In two years the world’s largest photography museum will open in Marrakech. As part of the preparations, five Magnum photographers spent eight days documenting life in the Moroccan city. But, as Sean O’Hagan discovers, their project soon proved to be provocative
The English photographer Mark Power, who is quiet, self-effacing and a bit shy, is telling me what happened when he went out shooting on the streets of Marrakech with his American colleague Jim Goldberg, who is none of these things. “Jim was having a pretty hard time. For myriad reasons, many people here do not like to be photographed, and they often make that clear. I tend to set up, then watch and wait from a distance, so I become invisible after a while. Jim is more up close, and this day no one was having it. In desperation he started shooting a few frames of a horse that happened to be passing. Suddenly this guy appears and goes: ‘No! Stop! My horse does not want to be photographed.'”
Power and Goldberg were commissioned alongside three other Magnum photographers – Abbas, Susan Meiselas and Mikhael Subotzky – by the nascent Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Art (MMPVA), which, when it opens in 2016, will be the biggest space for photography and digital visual media in the world. Inspired in part by Magnum’s recent Postcards From America series, in which a loose group of the renowned agency’s photographers collaborated in various locations to report live from the ground – posting work online as they made it – the project was described to me variously as an adventure, an experiment and a laboratory. There were times though, during the frenetic eight-day shoot, that “the incident with the horse” looked as if it might become the defining metaphor for an undertaking that was fraught going on chaotic. The non-appearance of a promised digital printer, for instance, meant that work had to be scanned in Marrakech, emailed to a lab in London to be printed overnight, and then the prints sent back to Marrakech on a plane.
The five lived together in two neighbouring riads in the medina with the original intention of creating an evolving exhibition as they made the work. There was much late-night drinking, talking and mutual support. At least two of them, Goldberg and Meiselas, had mini crises of confidence in a city where, for various reasons – mass tourism, intrusion, cultural difference – people do not like to be photographed.
“None of us had worked like this before, in such a short time frame with such a broad brief,” Goldberg said. “For me, the creative strategies I usually use just did not work here.”
Later, the veteran Iranian-born Abbas told me, “These young photographers think too much. If I did all that thinking, I would never go out and shoot anything.”
On the night before the opening of the exhibition, A Portrait of Marrakech, I visited the big room in the historic El Badi Palace that currently functions as a temporary MMPVA project space. There was an air of chaos about the palace, with assistants and students running around, but also an incredible sense of camaraderie among the five disparate photographers. As I came in, Goldberg and Meiselas were helping Power put his huge prints on the wall. In one corner, Abbas was overseeing the hanging of his atmospheric black-and-white prints of human shadows, while in another the young South African artist Mikhael Subotzky was fine-tuning the colour definition on his video and sound projection. He had captured the often frenetic atmosphere of Marrakech via “six cameras mounted on a magic wand that were shooting simultaneously as I sped along the crowded streets on the back of a motorbike”.
Subotsky’s Marrakech seemed a world away from Power’s still, almost stately, composite portraits of the city and its people and Goldberg’s mix of monochrome and colour portraits and landscapes. By general consensus, though, Meiselas’s work stole the show. “To begin with I could not make any good images,” she tells me later. “and I was surrounded by people making imagesI just could not find a little window into the place.”
Then, while talking with Imane and Leila, the two young local women she was working with, Meiselas hit on the idea of a creating a pop-up studio inside the medina on Spices Square to photograph the women who worked there. Suddenly everything clicked into place. “I’m an immersive photographer. I like to get close to my subjects and involve them. I wanted to find a way of connecting with them, but also of questioning my role as an outside observer.”
Perhaps because Mieselas agonised the most over her creative strategy, sShe created a series of portraits that, as the show grew closer, seemed to take on a life of their own. For the pop up project, In return for having their portrait taken, the local women could receive either 20 dirams (£2) or an original print. Some opted for the latter and, when Meiselas came to hang the show, she placed 20 diram notes in the places where their portraits would have been. She also invited the women whose photographs she had taken to come to the show on the day of the opening. Many turned up in their bright robes and burqas, and some incredibly emotional scenes ensued. Most of the older women had never been in an art gallery before and they seemed genuinely overjoyed by the sight of their portraits on the wall. There were hugs, hollers of delight and laughter and tears and you could see first-hand the extent of Meiselas’s emotional investment in the project and the equally intense response it engendered in her subjects. It really was something to behold.
Then one woman turned up with her sister, who had not participated in the project, and the atmosphere turned tense. Harsh words were exchanged and the women seemed incensed by the 20 diram notes on the wall. There were more tears, but not of joy. When things had died down, I spoke to Imane and Leila about it. “Everything is very complex here when it comes to making a portrait of a woman,” said Leila. “People are sick of photographers because of tourists being so intrusive. Plus, for this project, we let the women choose, and that is not the usual thing. The husbands or a family member could object, which is what happened.” Imane nods. “People are afraid about who will see the image, how it will be used. Often women do not feel comfortable to make the choice to sit for a photograph for many different reasons. Then, if one woman changes her mind and wants her photograph removed, that may cause others to do the same. That could very well happen in the next few days”
In the end Susan Meiselas’s complex and challenging project, featuring local women – many of whom had never willingly been photographed before – as the uncertain subjects, perfectly represented the increasingly contentious role of photography, both in Marrakech and the wider world, at a time when the medium is becoming ubiquitous and often intrusive. When I spoke to David Knaus, the ebullient managing director of the MMPVA, he said, “The Portrait of Marrakech project has been a real adventure that was tough at times, but generated some incredible work from the photographers. Morocco is an incredibly vibrant and complex place and the museum will reflect that as well as bringing international renowned photographers and images to Marrakech. This was a small and intense conversation that symbolises the bigger one yet to come.”