On Marrakech and Street Photography: A Photo Essay

All images Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron, Version IV

This being an unusually lucky year for travel opportunities, I recently went to Marrakech and spent several days in and around the Medina, the old city with its warren of narrow passageways giving way to pedestrian squares. I had read about the difficulties of taking photos in the Moroccan street, of the active hostility of people to having their picture taken. My response was to travel with the compact Leica M10 rangefinder and a 25-year old lens, the 35mm Summicron, which is small and unobtrusive, and to shoot “from the hip,” camera held in the palm of my hand and raised to the eye only when taking pictures of inanimate objects.

I’ll tell you more about how I took the pictures posted here, but I also want to get into the why of it, into what it means to be a privileged Westerner who, against the wishes of the people whose lives he’s capturing would go ahead and take their picture. First, let’s set the scene.

The old city is punctuated with palaces and museums, among the most beautiful of which is the Dar El Bacha with its incredible tile work and architecture.

These images show off the legendary King of Bokeh, Leica’s last pre-Aspherical 35mm f/2 lens before the Summicron Asph was introduced in the late 1990s. Wide open, the out-of-focus areas drop off quickly, and to my eye pleasurably, even as it can be softer at the edges and corners than a modern, Aspherical lens. All of the above images were taken the conventional way, with the camera lifted to my eye. As were the two pictures below — the first (actually taken with the 75mm Noctilux) because the beautiful waiter didn’t object to her picture being taken, the second because I was far enough away that the father and daughter looking at the exhibition didn’t see me taking their picture.

Out in the street, though, it was a different matter. I walked casually with the camera at stomach level, ISO high enough to support an f/5.6 – 8 exposure, focus set to the hyperfocal distance of approximately 25 feet, and took pictures of people in the Medina’s full cacophony of sounds and riot of smells, the motorcycles pushing through, the donkey carts trying to get by. It was, as they say, a target-rich environment. Over several days wandering through the Medina, only occasionally did I raise the camera to my eye, and only a few times was I called out for taking a picture.

When you take pictures of people who don’t want their picture taken, what are you doing? Susan Sontag and others have written about the power relationship between the photographer and his subjects, between the observer and the observed. This imbalance exists even in your home city among people of comparable class and stature. But an American going, camera in hand, to a city like Marrakech turns up the amp to 11.

What I wanted to do was to make pictures that conveyed a reality that neither I nor many of the people who would see the pictures — you — have ready access to. It’s a conceit that what I was going for was art — though it’s always an intent — rather than mere tourism snapshots. As with all street photographers, I was focused upon taking pictures without asking permission of the subjects, and in fact had equipment and a technique deliberately designed to keep people from knowing I was “taking their picture” (which under these circumstances is a loaded phrase.) I’m not a documentarian or a photo journalist, and I’m also not an in-your-face, Bruce Gilden-style bully; the photographers I most admire are the humanists — Sebastiao Salgado, Alex Webb, Rui Palha — the people who care about other human beings and use their camera to tell their story even as they allow them — the subject — to provide the art through their interactions, movement and activity. But was that what I was doing in the streets of Marrakech?

Each of the pictures above were met with some protest, including the visibly raised arm of the shopkeeper in the bottom right. (I brought the camera to my eye for that one, thinking I was far enough away to do so unobserved, and only later saw the the shopkeeper’s discomfort.) In a favorite image made there, the local Surete protecting a palace let it be known in no uncertain terms that I should cease and desist. And in so doing, they made the picture!

As a privileged visitor, you make assumptions. I assume that part of the reason why people in Marrakech don’t want their picture taken is that we foreign tourists are invaders in their community. Even though the local economy is dependent upon tourism, tourists don’t have the moral “right” to take their picture without their permission, which they’re unwilling to give. The Moroccans try to preserve their personal rights and autonomy even as, for hundreds of years, Unbelievers — in some cases, colonial subjugators — have tromped clumsily through their neighborhoods. Moreover, Muslims have a religious edict against human and animal images, against a human representing things invented by Allah alone. A street photographer from the U.S. enters the Medina with a history as complex as the culture he or she wants to turn into two-dimensional pictures.

And yet, one of the things we all do when visiting an exotic location is try taking home with us some visual representation of it, a remembrance and relic of the visit. A century of film cameras, the economy of Rochester, New York and at least some portion of the current mobile phone economy has ebbed and flowed on this marketed presumption.

Perhaps street photography of the sort I was attempting can be justified by its knowingness, its flouting of the subject’s desires by subterfuge. Perhaps it’s deliberateness ennobled what otherwise would be seen as callous indifference to people’s autonomy. Even under this rationale — and I’m aware that’s what it is, a justification — what I was doing was still the act of a privileged Westerner who, against their wishes, made pictures while ignoring the subjects’ rights, their dignity. Because I could — at the end of the day, I was less likely to be punched for taking someone’s picture in Marrakech than I would be in streets of D.C. where I live.

But if my motives were driven by artistic purpose, wasn’t it okay? Don’t artists have superseding rights? Or is it all just exploitation, the pressing of a power relationship that at its core is my ability, as a Westerner, to afford to come to a place like this with an expensive camera hidden in my hand?

I wrestled with these thoughts. But I didn’t stop taking pictures.

I have never spent days on end shooting from the hip, but I quickly learned to capture, if not the perfectly framed shot, at least one that had authenticity and the sacred quality of the observed living in innocence, unaware their picture was being taken.

Pictures can be made with poignancy, with respect. The element of humanist, Family of Man universality could enter into the equation. The exotic could be captured with the excitement inherent in traveling far from our homes. And every once in a while I would capture something that I deemed really special.

Widening the frame a bit: a brilliant and brave street photographer like Mark Cohen can shoot incredible photographs of his fellow citizens in the risky intimacy of a small city like Scranton, but for many of us, going to a place far from home, camera in hand, relieves us of fear and inhibition. Our passport lets us take pictures we wouldn’t dream of taking in our city’s streets.

Even unleashed in the street, I punctuated my photography with more formal captures of the architecture and art, the scene, the tourist’s bounty.

It’s an incredibly beautiful city, in its alternating rough but delicate way, but still, pictures devoid of people are not what I love. This is not what gets me going. This is what gets me going.

Taking pictures of inanimate objects, whether in landscape photography or just capturing a beautiful tile floor, is dependent on light, on weather, on simply being there, on showing up, far more than on action and incident. Joel Meyerowitz, who is both a brilliant street photographer and a documentarian of moments dependent on light, not action, talks about taking “tough pictures.” Inherent in this is the notion that street photography has an admirable, testing degree of difficulty, that finding the kismet in human interaction is where the treasure lies.

There are no decisive moments taking pictures of tile on a Marrakesh palace’s floor, ah, but just outside in the street something might be happening. Weegee’s dictum was “F/8 and be there,” emphasizing the showing up, the getting out there. “Out there” being defined as the street, where things happen. Things happen out there because that’s where the people are.

When Joel Meyerowitz co-authored Bystander: A History of Street Photography, I don’t think his title meant the photographer is a bystander, at least not in the way we use that term to refer to someone who does nothing. Who lets life go on without him. Because the photographer very much does something. Whether he takes the picture, as Garry Winogrand famously said, to see “what something will look like photographed,” or for some other, possibly deeper motivation, the street photographer is intimately engaged in the scene, even as he remains distant from it. For me, that’s an intense way of being, a way of genuinely connecting with my surroundings — and a greater motivation to go somewhere than simply “being there.”

Back in Marrakesh, there were moments when it all came together. The first picture on this post is an example of the Medina in perfect street photographer’s dream light.

The photo below is the kind of image that really keeps me going. The kismet of the parts assembling themselves in front of the camera lens, the practice and skill of having the camera ready to go at close to the right settings — well, it’s why I show up, f/8 or whatever.

I may not have perfectly nailed the focus on the little Moroccan boy responding to the European girl in the tiara, but that’s okay. (As Winogrand also said, photography is incredibly forgiving — you can botch the focus and still get the picture.) The action of the mother — what is she doing? — and all the unknown elements contained in this short story are the kinds of things that as a photographer I live for.

I really don’t know what’s going on in this picture — I was too busy snapping the shutter. I remember standing in the foyer on my way out of a small store in a small town outside of Marrakech where crafts are made by a collective of artisans and seeing, first, the blue transom light, and next, some action in the street. I instinctively brought the camera to my eye. My settings were what I had most recently used on the street — approximately f/8, ISO 400, probably 1/250th of a second (I’ll check the metadata later to see.) All I know is that in capturing this incident in which Europe meets Africa/Christianity meets Islam, two children engage though a mother intervenes, the full story is unknown and gone in a split second. It is … the reason to carry a camera. To be ready, you have to be comfortable making pictures of people, permission given or not.

On the last day of our trip, we went to the village of Aghmat, for the Friday morning market. It was agreed among our friends that others would keep their cameras down and I’d wander through shooting from the hip as unobtrusively as possible. I’d share with our friends whatever pictures I took, but they wouldn’t trigger a reaction by everyone holding up their iPhones.

Looking at these pictures, I’m reminded of the roots of tableau painting, the cast of characters arranged by the artist to tell some story out of the workings of a given day. In street photography, the artist is, well, a bystander, without the power to choreograph movements. It’s joyful to see just what the camera can record in what Daido Moriyama referred to as “fossils of light and time.”

To me, these photos capture life in all its pungency and primal interaction. And as the trip finished, I was glad to have come to a place deemed hostile to street photography, not because it made me hone my skills but because it made me think. About what matters in picture making.

I adore landscape photography (scroll down and see the images from a trip to Iceland in August), but know that a big part of my satisfaction in taking a good landscape photograph is that to do so, I had to hike to some sublime location. Martin Parr says one thing that prevents people from becoming good photographers is… laziness. F/8 and for Godsake be there. Street photography is a little different in that it requires more than simply being there. You must be attuned to movement in the street, to subtle incidents, to the mood of people, not just the quality of light.

I was grateful to go up into the mountains and be able to take this picture in the calm late morning light in a tiny village that housed a Berber Museum run by the same people who run Marrakech’s lovely House of Photography.

I was glad on our final morning to take a photograph of the fountain in our small hotel with its lush flowers in the water. Most of all, I was grateful to have come to Marrakech, an intriguing, fascinating city reputed to be hostile to street photography and be able to walk away with some images that I hope others besides me will find hard to forget.

John Buckley’s Instagram is @tulip_frenzy

5 Responses to “On Marrakech and Street Photography: A Photo Essay”

  1. Nice pictures – are you actually still using film?

  2. Hi John
    This is the third time I try to add a comment.
    Wordpress, sometimes, turns everything too difficult….

    Anyway, I must thank you a lot for sharing these wonderful moments, with so high quality photographs.

    Images vs text are really excellent.

    Thank you

  3. johnbuckley100 Says:

    Hi Rui, WordPress can make it hard. Bless you for reading and commenting – and coming from you, this praise makes my day.

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