When Hajar Benjida started photographing exotic dancers in the Atlanta area, she didn’t want to take the typical stage shots of them. Instead, she photographed many of the women at home, including Cleo, who recently gave birth to a baby boy named Andy.
One of Benjida’s vivid images is composed as a contemporary Madonna and Child, with the then-new mother cradling her son on her lap while looking into the camera. Her mesh top—a vintage Jean-Paul Gaultier piece with the Mona Lisa peeking out—raises up just enough for Andy to breastfeed.
“Sometimes people forget that they have families outside the club,” Benjida said via video link. “They just want to embellish life or the performance they saw on stage.”
The portrait, part of Benjida’s Atlanta Made Us Famous series, is dedicated to the lesser-known players of the city’s famous hip-hop scene, which has been a launching pad for artists from TI and Ludacris to Young Thug and Playboi Carti. In this series, the Dutch photographer, who was based in Atlanta at the time, turned her attention to what she considered to be the real creators of the music industry’s kings: exotic dancers in legendary clubs like Magic City.
Cleo and Andy are at home. Credit: Hajar Benjida
“They play a really big role in the modern hits that we hear,” said Benjida. “(Songs) are checked in clubs. When these women dance to it… the audience goes along with it.”
Considered the “movie stars” of Atlanta, according to Lauren Greenfield’s 2015 documentary Magic City, the dancers are able to make or break a track through their song requests and enthusiasm for new music. Unreleased, unmixed tracks go straight from the studio to the club, and if they perform well, they can be sent straight to radio stations and eventually the music charts.
“DJs and dancers are more like A&R,” Diamond, the dancer in the Greenfield documentary, said, referring to record label scouting for talent. “We know what we like to dance to and we recognize a hit when we hear it.”
Benjida made staged portraits of women backstage or at home with an intimate and soft sensibility. Instead of being seduced by raw sex appeal or showmanship, dancers often appear relaxed but confident looking directly at the viewer. One woman holds her twins on her lap while the other lies on her back with her hand on her pregnant belly.
Cleo lives in Stone Mountain, a suburb out of town, and at the time, in 2019, commuted to work at different clubs for a week. Benjida spent a day at home with her, and although many stagings were made, the moment when she took the most powerful shot was accidental.
“Halfway through filming, she was breastfeeding her baby and I asked her for one shot,” Benjida said. “I didn’t even see the photo right away…so I really had to trust that one shot.”
Cleo and Andy are at home a year later. Credit: Hajar Benjida
But when she saw the power in the details—the similar hairstyles of the enigmatic famous characters Cleo and Leonardo and the Renaissance composition—she understood the power of that single shot.
A year later, she returned to Stone Mountain to photograph the couple again, this time outside their home. Like many of the images in Atlanta Made Us Famous, this portrait exudes confidence, highlighting the women who form the backbone of the Atlanta hip-hop scene. Cleo holds Andy on her hip, her ombre orange hair matching the children’s McLaren sports car next to them. But here, if you look closely, there is another subtle reminder of her motherhood: two identical orange toy cars hidden in the platform of her heels.