Capturing Morocco’s fading traditions

© Leila Alaoui
© Leila Alaoui

Recently, the Sydney Morning Herald named Morocco one of the best destinations worldwide for photographers. From the towers of spices in ancient souks to the red-clay brick of desert towns, according to the Australian newspaper Morocco is all about colour. This image of Morocco as a vibrant colour palette can also be found in Leila Alaoui’s The Moroccans: a photographic series of contemporary life-size portraits in which she aspires to capture Morocco’s rich cultural and ethnic diversity. al.arte. was given the opportunity to talk to the talented artist herself and learn more about this amazing collection of photographs.

Bride of Khamlia, South of Morocco (2014) © Leila Alaoui

Bride of Khamlia, South of Morocco (2014) © Leila Alaoui

In 2011, French-Moroccan multimedia artist Leila Alaoui set out on her first road trip to Morocco. Originally, her aim was to do something about Morocco’s fading traditions. “When you travel to Beirut and to other Arab cities that are a bit more developed you feel like everything is very Europeanized. In Morocco, when you go to the countryside it’s still so authentic, but I feel it’s kind of disappearing, so I wanted to do a project on Moroccan heritage”, she explains. Moreover, Alaoui wanted to capture the rich diversity of the country. According to her each region possesses its own uniqueness; “when you compare a mountain region to a desert region, you will find so many contrasts; it’s a different climate, different tribes, the people look different, they dress differently, it’s a totally different way of life.

Now, three years later, Alaoui has gone on more than 20 trips. While she has covered most of her native country, she is yet to explore the sahrawi or desert region in the deep South, a journey she plans to embark on within the coming six months. Prior to setting out Alaoui always tries to find someone she knows in the region to be her local assistant. In order to do her work, she explains, it’s crucial to gain people’s trust. “In Morocco people don’t like photography for two reasons. One is that I think people are tired of Europeans coming and photographing them as if they are exotic objects. And the second reason is that there is a lot of witchcraft and superstition, so if someone takes their picture they might use it for witchcraft. However, if I spend some time with people, and they like me, they might say ok let’s do it. So it’s not easy at all, especially with the women.”

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Souk of Tounfite, Middle Atlas (2011) © Leila Alaoui

When travelling Alaoui usually stays with the family of her local assistant. To be considered part of the in-group she spends about a week mingling and hanging out with the locals; she eats in their houses and spends hours with them talking politics and listening to their stories and problems. Her Arab roots certainly facilitate the process. “They think I’m a Moroccan living abroad. I can speak Arabic, so they can definitely see I’m Moroccan.” At first Alaoui doesn’t talk about the photography aspect of her project that much, because she knows it will scare people off. She tells them that she is exploring the country and that she is doing a book on Moroccan traditions, as this is what she would ultimately like to bring about with her project.

The photography element only becomes apparent when Alaoui sets up her studio. “In rural Morocco you always have markets once a week in the village where all of the people of the area come to sell their vegetables […] and what I do is, I set the studio up in the middle of the market.” Alaoui usually goes to non-touristic areas where people are not used to seeing strangers, and especially foreigners. Some people know her, because they have seen her around the area, but a lot of people don’t. “I’m kind of the activity of the day, because everyone is like: there is a woman who looks European, but she speaks Arabic and she has a studio there.”

Normally all the kids of the village follow her around and watch her set up her studio. She starts by photographing the kids and gives them printouts of the photos. Once the people notice what Alaoui is doing and that the photos are free, they slowly start to gather around her mobile studio. When she sees someone with an interesting face walking by, she stops the person, and asks if she can take a photograph for her book project. Most people say no, but some people consent.

© Leila Alaoui

Souk of Boumia, Middle Atlas (2011) © Leila Alaoui

One of Alaoui’s most memorable photographs is the one of the water seller, “it was really a miracle!” as she describes it. Alaoui tells me that she was in a village where it was really hard to find people willing to be photographed. It was cold and she spent a lot of time on the market without taking any good shots. As her camera had little power left she was just about to pack up her studio when out of the blue the water seller showed up. “All of a sudden, I see this guy coming into the studio without saying a word, wanting his picture to be taken. I slowly put my equipment in place and took two photos of him and then he left. He didn’t even wait for me to print the picture, he just left.”

When it comes to photographing women Alaoui maintains a different approach. “There is no way women will want to be photographed out on the street where everyone can see them”, she explains. Therefore, she usually does two photo shoots, one at the marketplace and one during an informal gathering with the women. “What I do is, I buy lots of food and gather all the women of the village, they’ll all be cooking and eating and then some of them agree to be photographed, it goes slowly, but it’s never really easy.”

Alaoui’s photos show that in Morocco traveling from region to region seems more like traveling from country to country. The country’s cultural diversity is manifested in all aspects of life: the language, the clothing, the cuisine, but most of all in the people. With her collection Alaoui tries to capture Morocco’s different cultural identities, especially since nowadays a lot of traditions are disappearing. “One thing that is interesting for example, is that in the Berber villages all the older women have tattoos on their chins. These tattoos are marked at birth, so people know which tribe the woman belongs to, but you don’t see any young women with those tattoos anymore, it’s only the older generation. So these things are part of the disappearing traditions.”

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Jemaa El Fnaa (2011) © Leila Alaoui

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Khamlia, South of Morocco (2014) © Leila Alaoui

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Khamlia, South of Morocco (2014) © Leila Alaoui

The Moroccans will be on display at the next edition of the Photomed Festival in Beirut in January 2015.

For all updates on Leila Alaoui’s work, visit the website and sign up for the newsletter.

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