Well we're back from Morocco. A few thousand kilometers later, the car has collected all kinds of dust and sand, as well as a strange knocking noise which first appeared when driving across the stone desert near Merzouga, but it got us to where we wanted to go, and it got us back again.
It's been a fantastic trip, one that's really pushed us both physically and mentally. Photographically it's been really challenging and a lot of fun as it demanded so many different approaches. From patient tripod vigils in the dunes, to handheld shooting in the low light and narrow confines of the medinas of Fes and Chefchaouen. Portraiture, landscapes, street shooting, panning, architecture, details etc etc...I can't remember a trip where there's been so much variety.
The journey down was uneventful, but long. The area of southern Spain south of Seville between Cadiz and Algeciras is particularly pretty and somewhere I'd like to spend more time in someday. Northern Morocco and southern Spain are so close that you can see one from the other, the landscapes are identical, and getting onto the motorway after passing through the port at Tanger it's hard to imagine that you've crossed from one country into another, let alone from Europe to Africa. As soon as we left the motorway though, the differences were literally right in our face. The countryside is thriving with people and life. Street sellers, mules, children, carts and large groups of people regularly fill the road, making driving a much slower, more cautious experience than it is in Europe, but so much more fun. Entering Fes was challenging too. It's a huge city, the second largest in Morocco with over a million inhabitants, and the largest (and oldest) medina in the world.
We stayed in the wonderful Dar Seffarine, a 600 year old palace in the medina. Like many riads in Fes and Marrakech, from the outside you can only see a small innocuous door in a dark alleyway, but on entering, you find yourself in a peaceful, luxurious courtyard, around which the various rooms and sitting areas are arranged. Light comes in through the open roof of the courtyard, and each room opens onto this space, so everywhere is full of light and fresh air.
It's a beautiful, harmonious way to construct buildings, making a tranquil retreat from the chaos of the medina on the other side of the door. And of course, like most riads, Dar Seffarine has a wonderful rooftop terrace from which you can look out across the city. The photo below is a stitched together from 4 shots looking south at sunset. I've uploaded a relatively big file, so click on the image to see it much larger.
The staff of the riad go out of their way to make people feel comfortable and create an atmosphere where everyone sits together at breakfast and dinner, swapping stories of what they've done and seen in Fes. We really enjoyed getting to know the other guests in the hotel, and hope they enjoyed their trips around Morocco as much as we did.
Beautiful though Dar Seffarine is, we came to Fes to get lost in the vast, labyrinthine medinas, to photograph the people going about their lives there, and soak up the atmosphere of this unique place. I know from our trip to Marrakech four years ago how difficult bustling medinas are to shoot, there's so much going on, so much happening in front of the lens that trying to make "clean" images which capture the essence of the place is tricky. On top of that, the inhabitants of these places are sensitive about tourists constantly taking their photos, which makes the task even more complex. For the former problem, I had some ideas about techniques which I thought would help, for the latter, we decided to ask the hotel to recommend a guide who could show us around the medina, and introduce us to the people there, making it much easier to broach the subject of taking their photos. The guide turned out to be an old man who knew the medina like the back of his hand, knew many of the people who lived and worked there, and on top of that, was something of a street philosopher, a kind of Moroccan Socrates who constantly regaled us with quotations from Montesquieu and Camus. It was a fascinating, exhausting day, and through the guide we were introduced to, and managed to photograph many of the craftsmen and sellers of the medina, getting to understand a little of the history and workings of this astonishing place.
The streets never seem to stop moving, there's a constant flow of humanity passing infront of your eyes, and as I said earlier, photographing it can sometimes be a challange. One thing I wanted to try here was panning the camera, that is, moving the camera to follow a passer by with a longish exposure to blur the background. What this does is remove much of the detail from the shot, blurring it into streaks which have the effect of making the image less confused (sounds crazy, I know, but that's what happens) and also communicating the movement and freneticism of the medinas...something which a frozen, static image can sometimes fail to do. You can see a couple of my attempts above. Getting the shutter speed is a matter of trial and error, and in the end I tended to go with 1/8 of a second.
Sometimes though, certain scenes in certain light just present themselves, and this awareness to unfolding situations, to scenes that it would be very easy to miss and walk past, is an element of photojournalism that for me, has been honed and sharpened by doing wedding photography, where you have to be constantly aware of what's happening all around you, and quickly evaluate composition and exposure before the moment is lost.
One of the most memorable elements of any visit to Fes has to be a trip to one of the tanneries. It's one of the locations in Fes that I've seen photographed many many times by far better photographers than me. Arriving at these places, with their pits full of dye, and a smell that makes your eyes water, it's easy to become so distracted by trying to capture them photographically that you almost fail to grasp what truly demanding places they must be to work in. If you ever feel like complaining about your job, take a trip to one of the tanneries in Fes to put things in perspective.
Attempting to photograph them, to capture something of their essence, was for me one of the trickiest parts of documenting the trip, and I'm still not sure I did them justice. Still, I had a lot of fun photographing Fes, it really brought out the photojournalist in me, something that I haven't done enough of in recent trips to places like Scotland, Italy and Spain, and the portfolio of images I came back with feels all the more complete for it.
We stayed for 2 nights, not really long enough to do the city justice, and I felt we only really scratched the surface of the place, but our itinerary for Morocco was a busy one, and next we had the long drive south across the middle Atlas mountains to the edge of the Sahara. I'll post a blog on that in a couple of days, but in the meantime you can check out the full Morocco portfolio in the gallery on my website