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A slightly sinister mood on the streets of Marrakech

Marrakech has been a byword for the exotic for decades. It is Morocco’s fourth-biggest city, founded in 1062, and ringed by 19km of ochre stone that give it its nickname – the Red City. Despite a nearly thousand-year history, Marrakech owes its modern fame to the hippie movement of the late 1960s.

The city attracted the likes of French fashion designer Yves-Saint Lauren and the Beatles during the Swinging Sixties, and hordes of young Western travellers followed, drawn by the sun, hash and exotic medina. Forty years on, Marrakech is a major tourist draw, a backdrop to fashion shoots and byword for North African exotica.

I recently spent a week in Morocco (not nearly enough in a country which stretches more than 1,800km from the northeast to the southwest), the last few days of which were in Marrakech. Marrakech is firmly on the tourist map; European no-frills airlines have joined the fleets of carrier swooping in, and you don’t have to wait long for a newspaper travel section to highlight a new reason to visit.

On my last morning before flying back to London, I managed to spend a few hours stumbling around the city’s souks and medina with an old camera and a handful of film.

I managed to burn off about 20 rolls of 35mm film in a little more than a week (more posts to come), but one of the things I want to do more off this year is shoot 120 film while travelling. With only 12 pictures to shoot on a 6×6 camera, it slows you down. And slowing down when taking pictures of the unfamiliar can often be a good thing.

Bursts of colour amid the bright light

Packed inside my camera bag this trip was a KMZ Iskra. It’s a Soviet 6×6 rangefinder made in the 1960s, a Soviet copy of Agfa’s Super Isolette. A folding camera, the Iskra has a 75mm standard lens that uses glass made by the pre-WWII Zeiss plant in eastern Germany. It’s indicative of the quality the Soviet camera manufacturers could come up with when they weren’t having to produce 20,000 a week.

Apart from the quality of the lens, the great thing about the Iskra is it’s very portable; folding cameras like the Isolette were designed to be portable, a travelling camera that would take travel pictures as well as portraits. But with a bundle of 35mm film to burn through, the Iskra had to wait until this last morning.

Marrakech’s medina is a mass of winding streets leading off busier roads thronged with people, scooters and donkeys leading carts. The souks all radiate off the city’s central Djemaa El-Fna, a massive square that is the heart of Old Marrakech. It’s very, very easy to get lost.

World Cup fever about to hit…

Here the “streets” are lined with stalls selling everything from metalwork to , traditional robes to freshly butchered meat, antiques to tourist tat. Every few steps you weave past fellow shoppers and the outstretched hands of stallholders, donkeys carrying carts laden with produce, or roaring motorbikes. Bright summer light comes through slats in the souk “ceiling”, adding to the atmosphere. It’s a sea of smells, too; spices and mint tea, hookah smoke, frying fish, perfume and cigarette smoke.

Outside the souk there are open markets aimed with locals in mind; mounds of fruit and vegetables in stalls that cover the small squares and snake along the narrow streets.

In a few hours I managed to take three rolls of film – one of Fuji Neopan and two of expired Fuji Velvia slide – padding through Marrakech as the temperature climbed. Marrakech is one of those cities where something always seems to be around the corner – like Istanbul, where I’ve spent a lot of time the last few years, life seems to be lived in the street in a way that just doesn’t seem to exist in Western cities any more.

There’s another benefit to shooting on the street on a camera like the Iskra; it disarms them. Most of the tourists are shooting away on all-singing, all-dancing DSLRs, shooting a burst and then moving on. The Iskra is whisper quiet – and a lot less threatening. In a place like Marrackech – where photography can sometimes jar with local customs – that’s something worth being aware of.

Check out more pics below, or on my Flickr set.

Out of the souk in the local markets
A grimace amid the souk gloom and racks of sunlight
Bright light on bright robes

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Stephen Dowling
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Phantazein Studio
9 years ago

Beautiful photo and nice composition.

Cassio R Eskelsen
9 years ago

Beautiful photos!

I’m a fan of folding machines. I’ve two, a Bessa I and a Seagull 203 (a chinese clone of Isolette).
I took Seagull for two tripos, one to Portugal and another to Italy. It’s a delight to use it on these trips.