Shooting images in Marrakech, Morocco

What an exciting place! Eldorado for photographers and lovers of art, history, colours, mild and hospitable people – and lots of features of Islamic culture and art.

Marrakech – there are so many “must see” places and even more milieus to explore on your own, without a guidebook. There are new sights, surprises and motives around virtually every corner – a day with a camera is intensive indeed.

Marrakech Composition 2015
Marrakech Composition 2015 © Jan Oberg

And of course you should stay inside the old town, in the Medina where alleys are so narrow that only a donkey cart (and some very noisy mopeds) can get through. It’s labyrinthine and you’ll love it when you get lost.

The light is fabulous here; there are no end to the sharp colours of houses and clothes, the shapes of shadows falling on and between the “riyads”, the houses or palaces, and the picturesque-ness of it all. The basic colour is reddish-brownish – not quite like the one in the image above – but the Islamic art patterns carry each and every colour you can imagine.

That, of course, also represents a problem: Your photos will easily get to look artificial – as toursitic postcards where the colours have been over-saturated. At the other end of the spectrum there are the old “pictorialist” brownish/sepia-like photos from around a century ago – of which there are many for sale – of the people and culture of the nations of Berbers and Arabs.

The challenge here is to let yourself be inspired but – well not overdo it. Now and then, I found it fun to take a shot of some amazing colours and see what they would look like when converted to black-and-white.

Here is an example – a man sewing, sitting on the floor in his shop door, letting just a little light in which is why the sides of the image is blurred – it’s the door and door frame.

SewingMan_PhSh kopia SewingMan_BW_HDRtone_Sepia_1_PhSh kopia

I like both – mainly because of the motif, the concentration on the man’s face and his pose, his calmness and the simple but beautiful clothes he wears and their colours. Still, the edition without the colours offers something more “eternal”, more like a sculpture or relief.

Marrakech is a place where you have to be conscious about the risk of being carried away by the amazing colours while the story and the motive fades into the background.

Well, all that said – it can be fun to also let go and just let the colours play and live their own lives in a decorative manner. That’s is almost the only thing you can do when you go to Jardin Majorelle – the artist garden that Yves Saint Laurent withdrew to from time to time. That blue and that yellow, that architecture and those shadows in the early afternoon – just surrender! Even if you think it is “glossy”…

Jardin Majorelle, Marrakesh
Jardin Majorelle, Marrakesh © Jan Oberg 2015

I was tempted to also use the iPhone with its various app opportunities. Here is an example. This offers a more painting-like appearance, creates a different colour palette; I’ve also deleted a couple of distracting objects such as bike and made the two main figures appear a bit more clearly, standing out from the street light. It’s by no means documentary but does convey the rhythmic lines, the contrasts and the basic, generalized colours inside the Medina.

StreetPerspective_PhSh kopia
Street Light And Shadow, Marrakech © 2015

How about taking photos of the local people living in Marrakech? It’s a mixed bag.

For what I assume are religious reasons quite a few will signal to you that they do not want you to take their picture. Then there are those who have had enough of all the constantly photo shooting visitors and, as the saying goes, will not even let you take a photo of their donkey. And then there are those who’ll ask you for money – and if you say yes, some may begin to act in exactly the non-natural way you don’t want them to. I try to avoid it – it’s kind of never going to be genuine unless you decide after you have taken your shots to say ‘thank you’ with a few coins.

For the rest – a majority – it is OK. You can of course always exercise discretion – for instance by sitting at a café corner where the light is right and people move by and shoot without anybody noticing it. Or – as I did, walking around with you iPhone, acting like you are talking into it and shooting here and there. 98% will be failures because you don’t see the image through the phone, but now and then you just get the amazing shot where everything works in synergy.

Here are two fruit sellers that I shot when just walking by without even stopping – had I done that, their attention would not have been on each other but, most likely, on me – that is, no photo of any interest. I like this, simple as it is, an everyday human dialogue in the setting of fruit, mopeds and a scales.

Conversation - Marrakech © Jan Oberg 2015
Conversation – Marrakech © Jan Oberg 2015

I had decided early on that I would try to make a small series of photos in one milieu and with one person or family – something concrete, natural and non-touristic. I wanted a process where I would get to know the person in the picture better – which isn’t all that easy because I speak neither Arabic nor French.

In one of the narrow alleys close to where I stayed I discovered a barber’s shop one of the first days and walked by and said hello a number of times. Shop owners often sit in the doorway and talk with passers by or colleagues across the alley. And in January, there are not so many tourists and your face will soon be recognized by the locals in your vicinity when you go in and out or you riyad.

Barber Lahcen M’hamiou Di was easy to work with. Having said hello when passing him the first days, I asked how he would feel about me taking some photos 2-3 times before leaving Marrakech. I said I would pay him a small sum because I thought that my taking photos there in his shop might make some of his clients turn around at the doorstep. It turned out to be no problem – and as you can see below, one of them gladly played his role in the set.

Lahcen was a very mild-mannered personality and after exchanging views and cards in his broken English and my broken French, we agreed that I would come around 2-3 times and also that he would see my shots after I had taken them so he could say “no” if there was some he didn’t like. (We all know how people may feel about photos of themselves…).

It all worked out fine. He was overjoyed by both the money and the photos and he was able to “act” in the most natural manner or just ignore my presence and going about his work. He was interested in photography, liked to point out details in the my photos and suggested angles or ways he could pose. It turned out that he had “acted” in some movie shot in Marrakech – where, by the way, a lot of famous movies have been shot over the years.

Here are a couple of 6-7 which I eventually chose to put up on my photo homepage. We thanked each other and gave each other a hug.

Barber Lahcen # 1, Marrakech © Jan Oberg 2015
Barber Lahcen # 1, Marrakech © Jan Oberg 2015
Barber Lahcen # 6 © Jan Oberg 2015
Barber Lahcen # 6 © Jan Oberg 2015

Picture-taking rather often leads to friendship and one of these days I am going to send Lahcen some prints on fine arts papers not only because I promised him to do so but also because I know it will make him really happy.

There is one thing you could do – and only do that – for a long time in Marrakech: patterns from the Arab, Islamic and Berber culture of which it is a part. There is an incredible sophistication in many of them, highly geometric, “op art”-like, brilliantly modern and way more than decorative – they are beauty, eternal images of shapes and colours with no references to the natural world of humans, nature or society. They fascinate me as art and here is just one.

Marrakech Pattern # 1 © Jan Oberg 2015
Marrakech Pattern # 1 © Jan Oberg 2015

The final thing I must tell you about Marrakech is that it is rich in modern art, museums, galleries and – lo and behold – it’s going to become a world centre for photography.

It already has two fine high-quality spaces for photo art – Maison de la Photographie and The Museum for Photography and Visual Arts.

Maison de Photographie, Marrakech  © Jan Oberg 2015
Maison de Photographie, Marrakech © Jan Oberg 2015
Museum of
Museum for Photography and Visual Arts © Jan Oberg 2015

These two are fitted into existing buildings and that adds quality and creativity to both of them. The new institution to be built will be super modern and outside the Medina in the modern part of Marrakech.

In summary, there are some very unique relations at many levels between photography and the city of Marrakech. I hope you will feel stimulated to one day explore them in your way. I’m certainly going to return to Marrakech, the up-and-coming world centre for photography…

PS I invite you to see my Marrakech portfolio with over 30 images on my photographic homepage.

Would love to read your views, ideas or suggestions here

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