Saturday, July 07, 2012

Taking Photographs in Morocco - a personal perspective

Regular View from Fez contributor, Derek Workman, goes for a stroll in the mountains and muses over the ethics of photographing local people.

I took my daily walk into the mountains this morning, up from Imlil on the steep path past the cascades and through Armed, the highest village in the valley. Being almost totally out of practise with mountain walking it doesn’t take me long to get short of breath on the steeper climbs – I blame the altitude as a way of covering up how out of shape I am – and it’s even more discouraging when a heavily-pregnant girl in her late teens skitters past me over the large rocks, wearing only flip-plops on her feet, while I’m fully kitted out in stout hiking boots.

I felt the same when I took the reverse route a few days ago with Rachid, one of the guides who lead the daily walk from the Kasbah du Toubkal. There I was in boots, shorts, floppy hat to keep the sun off and a small back-pack for my camera and water. There he was in a pair of slim-cut jeans, leather thong sandals, and a leather blouson with Gucci written across the back, for all the world as if he was just nipping out to the shops. Which is actually all the same for him, because he’s been walking these mountains for years, and what is for me a bit of a trek is just a gentle stroll for him.

But today I was alone, as I am most days, and thoroughly enjoy the peace, my own pace, and the ability to be able to stop when I want and take twenty photos of the same view if I wish without feeling I’m holding anyone up.

You usually get a “Bon jour” or “Ça va?” as you walk through the villages, and the invitation to look into someone’s shop in the hope that you will buy a souvenir. I always “Bon jour,” back or “Ça va bien, merci,” or occasionally, if I’m feeling particularly forward I’ll offer a “Salam aleikum,” as I pass someone. Sometimes, though, it’s just nice to walk through a village as unobtrusively as possible, glancing at a group of young boys kicking a football around, or even younger ones splashing in the irrigation channels – girls tend to be much more secretive and closed in in their games – trying not to be too obviously a foreigner, pretty impossible given the kit most walkers wear, but at least being respectful and not making a racket.

It’s the time to harvest the grass that will feed the mules and cattle during the winter. The ‘fields’ in which most of the crops grow almost deserve the cliché of calling them ‘handkerchief-sized’, because some of them are no more than fifteen metres square, and often tucked into a barely accessible space between the rocks in the side of a hill that has been cleared to create a tiny pasture. It’s the same with the fruit and vegetables grown here. A few apple and a couple of cherry trees with space between them for potatoes, corn, and whatever vegetables the grower prefers, layered out in tiny terraces.

The grass is scythed by hand, and when cut it will usually be left in the field for a few days for some of the moisture to evaporate. Water weighs heavy, and when everything has to be strapped to your back you keep the weight as light as possible to save on steep climbs up and down the mountainside. Almost all the harvesting is done by women, from girls in their teens to matriarchs of four generations. These ladies are literally bent double as the carry the enormous bundles of grass from the fields to the village, where it will be laid out on flat roof tops and any open space and left for a month to dry out
thoroughly before being tied in loose bails and stored.

This really is hard labour, but as with most toil there are the occasional lighter moments. You’ll hear the ladies bantering between themselves as they carry their bundles, sometimes stopping for a rest on steeper slopes and having a chat. Hard as it is, in the closed confines of rustic Moroccan life, the harvest is one of the few times that women can get together, other than major celebrations such as weddings or visits to the village hammam, if the village is lucky enough to have one, so the chance for a bit of a chin-wag is never missed.

A couple of days ago I was struggling up the steep climb from Imlil to the Kasbah in the early evening, no-one and nothing to disturb the peace but the sound of my feet on the track and my gasping for breath. I lifted my eyes from the ground in front of me and saw an elderly lady standing up straight, with her enormous bundle of hay, still strapped to her back, resting on a convenient waist-height rock behind her. She was the absolute picture-perfect image of everyone’s rosy-cheeked granny, the one they wished they’d had and not the bad-tempered old grump they’d inherited. She was dressed in layers of brightly coloured clothes with her hijab perfectly framing her beatific smile. As clichéd as it might seem, it was a perfect image, which it would be very easy to destroy by saying that the totally ignored me by looking the other way. But she didn’t, she turned her lovely smile on me, gave a barely noticeable nod of her head, raised her hand in a friendly salute, then turned her head away to continue her peaceful gaze down the valley.

As I left Armed this morning, I sat on rock to take a drink of water. Striding purposefully toward me from my left I saw a woman in the characteristic pose of someone bringing in the harvest, bent double under her enormous load. My camera was in my bag, which was open because I’d just taken out my notepad to make a few notes. I quickly poked the lens through the zip opening and hoped I’d be able to get a shot as she came towards me, a random possibility and very rarely successful. While I was setting it up a young man in a clean white shirt and dark grey trousers passed me, coming from my right. As the woman approached she had obviously seen the camera and quite possibly heard the lens click in its rapid movement because she began to shout and wave her free hand. Feigning innocence I held up my pen and notepad to indicate that I was only writing something.

About a year ago I met Alan Keohane, a brilliant photographer who has lived in Morocco for many years and spent long periods living with and photographing the Berber people. He asked me how I would feel if someone walked into my house unannounced and suddenly started taking photos, or lifted a camera and started shooting away while I was walking past in my scruffy working clothes. I’d hate it, and so would most people, but that’s what we think we can do simply because we are on holiday and want some ‘interesting’ snaps to show the folks back home.

I thought of Alan’s words when I checked my camera to see what the photo was like. Totally contrary to ninety-nine percent of photos taken this way, it was almost exactly what I would have taken had I been able to pose the shot; the working lady struggling under her heavy load as a smartly-dressed young man passes by her, going in the opposite direction, against a background of a barren river-bed and the rugged High Atlas Mountains. I felt ashamed of myself that for the sake of a photograph I had invaded someone’s privacy at a time when they would probably have least wanted the photo taken, making a human being look like nothing more than a pack animal. It was too late to apologise to the lady, but at least I could show a bit of belated respect.

I deleted the photo.


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