An Unforgettable Moroccan Experience: Volunteering With Photography

Photography in Morocco with a Purpose

None of us wanted to leave or say goodbye, but we all knew that we’d return as a group again.  Maybe not in Morocco; there was some discussion of getting the same group together to teach photography to underprivileged children in India.  Fortunately, that opportunity will be coming up next year with The Giving Lens, a dedicated group of volunteers traveling the world and improving children’s lives through photography.  This was the organization we spent our two weeks photographing Morocco with.

About The Giving Lens

The Giving Lens was founded by travel photographer Colby Brown in 2010.  He wanted to start a photography workshop different than other workshops.  Instead of just going somewhere to take photos, photographers are able to both take photos and give back to the community that they’re photographing.

The Giving Lens is partnered with an NGO in each country that they operate in.  Most meaningful NGOs struggle to fund their projects; stunning photography is one of the best ways for them to fundraise and work with financial donors.  Causes like this are one of the only times when I will photograph for free.  The Giving Lens not only provides the photos to the NGOs, but the NGOs are usually all about art & children and this serves as an educational opportunity.

Trip leaders include professional travel & humanitarian photographers like Colby Brown, Michael Bonocore, Brian Matiash, Andy Yee, and Daniel Nahabedian.  They provide excellent advice on travel photography, processing, portfolio curation, and working with nonprofits & NGOs during the workshop.

The leaders don’t do it all themselves though; in each country, they’re working with top-rated local guides.  This isn’t your “get on a bus with 50 other tourists” tour. The groups are kept to a manageable size of 8-12 photographers with personalized attention from local guides.

The Giving Lens Morocco

In Morocco, we used Open Doors Morocco as our tour guides.  One of the founders, Sa’id, is a photographer himself, and is invaluable in leading Morocco photography tours.  He knows all of the best places and times for photography in Morocco.  The 11 photographers were spread out between four Land Cruisers, all driven by personable, knowledgeable, humorous drivers.  We must have driven over a quarter of the country and these guys had friends and connections in every village and city we stopped in.  They even humored us by modeling for us every now and then. Hey, when you’re driving around a bunch of photographers, there’s no escaping this!

One great aspect I enjoyed was the cultural instruction on the first day – we learned local customs, basic language skills, made some local food, and learned how to photograph people in Morocco.

moroccan guides
Our guides taking a well-earned break.
kasbah des caids
Sa’id in the Kasbah des Caids

Teaching Photography to Children

Benefitting the Children

Our photography project in Morocco was to teach photography to children; The Giving Lens has the same goal in other countries also.  Why teach photography to children?  Children don’t have a lot of opportunity in many of the countries that The Giving Lens operates in.  They’re born into an occupation or a caste and without opportunity they’ll stay there, as will their children.  Moroccan children are no different.

In Morocco The Giving Lens partners with El Fenn Maroc, a creative group of local photographers led by a vibrant American expat.  The local photographers who served as our liaisons (and interpreters) with the children included Mohamed, Houssain, and Ali. Check out their Instagram pages; they’re all very talented.

The photography program serves as a reward for children who opt to not only stay in school but who also earn stellar grades.  For many of the more than a dozen children who joined us, most were picking up a camera for the first time, while a couple have seen The Giving Lens two or three times previously.  Cameras are provided via donations from The Giving Lens participating photographers (if you’re a subscriber you may remember I sent an email asking for donations).

photography lessons
Brandon with Anass and Yassin
photography lessons
Nancy taking a look at Khadija’s photos
photography student
Aya, a third-time student.
photography student
Tawfik, a first-time student exploring the camera.

Teaching Method

The photography lessons are structured and entertaining, and it was extremely rewarding for all of us to not only see the kids have fun, but to also see them become better photographers throughout our days together.  We teach composition basics first. The children were fast learners so we were quickly able to move on to more advanced topics.

These lessons incorporated a scavenger hunt, a fun technique to keep things interesting.  The students needed to take a picture of a dog, something yellow, a flower, a view looking upward, etc.  But they weren’t allowed to just take the picture – they had to actually compose a photograph, and many of them excelled at this right off the bat.

We explored a beautiful mountain village after a short hike along a river on the final day.  After lunch, the children were assigned a storytelling project for their graduate exam. They were to find a local story and tell it through photography, by taking a half dozen shots that included a wide establishing shot, some medium shots, detail shots, and a closing shot.  You would have thought that they’ve done this before after I saw the results.
photography lessons
photography lessons

game break
Taking a break for some games right before lunch.
photography lessons
Anass working on his storytelling.

Benefitting the Photographers

There are many ways in which volunteering for this endeavor affected the participating photographers as well.  For one, teaching always benefits the teacher in learning new methods to teach and how to more clearly explain concepts.  When I was teaching flight lessons I probably learned almost as much as my students every day.

But perhaps most important was the imprint the experience leaves on photographers as human beings.  We all built an immediate bond with our students. Kids are kids; they don’t care about your background, religion, or financial status.  They just want to have fun and learn. It taught us all a bigger lesson about remembering to see the world in a more simple, unified light.  This is a lesson that we all need to revisit now and again, especially living in superficial countries like the United States.  Knowing that we made an impact in their lives left few dry eyes as we waved goodbye.

Our only regret is that we spent only two days with these kids; this Morocco trip involves a lot of travel so that’s all we were able to do.

portraits
Michael Bonocore posing for the students.

Photography in Morocco in General

People Photography in Morocco

Photographing locals in Morocco was a challenge.  A very worthwhile challenge. The common advice for street photographers to immerse themselves in the scene rather than taking photos from a distance especially applies.

Much of the older generation is hesitant to have their photo taken.  Taking photographs of women is even more difficult, and at times forbidden, especially by male photographers.  The same can be said for children.

That’s not to say that any of it is impossible.  You have to earn it.  Talk to them.  Smile. Learn some of the local language, Darija.  Buy wares from the shopkeepers before taking their photo.  And when they say no, stop. Respect is a two-way street here.  Do it correctly and it will definitely show in the photographs. Gear: wide angle, fast prime lenses.  Focal lengths of 24-50mm work well. Get in close to take the photos, don’t hide in the shadows with a telephoto.  A pocket printer like the Instax is a wonderful icebreaker and way to show your appreciation.

weaving
Amina makes these rugs completely on her own, using hand-spun wool dyed with natural materials, and weaves them on this loom over a period of six months each.

weaving

marrakech portrait
A craftsman making a chess set by hand, in the Marrakech market. I took the photo, printed it out, and continued to talk to him as the photo developed. After a few minutes he had a nice present from a traveler, and a smile on his face.
prints
Trip leader Michael Bonocore also travels with a portable printer and was able to give these prints to a family he photographed on a previous trip – a wonderful gift for the nomadic family.

Landscape Photography in Morocco

Our trip was a whirlwind of driving in Land Cruisers through the southern half of Morocco.  We started in Marrakech, proceeded east through the Atlas Mountains, into the Sahara, and back to Marrakech via the Atlas Mountains, over almost two weeks.  It is a beautiful, diverse landscape with beautiful people.

Here’s a quick idea of what kind of photography gear and camera lenses to bring to photograph the different Moroccan landscapes.

The Atlas Mountains are full of rushing rivers, scenic villages on the sides of hills, deep canyons, and wide vistas.  In winter months it’s not uncommon to be able to get palm trees and snow in the same photo. Gear: wide zooms (24-70mm) to be able to both capture the expansiveness and to isolate other subjects like buildings and rivers.  Blower & brush or LensPen for the fine dust.

toudra gorge
Toudra Gorge
Morocco mountain village
Mountain village.

One of the more interesting aspects of Morocco, at least for me, was the old kasbahs.  These straw & mud fortresses are numerous throughout Morocco. They served as government centers, palaces, and fortresses throughout the past few hundred years.  Ait Ben Haddou is perhaps the most popular in Morocco; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been used as a set for numerous blockbuster movies and miniseries.  Unique to this is that a few families still live here. Gear: wide angle, fast lenses for the dim lighting and photography in tight quarters.

ben haddou sunset
Ait Ben Haddou
kasbah des caids
Kasbah des Caids in Tamnougalt

Camping in the Sahara was perhaps my favorite lodging destination, as I always love a good night of camping.  We rode camels for nearly an hour to an established camp of six tents that slept about 15 guests. We were served great food and had a wonderful time listening to our guides play traditional Moroccan music around the campfire as we photographed the Milky Way up above us in the tar-black sky.  Gear: wide angle, fast lenses for astrophotography and to capture the expansiveness of the desert.  Telephoto lenses for compressing the various layers of dunes. Blower & brush for the fine sand. Tripod for astrophotography.
sahara camels silhouette
sand ripples
sahara astrophotography

See Morocco and/or The Giving Lens for yourself!

To learn more about The Giving Lens and sign up for a trip, visit www.thegivinglens.com.

If you’re thinking about visiting Morocco on your own, contact Open Doors Morocco for a guide.  They can arrange custom trips to suit your desires, from individual travelers to larger groups.  I would especially recommend them if you want to make the most out of your photography in Morocco.

4 Comments

  1. This was the highlight story/information of my week! Love this. So happy and excited for you and these experiences! – mach

  2. There is so much here. First, this is wonderful, well-presented story-telling. I very much enjoy your work on these (Manzanar, Zephyr, etc), you’ve created very clear examples (not to mention compelling topics on their own) of my aspirations. Second, I’ve come very late to treating the camera as a tool and a connection. I look at your techniques here (giving cameras to kids, using Instax) and so regret not doing things like that. Spent lots of time living with and interacting with people on many travels, and showing the LCD screen to everyone, but not the tactile connections you make. And I’m barely getting started on how this gets me thinking about my future photography/story-telling goals… My apologies, I could keep pounding out words here, but that’s what my blog and notebooks are for, not taking up space in yours, but you keep posting things that connect so directly. Ok, I don’t care about shoulder bags or whatever… 😉

    • Haha unfortunately I need a few posts about shoulder bags sprinkled in here and there to feed the Google machine and pay for beer…but yes, I much preserve sharing posts like this and have a 2019 goal to do more of it. I’m getting ready to post about my latest Zephyr trip (short one between Truckee and Sacramento a few days ago) and taking the longer trip out to Chicago next week! Then it’s off to Uganda to work on that connection with the camera thing…don’t worry, I know I’ll spend the rest of my life working on it, and even “the greats” admit that they’re always learning how to connect better. Get out and practice, my friend!

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