Morocco on the coast of north Africa, can be easily reached from a variety of airports throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. It is one of the closest and most easily accessible exotic cultures, which is virtually on the doorstep of us all. Many tourists travel to browse the souks of Marrakech or Fes, surf the beaches of Essaouira, bathe in the crystal-clear waters of Al Hoceima or experience the beautiful streets of Chefchaouen.
However, a large part of the appeal is an opportunity to experience a culture which is completely alien to our own. There isn’t a market anywhere in Europe, which can compare to the intensity of the souks of Marrakech, haggling is an art form here and every transaction involves some bartering.
There are also beaches throughout Europe, but there are few streets which compare to those of the ancient medinas of Essaouira. These labyrinths seem to have a surprise on every corner or down every side-street, and the town provides a perfect beach and cultural break.
Read my review of charming Essaouira: Essaouira – A Fishy tale in Morocco’s Windy City
Here, it’s possible to find live chickens in mesh cages piled high alongside fruit and vegetables being sold off the ground, almost from the drainage systems which run downhill, through the old cities.
Artisans take time out from making their quality products, to dine on chicken or lamb tagine in one of the small street food vendors which serve authentic meals in the heart of the medinas. Incidentally, they also serve the best tagines, so they’re worth seeking out for a mid-day snack.
Djeballa wearing men weave scooters, often with dead chickens hanging from the handlebars through crowded streets or coax donkey drawn wagons through the narrow passages. The pungent aroma of the tanneries lingers everywhere in the medina, mingling with the more exotic fragrances of spices and incense.
It’s this fascinating culture we travel to experience, hoping for memorable encounters and some photographs to share with family or friends. As a professional travel blogger or photographer this final point is especially important, as to inspire others to visit, evocative images of the people and culture are needed.
Further reading from Morocco: Morocco; A story of three Medinas
This is where it can get slightly challenging, Moroccans are usually extremely reticent towards photography, and apart from the performers of Djemaa el Fna which will pose for payment, will usually refuse any request to take their picture.
This reluctance possibly began for religious or cultural reasons, but now merely appears to be about cold, hard cash. Everything seems to have a price here, asking for directions usually results in an offer to guide lost tourists back to their riad, at a cost of course. Even if assistance isn’t required, it can often be ‘offered’ with a degree of insistence and followed by an aggressive response if the tourist refuses or does not pay the expected amount if their assistance is accepted.
Legislation is in place protecting tourists from over aggressive ‘dealing’, but on my most recent visit, this seemed to be largely being ignored now.
To be fair, as visitors, we are perceived as being rich, and in comparison, to probably almost everybody in the medinas, we are wealthy. Our expensive clothes, jewellery and cameras make us stand out, and the fact we can travel to foreign soils, a concept alien to most of the Berber population means we are fair game in their eyes.
However, this leaves photographers in a slight quandary, as obtaining the candid cultural images required can be challenging. Asking will almost undoubtedly be met with a refusal, except for the stall holders hoping, by agreeing it may open an opportunity to make a sale.
The streets of Chefchaouen as well as being more photogenic, seem more relaxed than some of the other cities and towns in Morocco. Still, the people aren’t keen to have their picture taken.
Discover Chefchaouen: Chefchaouen; Exploring the Blue City of Morocco
Therefore, to get some photographs of the local people, not just performers or merchants, it’s necessary to be creative. A good tip is to use a small, compact system camera like the Fujifilm X-series, which are unobtrusive and less likely to draw attention.
Many of these images were taken while shooting from the hip, the camera held by a clip on my belt and just pressing the shutter button at the moment which seemed most appropriate. As it’s impossible to look through the viewfinder or at the screen, it requires some guess work. It’s a bit hit and miss, with many captures being far from acceptable.
I also took the opportunity to set up the camera on a table when stopping at a coffee shop, focusing on a nearby passing point and using a remote, capturing the passers-by. By using an app on my smartphone I’m able to view the scene before closing the shutter, resulting in a greater success rate. A long focal length lens can be employed here, and in fact can be a useful tool for obtaining some candid shots.
In Marrakech, I even clipped a GoPro to my chest strap and set it to time lapse mode, hoping it might provide some shots while exploring the souks. The results were surprisingly satisfying.
Marrakech time-lapse: More Joy of Souks, Marrakech edition
Those keen on street photography visiting Morocco for the first time are advised to initially ask permission. If satisfied with the images obtained, then all is good, and there’s nothing more to be done, but if frustration sets in and the results are less than pleasing a different strategy is required. Take time to understand the workings of your camera and be creative in how you use it, hopefully you’ll come back with a set of images which to be proud of.
Photography tutorial: Understanding Your Camera – Take Great Images not just Snaps
*Respect is essential in another culture where there is a genuine religious or cultural reticence towards photography. If this is the case, forget the portraiture and find an alternative theme for your photography.