Marrakech Photography - Advice and Ideas

There are lots of ideas for photography locations in Marrakech from different photographers but very few guides provide details on the nitty gritty of trying to photograph in this vibrant and exceptionally friendly but frustrating city.  Arriving for the first time was a shock to the system.  In London, photography is relatively easy, similarly other cities such as Hong Kong and Saigon provide very little hassle when trying to photograph the city and daily life.  

Before reading this little confession I want to put in the disclaimer! I am sensitive to peoples privacy and the culture and beliefs of where I am visiting.  I have travelled extensively with my camera to remote and busy places.  However, Marrakech was a whole new experience and learning curve that almost sent me running for cover in my hotel room after the first day.


Portrait Photography

This busy city is full of tourists and as with anything, after a while it can get difficult.  People aren't rude, they just want to get on with their lives without the intimate moments of day to day life being constantly documented by strangers, their product ideas being shared around the world to be copied or their children, however cute they are, seen by thousands of strangers.  I know how concerned and frustrated I would be if this was happening to me here in the UK.  If you form a rapport with someone and ask to take photographs some will agree but many do not like having their photograph taken.  Some photographers suggest taking photographs using a long lens but in some ways this is even worse.  Think how uncomfortable you would feel knowing someone was sneaking shots of you while you worked or picked up your new suit from the tailors.


Paying for Photographs in Marrakech

Marrakech has a very dominant tourist economy and this goes as far as photography.  It is impossible to take your camera out without someone appearing wanting you to take their photograph.  This is fine until you realise that all some really want is money to take their photograph.  This is also fine until you start multiplying it by the 20 or 30 characters who approach you in the space of 30 minutes.  At 10 dirhams a shot it soon adds up and can become an issue.  For some, 10 dirhams isn't enough and after you have the shot they can become aggressive wanting more, claiming your initial 'bid' was not enough.  Very quickly after watching other photographers get into a pickle I decided that this hassle was not worth the tourist shots.  In the major tourist areas my camera stayed hidden unless we were in a cafe and I could shoot the general scenes. 

There is also an ethical consideration towards responsible tourism in Marrakech when taking these images.  The monkeys and snakes are captive.  The snakes are not dancing to the music they are purely trained to associate food with the music and are starved so they emerge and dance when the music plays.  The macaque monkeys are kept chained in small cages when they are not on a tourists shoulder.  Both situations are fuelled by the tourist money that continues to flow into the pockets of the owners.

If you decide that these shots are what you are looking for then always make sure you have some change in your pocket.  10-20 dirhams is more than enough although some snake charmers may request up to 100-200 dirhams which is far too high.


Street Photography in Marrakech

Photographing general scenes was also more complicated than I had anticipated.  Getting shouted down for photographing a street scene, not asking the permission of those 200 metres away was really something I had never considered or experienced before.  Apparently if I had asked they would have said yes, but really, can I ask all the people going about their daily work if I can have one picture that will probably be crap once I have "set it up".  This really upset (and scared) me, especially as there would be no faces or recognisable features just a street of normality.  Maybe if I had sneaked the shot I would have got away with it, but this is not my style!  This experience put me off street photography totally.  I'm used to shooting in the moment.  I will always ask before portrait shots but never before have I had to ask to shoot a busy street.  Taking photographs of my travel buddy helped achieve street scenes and get the memories of the hustle and bustle that we wanted.  We also went for different angles and focussed on the streets and buildings more than the individual.


Safe Shots in Marrakech - look around your shot carefully

It also took me a while to realise that you need to see who is in your shot in Marrakech.  Photographing the city walls, I hadn't noticed the soldiers having tea in the shade below.  My companion started mumbling about it not being a good idea and in my naivety I had not clocked the soldiers or the issue at all.  A rookie error that was soon corrected, but again a frustrating moment that put me off photography in this amazing city.  Government building are also off limits for photographers.  If you aren't sure what a building is, then best to move on to somewhere else.


Food and Stall Photography

Even taking shots of products was hard work.  Signs were everywhere saying no photography, small stalls with amazing spices were off limits in some places, food stalls with great looking food needed permission and a reserved almost 'if you have to' response again put me off a lot of photography moments.  This soon changed if you purchased from the stall and I began to shop with intent in the hope that after we had negotiated a deal I could photograph what I had purchased in its 'natural environment'.  Taking time to chat to stall holders, learn about their goods was fantastic.  Many were more than happy to share stories and it became part of the photograph to talk to people, drink mint tea and learn about their lives and families.


Easy Photography Ideas in Marrakech

So after this hassle and steep learning curve what was left to photograph in Marrakech? The answer is absolutely loads.  I went for the easy, people avoiding shots in the end.  If I purchased something and felt the stall holder would be willing I would ask to photograph their stall.  Food was photographed in detail.  I started to notice the smaller details; doors, windows and street cats.  Basically anything or anywhere that didn't feature any people unless I had made a purchase from them or architecture was involved.

The palaces and historical sites became a favourite photography location in the city.  The entry fee was minimal but provided a calm and hustler free space to photograph.  I felt these spaces were where I could wander with my camera without worrying about infringing on someones privacy or upsetting anyone.

The golden hour in the morning provided quieter streets.  The light was fantastic and the whole city was warm and fresh.  The evening light is equally warm, but the streets are busier.

Sitting, drinking mint tea and watching the world happen around you is also a great way to document life in Marrakech.  The streets within the medina are busy and ever changing.  The same scene can be frantically busy one minute and silent the next.  Taking time and waiting can have rewards.  Getting your camera set up while you have a tea and taking a photograph as the scene changes is a perfect way to enjoy this city and get some shots.


Local Drivers and Guides

Heading away from the city also provides the opportunity for landscape photography.  Hiring a driver allows you to stop when the mood takes you.  Seeing beautiful landscapes flash by from an organised tour is frustrating to say the least.  Having a driver, especially if you explain you want to stop for photographs works exceptionally well.  We used  Linaya Transport for a number of trips out of the city and the service was exceptional.

As well as a driver, having a local guide helped with photography.  They know people and can find locations within the city for what you want.  Classes and tours also provide great options for photography with the support of a local resident to smooth the way.  Having someone who can speak the language, help with negotiations and show you the way out of the medina is invaluable.


Small is Best

Using a small camera was also a big help in getting photographs.  People were more accommodating towards a quick phone snap than a professional (but not in my case) DSLR photograph.  The bigger camera drew attention to the photograph being taken whereas a phone snap was quick, easy and discreet.  Explaining that you are not professional and just want memories really helped to break the barriers as well.

The video below by Zack Arias has some fantastic ideas for making street photography happen in Marrakech...


Post Confession

So after this confession of my mishaps I feel that I got used to Marrakech and its quirky ways. The people are so friendly and welcoming and the history and culture is fascinating that I will be returning for more. It is a fantastic city to explore without a camera, just spending time absorbing the sights, sounds and fragrances is amazing.  Escape the boundaries of the lens and explore and make memories in the moment. 

Since returning I have researched a bit more and I am not alone in my experiences of photography in this beautiful and friendly city!  I just wish I had researched this a lot more before arriving and had not had such a massive culture shock.

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