by Sherif Awad
The names Yehya, Yahya, Yeye or simply Yaya all designate one man: Yahya Mohamed who was born fascinated by the starry glitz of cinema first in his home city Alexandria then around the world. After a long path from Arabia to Europe, he landed Los Angeles, California where he is based now. Handyman by day, paparazzo by night, Yahya became more famous than some of the celebrities appearing with him in his images. After being interviewed few years ago in E!’s Celebrities’ Uncensored, Yahya became a regular on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live and many other TV shows. But his story began long time ago before these TV appearances.
Born in the Cleopatra El-Mahata, a neighborhood of the Egyptian delta coast city of Alexandria, Yahya Mohamed was raised as a lonely child by his single mother. Dropped out of school when he was just eleven, Yahya was forced into infantile labor to support himself and his mother throughout the 1960s. Earning very little, he sometimes worked as a plumber, electrician or a mechanic. “I even worked as a diver in Alexandria for a while when I was nineteen years old, for two or three years. It appealed to me at the time because I would often go on rescue missions to save drowning people in the Mediterranean Sea. It was very hard, but I liked to help people when I was able to”, he told me.
In his twenties then, something drove him to be a slave of the photograph; he claims to have had an unexplained urge to shoot pictures, though he was never taught how to use a camera, and given his very poor financial capacities at that time, it was a financial burden, a liability, but a near addictive behavior; he had to follow his drives. Unable to afford a camera, he used to rent one from a photo store for one Egyptian pound a day (the equivalent of 20 cents or less; in the Egyptian sixties and seventies, it was a sum). Yahya focused on making those successful pictures without even knowing why or what he could do afterwards, he quickly mastered the use of the black box; he practiced on friends and his teammates from Alexandria Wrestling Club. All over the years, he roamed around the flourishing film studios of Cairo, chasing images of celebrities who happened to appear in front of his lens. It was the beginning…
In the early 1970s, while he was in Saudi Arabia for Pilgrimage, Yahya met Remon Saad, a wealthy Saudi businessman who was about to open the biggest theme park in Jeddah; an encounter that was one of the universe’s bonus gifts, for “nothing happens by coincidence”, he says. Saad recruited Yaya, secured the usually extremely difficult residency papers that would allow him years of financial security, gave him a job as senior mechanic and took him to Rome to buy installed rides at a fair, that he would later reassemble and install himself. For years, Yahya never lost his passion for photography, nor his addictive behavior to roam around shooting studios. Except that in Saudi Arabia there were no studios and much less celebrities: Celebrity sightings are quite scarce in Saudi. “The only one I saw was Alain Delon, who came for a fleeting visit. Unfortunately it had to be cut short because the women were going mad fawning around him”, he remembers.
Impressing European consultants and project managers with the quality of his mechanical work, things were looking up for him. Yahya was finally able to buy his first advanced camera: a Nikon that he used addictively over numerous summer holidays away from Saudi Arabia when he used to regularly return to Egypt to visit his mother and friends.
It was during one of these visits that he got the chance to shoot his first celebrity photo in years, the first real good one in a long career that would follow, when Alexandrian-born Greek singer Demis Roussos, at the peak of his international career, was visiting his hometown to perform several live concerts. Using his powers of persuasion after years of dormancy, Yahya managed to get backstage and snap the shot of Roussos with him altogether.
Sniffing out celebrities every summer vacation, his collection grew to include Dalida, Tom Jones and many Egyptian stars. “I once knew that Marlon Brando would be in Cairo; I went down to Cairo and saw him; he was all the time surrounded by a wall of bodyguards, and I couldn’t get through easily. He was always a private man, one of the hardest to approach”, says Yahya who never told me if he got Brando or not!
Yahya’s work with millionaire Saad was taking him places he could have never dreamed of visiting like Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez. While on Saad’s private yacht in Cannes, he spotted one his favorite stars, Paul McCartney, in a limousine. Yaya’s trademark expectant smile made McCartney roll down the window and shake his hand in what became one of his most famous pictures in Yaya’s collection, a picture that was broadcast on cable TV all over the world numerous times.
Always on celebrity watch, he met Johnny Hallyday, Anouk Aimeé and Egyptian-born Claude François. Giving a concert at the time, François must have been surprised to see Yahya climbing up the stage past the bodyguards with his camera in hand; “François did not seem annoyed; he felt I just wanted to say hello. He remembered me when I saw him again and even dedicated his famous song ‘Alexandrie, Alexandra, to me’ when he saw me at another of his concerts”, he says.
Things only began to get better for Yahya’s obsessive side-career. Attending the Cannes Film Festival in 1980 must have been like a kid’s first visit to a toy store. Click-happy Yahya started posing with everyone in sight and they welcomed it: “There was this director Coppola? You know, Nicolas Cage ‘s uncle? He was a very nice man. I went up to him and asked him if I could take a picture with him. Then he started to say something to me, but my English was really bad at the time, I told him ‘I don’t speak English,’ but he was still talking. He said, ‘I want you in a film.’ Honestly! Even if you look at the picture, you’ll see that he’s looking at me while I look straight at the camera. He’s my friend, you know. A really nice man who always smiles when he sees me. Later, when I was in Cairo for a visit, I showed the picture to my friends. He went mad! ‘Do you know who this is?!’ One asked incredulously. ‘He’s a nice man,’ I said. ‘I can’t believe you met Francis Ford Coppola, he’s the greatest director in the world!’ they said.
During the 1980s, with Yahya as his right-hand man, Saad opened a new company installing saunas and bathtubs in the homes of wealthy families in Jeddah. Although Yahya did his share of the work, his dream was shifting to the West. He remembers going back and forth to the States three times, in 1980, ‘82 and ‘84, but with every visit he was aware that taxes and living expenses would get in the way of starting his own business.
Over the following decade, Yahya continued to work in Saudi, got married and had two sons in Alexandria. Both of them continued their studies with excellent grades and joined him to continue their Masters in the States when he settled down in California.
Ever persistent, he flew back to America in 1996, determined to find work. Struggling and starting again from scratch, Yahya had to familiarize himself with the American electrical system. He began to make house calls, frequenting celebrity homes in Beverly Hills and the whole of LA: “The first celebrity I spotted in America was Anthony Quinn and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I completely went crazy. I was in Raquel Welch’s house just doing some fixing. She’s stingy, though; I don’t think I’ll be going there again”, he says.
Shuffling through the pictures, the presenter kept quizzing him on names to which Yahya repeatedly gave his now famous answer, “I don’t know, but he is a nice guy.” The episode then documented the making of the shot of Brad Pitt that Yahya took inside his car. Pitt and Yahya have become friends since then. He once visited Pitt on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which he was shooting with Angelina Jolie.
Bars, clubs, restaurants, shops Yahya knows exactly where to go. Readily equipped with a digital camera now, there’s nothing stopping him. “I caught Snoop Dogg on his way out of a club one night. You should have seen the size of his bodyguard! It took some shuffling to get past him, but Snoop was so nice. One of my favorite clubbers is Leonardo DiCaprio. Even though he’s known to run away from photographers, he always hugs me and says ‘Hello.’ I have a picture of him accepting my papyrus roll gift. He loved it and asked me to get him a full-size mummy next time. I also really liked the late Christopher Reeves. He was so kind. Once at the Cannes Film Festival I said, ‘Sir, can I? ’, and Reeves interrupted saying, ‘don’t call me sir, you’re a friend.’
“It helps to know where celebrities like to hang out, like the Steak House where I took his famous shot with Bill Clinton. This picture really created a stir when I took it back to Alexandria and a friend of mine accused me of computer-manipulating my images. I was really upset because I couldn’t prove otherwise to him. But why would I do that? The pictures are genuine; I never even tried to sell any of them. Some of them are vintage classics signed by Jack Lemon and Charles Bronson. I’ve even been approached to compile them into a book. I’ve also been repeatedly asked to write my biography. I like the idea. Maybe I will”, he told me while smiling.
Yahya goes on forever: “When I met George Clooney, he laughed and said, ‘Yaya, you’re always on E!, even more than me! Few years ago, I again met Paul McCartney again, who laughed saying, Yaya, you have been chasing me for 25 years. Also, Al Pacino’s father, Salvatore. I met him one night while he was dining in some restaurant. But a few months later he unfortunately passed away. When I met Al Pacino a few months afterward backstage at a play he was doing in Los Angeles, I showed him his father’s photo, and he was moved. He asked me if he could keep it because it was the last photo taken of him.”
Yahya keeps very organized large portfolio of photos he has gathered over the past three decades, all compiled in sections like The Heavyweights, with names like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese; then there is the wrestling section, African-American, sports section that includes Agassi and Sampras. Broken down into subsections, Matt Damon’s photo is next to his friend Ben Affleck and director Tony Scott next to his brother Ridley Scott, as well as the Star Trek captain William Shatner.
Over thirty years, Yahya’s smile is still the same. If you don’t believe me, look at the photos. He currently appears as a film reviewer on Jimmy Kimmel Live!