models are styled in, to the musicians he photographs and the local streets he uses as locations, Khaleel’s photographs pay tribute to the many facets of inner-city identity and are steeped in the environment that shapes it.
As a British-Yemeni, representing cultural diversity plays an important role in Khaleel’s approach to photography. “I am bicultural and live in a culturally rich but economically poor inner-city environment,” he says. “I have been blessed enough to have grown up with and be around people from all walks of life. All these have had a huge influence on making me who I am. So I use my work to highlight social and cultural issues and convey stories that are important to me.”
At just 23, with only two years of photographic study at Birmingham City University behind him, Khaleel has already made a name for himself in the worlds of music and fashion by chronicling youth culture. He has shot a number of notable Birmingham-based musicians, such as Tempa, Dapz On The Map and Scorpz, as well as amassing editorial commissions from online publications such as Hypebeast, Highsnobiety, Hypebae and Vice Digital and working with iconic streetwear brands Fila, Kappa and Russell Athletic.
Khaleel says he “thinks and sees in concepts”. His editorial shoots often revolve around an idea that marries story, location and styling to challenge visual tropes and stereotypes. In Fake Sh*t, a recent editorial for Hypebeast, he explores the obsession with luxury brands, dressing a group of young people in cheap knock-offs of designer wear to play with the illusion of glamour and happiness these goods claim to deliver.
In Bi-cultural, a shoot for Highsnobiety, the young photographer addresses the portrayal of British Arabs in the media. Shot between Morocco and the UK, the images linger between two cultures, mixing traditional Arab dress with brands such as Nike and Adidas. The photographer plans to continue exploring stereotypes through fashion in his future work.
“I’m currently working on a project entitled Momma’s Boy for Highsnobiety,” he tells BJP. “It’s a conceptual shoot that challenges the stereotypes associated with boys and young men who form strong attachments with their mothers as they are growing up, especially those in single-parent households. The label is often used negatively to communicate the fear of a mum’s ‘feminising’ influence on her son, which will prevent him from growing up to be a strong, independent man.”