Travel Photography: Morocco Madness

A few years back me and my wife took a week's holiday (without the kids - thanks mum!) to Marrakesh. It is a stunning city, but from day one I felt hassled, and stressed, and my photography was probably to blame, or at least a contributing factor.

When we go on city breaks, we love to just pound the pavement, soaking up the sights and sounds of the place, and of course, taking loads of photographs. We've done this in loads of towns and cities worldwide without little bother, but sadly Marrakesh was different. Ok, so I I have had confrontations with the odd junior police officer who didn't know the law on photography in a public space, and also been 'escorted' by British Transport Police off Stanstead Airport whilst on a job, but I've always felt safe as a photographer… until Marrakesh.

In retrospect, taking my Nikon DSLR with big telephoto lens (28-300mm) was a bit like hanging a sign around my neck saying 'wealthy foreigner - hassle me'. From the moment we hit the World Heritage Site of Jemaa el-Fna Square in the old town, I was pounced upon by a rogue's gallery of locals demanding money for photos. The first guy draped a snake around my neck (from behind), grabbed my camera, took a shot, then demand money for the privilege, then when I gave him some change became a magnet for (among others) the guy with the eagle, the guy with the depressed looking monkey, and more snake guys. Escaping took quite some work. Already I hated Marrakesh, and worse was to come.

I was taking photos of the walls of the old town from a vantage point across 6 lanes of highway, when I saw a local on a bench wearing the hooded Jebba, and my photographers brain thought "What a great addition to the photo of the old town walls". As I looked through the lens he stared directly back at me with a look of anger, so I quickly shifted the lens upward towards the towers of the wall. Seconds later I caught site of a young man running across the busy highway towards me. Quick as a flash he reached my side of the road, put his hand in his jacket pocket and pulled out a knife. No words, no threats, no communication, just instant violence.  I jerked backwards as he made a slash for my neck, and I watched the knife as if in slow motion, missing me by centimetres. Then I ran like hell, and he chased me for a couple of blocks before I reached a group of local horse & cart drivers and shouted for their attention. The young guy then disappeared and the locals called the police.

Marrakesh madness

A policeman on a motorbike pulled up within less than a minute and asked me to get on the back - no helmet - then proceeded to whiz through the crazy traffic at high speed looking for the culprit. We didn't find him and so the police lost interest and told me to go back to the hotel.

I never did find out what drove the guy to try to slit my throat. Did he want to steal my camera? Did he work for the cross man on the bench? Did I photograph something that I shouldn't have?

So, shaken and stirred we had the best part of a week left in Marrakesh so took the decision to get out as much as possible. This meant that we got to see the stunning Atlas Mountains, and the old hippy trail seaside town of Essaouria. I loved both these places and we met loads of friendly Moroccans to make up for the unfriendly welcome of Marrakesh.

When I got back home and reviewed the images properly for the first time, I realised that I'd caught more than one angry stare from locals down the lens of my camera. I always do due diligence before going to new places - forewarned is forearmed - but now realise that I have to be super careful as a 'rich' foreigner, in foreign lands, especially those where religious views are strongly held. Some of the locals saw my photography as rude, or out of order, and for this I'm sorry. It certainly wasn't my attention to annoy anyone, but that's a lesson learned.

I'd love to go back to Morocco, but will probably never visit Marrakesh again. I did get some cool photos though!