This week I decided to go with the topic Leather in Morocco. I have quite a few photos for this topic so I decided to split it over two weeks. Here are some of my favourite photos from the tanneries in Marrakech and Fez:
Here are a few tips I picked up during the photography workshops I attended in Marrakech and some of my own experiences during my trip:
Tanneries in Marrakech
First off, ignore people who tell you the tanneries are won’t worth visiting in Marrakech. Many people told me not to bother with the Marrakech tanneries since I would be going to the colourful tanneries in Fez. It’s true – the tanneries in Fez have more vibrant colours. However, I really enjoyed my time in the Marrakech tanneries. Unlike the Fez tanneries, which you only observe from the terraces of various leather shops, you can actually walk around the tanneries in Marrakech. This means that you take photos of various types of tannery procedures from many angles and locations, talk to the local tannery workers, get portrait shots of them working and really get a feel for what it’s like to work in the tanneries. Don’t get me wrong – Fez is still worth visiting and you can get great views from the terraces, but I didn’t think it was as interesting to experience and photograph as the tanneries in Marrakech.
Photographing in the Marrakech Tanneries
I had the pleasure of attending the Marrakech tanneries during a private photo tour with Suzanne Porter. She had several great tips for photographing in the tanneries (and Morocco in general). One of her tips included avoiding walking into the tanneries and immediately taking photos of the workers like a paparazzi. This has a tendency to put people on edge, especially if you are taking close-ups of them without their permission. We walked around a bit first and let them get used to us being there. We then approached a few workers and asked permission to take portrait shots of them while they were working. Most were fine with us taking photos in exchange for a few dirhams. Suzanne had also developed a relationship with one of the workers who allowed us to take many photos of him while he was working. I got the impression he enjoyed having an audience interested in both him and his craft. Surprisingly he didn’t ask for any money in exchange for photos. We were also able to take many wide-angle shots in the tanneries – these we didn’t need to ask for anyone’s permission as long as it was clear we weren’t taking close up photos of individual workers without asking for their permission first.
Snapshots vs. Working the Scene
A few other tourists visited the tanneries at the same time we were there, and I was always surprised at how quickly they went through. Part of it could have been the smell – the tanneries were definitely ripe with overpowering scents of pigeon feces and other strong chemicals used in the tanning process. But the tourists I saw never stopped to take photos from different angles or engage the workers for photos. They simply took a few snapshots and then left. If you’re a photographer, or simply interested in the tanning process, I recommend giving yourself a lot of time when you visit the tanneries so that you can thoroughly photograph them and experience them fully.
A lot of the tourists purchased mint leaves to hold to their nose as they walked through the tanneries. Suzanne explained that this was rude – the tannery workers have to work in these conditions all day, yet tourists cannot handle the 15 minutes they spend there without mint to reduce the odour. Suzanne and I didn’t use mint, especially since we wanted to engage the workers and didn’t want to offend them.
The tanneries in Fez are observed from the terraces of the leather shops. The shopkeepers provide you with a guide, who shows you to the terrace and then takes you through their leather shop afterwards. I was pleased that my guide didn’t rush me – I was able to get many pictures from the terrace with various angles and focal lengths. One interesting fact I learned from my guide – the colours used in the vats change from week to week. So if you are looking for particular colour, you may need to spend a few more weeks in Fez or plan your visit for the week with your preferred colour!
Telling a Story with Your Photos
There are so many different facets to leather making in Morocco. I tried to be aware of this during my time in Morroco, and to capture photos throughout Morocco which related to leather making, the leather markets, and the finished products. I like taking a series of photos which can be combined together to create a story. It also makes your visit there more interesting and gets you thinking about different scenes and how they might relate to your story. This week’s blog focuses on the story of the tanneries, and next week’s blog will include the craftsmanship of the leather, the leather markets and the finished products.
If you ever make it to Morocco, I highly recommend visiting the tanneries in Marrakech and Fez – both are well worth your time! And you may also want to consider taking one of Suzanne’s Marrakech Photo Experiences!