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This blog is where I share pictures & stories from photographic projects, commissions & assignments around the world.

Most recently I've been working with artists and festivals in West & North Africa, and with young people in India.

From the Sahara to Marrakech, Morocco

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It’s an 11 hour bus ride from the small oasis town of M’Hamid El Ghizlane in the Sahara Desert back to Marrakech - through the Draa Valley, the towns of Tamegroute, Zagora and Agdz, on to Ouarzazate, and across the beautiful Atlas Mountains. On the way out, travelling from Marrakech to M’Hamid, passengers would disembark at each stop, and an equal number of people would get on, so the CTM bus was always full, and I had different travelling companions next to me for each stage of the journey - a curator at the Marrakech Museum for Photography & Visual Arts, a PhD student researching ecology and tourism, a geography teacher, a film buff and a guy who described himself as a Spiritual Tourism Operator. We would get into conversation, and the first question was always about where I was going.

"M’Hamid" I replied.

The response was consistent.

"Wow, that’s a long way!"

On the return I was better prepared for the journey, and made sure that I sat on the right side of the bus to avoid the sun glaring in through the windows so that I could take some photos.

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As a photographer, it’s one of those frustratingly beautiful routes when you have a constant urge to ask the driver to stop every 100 metres or so, as you pass through such varied terrain and epic landscapes:

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The urge to stop grows stronger towards the second half of the afternoon when the rocks glow, Grand Canyon-style.

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Around the high desert city of Ouarzazate we enter the area known as the ‘Hollywood of Morocco’ - home of huge film studios and the location for many an epic film, from David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia to Gladiator and The Last Temptation of Christ.

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The landscape is both arid and lush, as we climb slowly towards the snow line of the Atlas Mountains, each hairpin bend revealing another stunning view across the peaks above or the valley below.

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The rose-pink and grey-green landscapes are intensified by the late afternoon sunshine.

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We reach the expanding outskirts of Marrakech all too quickly, exchanging mountains, traditional villages, and olive trees for newly built apartment blocks, luxurious mansions and hotel complexes. I’m holding on to the stark beauty of the desert, the warmth of the people I met there, the simple shared pleasures of daily life and the joy of many different cultures, traditions and peoples meeting together in the ancient oasis town of M’Hamid, as they have done for generations.

Leaving the Taragalte Festival in Morocco

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After the magic of the final concert of the Taragalte Festival the previous night, the mood this morning is subdued and laid back.

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Most people are preparing to leave - some stayed up the whole night as they had a 4am departure.

I pack my bags, and take a few portraits before I leave the Sahara:

This is the man who guarded our group of tents:

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And this is Majid, one of the traditional musicians from the group Oualed Chatta.

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Nomads round up their camels.

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Festival director Ibraham Sbai shares some music and tea in the shade at Le Petit Prince bivouac.

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And there’s a final picture with Oum - the patron of the festival - seen here with Lahcen, a member of the organising team.

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There’s just time to take a couple of obligatory group shots before we all leave.

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The next post is of the beautiful 11-hour journey back to Marrakech.

Planting trees in the desert with Sahara Roots at the Taragalte Festival, Morocco

Sahara Roots started a tree-planting programme in the oasis of M’Hamid El Ghizlane in the Sahara Desert three years ago, as part of the Taragalte Festival. Over the last ten years desertification has become a serious problem for desert villages like M’hamid. Planting trees that thrive in these arid conditions, is one way of dealing with the issue.

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On the last day of the festival artists and guests are invited to help plant a new batch of 16 tamarisk trees using the unique Groasis waterboxx method.

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Wanda Hebly from Sahara Roots explains the concept. The waterboxx doesn’t need much water - it collects dew, and rain and incorporates a condensation system which ensures that every precious drop of moisture is used. The drip system allows a tiny amount of water to reach the graft - and so encourages the root to seek water, which in M’Hamid is about 15 metres below the ground. After a year the waterboxx is lifted and re-used for new grafts.

Oum, the patron of the festival, and star of the final concert in the festival, plants the first tree.

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Others then take their turn, until there’s a whole line of grafts in their waterboxx behind Le Petit Prince.

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I too am invited to plant a tree - and thanks to my fellow photographer Abdellah Azizi, there are some pictures to prove it!

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I label my tree carefully….

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and Lahcen from the Taragalte Festival assures me that he’ll keep an eye on it until I return next year….

Celebrating women in the Sahara Desert

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Berber women from the nearby villages squeeze their way into the traditional woven tent near the main stage of the Taragalte Festival, finding a place to sit on the floor, their children on their laps. Others crowd round the entrance, or peer in through holes in the tent, whilst the men hover at the back.

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These women have been the creative energy behind the Carpet of Life - an innovative textile project to reinvigorate traditional Berber rug-making techniques and generate income through a unique commissioning programme, supported by the NGO Butterfly Works and the Taragalte Festival. The women hand-weave and knot rugs to traditional Berber designs using strips of recycled clothing donated by the commissioner. The results are vibrant carpets that give the rug-makers a good source of income, and help to ensure the continuation of an authentic craft that has been handed down through the generations. The commissioner gets a one-off work of art that is both traditional and contemporary, giving a new lease of life to clothes that have a particular significance to the owner. 

On the last afternoon of the festival the women gather to celebrate their achievements. I worm my way through the crowd, trying to find a space from where to photograph the ceremony without the setting sun shining right into my lens. 

A traditional singer starts to chant; her hands, heavily decorated with henna and jewellery, make elaborate, angular gestures.

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Sometimes she covers her face in this slow, ritual dance.

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The young woman who coordinates the Carpet of Life has the task of handing out personalised, framed certificates to each woman who has participated in the project.

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The sense of pride and solidarity amongst the women is experienced by everyone attending the ceremony.

There’s a post about more artwork at the Taragalte Festival created with recycled materials here.

Taragalte Festival - discuss, debate and share

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Le Petit Prince camp at the Taragalte Festival is the hub for seminars, presentations and film screenings.

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There are talks about the fragility of nomadic life in the Sahara, we hear from musicians and cultural operators about the current political situation in Mali and about Azalaï’s Laboratoire Nomade supporting new musical adventures involving African and European artists.

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Halim Sbai, co-director of the Taragalte Festival introduces a session.

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Ibrahim Sbai, co-director of the Taragalte Festival, sits amongst the audience to listen to the presentations.

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And of course, there’s always tea….

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Manny Ansar, the Director of the Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu tells us about the strengthened connections between his festival, the Festival sur le Niger in Ségou, and Taragalte Festival.

The three festivals have joined forces to collaborate on a new initiative with a powerful cultural and humanitarian message: La Caravane Culturelle pour la Paix (the Cultural Caravan for Peace).  Taragalte (the original name of M’Hamid El Ghizlane) used to be a meeting place for the trans-Saharan trade caravans, linking Morocco to Mali and other parts of the Sahara and Sahel region. The idea behind the project is to raise awareness of the real threat to culture, music and the environment in the region and to promote peace, tolerance and solidarity. After Taragalte, the artists will travel to Burkina Faso - to the capital city Ouagadougou and to nearby refugee camps - and then on to Ségou in Mali, to play music, exchange ideas and share their cultural heritage.

At one point during the presentation, the man sitting next to me asks if he can borrow my pen.

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He starts writing in Arabic, and a few minutes later stands up to announce that he would like to share a poem he’s just written. Roughly translated, he says that it’s a poem celebrating the hospitality and generosity of the people of M’Hamid.

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After all the talking and debating, the musicians in the room strike up and everyone rises to their feet to dance. It’s yet another beautiful and spontaneous shared experience at the Taragalte Festival.

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If you’d like to read more about the Taragalte Festival’s other activities, please click here.

Faces amongst the festival crowd, Morocco

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A large and enthusiastic local audience turns out for the main stage concerts at the Taragalte Festival. It’s mostly young men - running, jumping, shouting, parading….

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The women and younger children watch from a dune set back from the main stage area.

Walking through the crowd, the energy is edgy and a little tense.

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Some of these guys are keen to have their picture taken, and I hear cries of “Sarah la photographe!” across the darkness from people who recognise me before I recognise them.

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Others are camera-shy, and laugh nervously when I ask if I can take their photo. They say that they don’t want their parents to know they are here. So I keep a discreet distance.

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I like to photograph audiences at outdoor festivals. Here's a post about a dance festival in Bamako, Mali - Dense Bamako Danse.

Taragalte Festival - concerts - part III

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The final concert on the main stage at the Taragalte Festival is a festive and joyous occasion, featuring the Moroccan singer Oum, who is then joined on stage by all the artists in residence.

Oum’s music draws on her Moroccan heritage, mixed with many other musical styles, from jazz to hip-hop, pop to soul. She moves with ease from darija (Moroccan dialect) to English and French, telling stories  about love, hope, freedom, men and women. Sometimes passionate, sometimes melancholy, but always captivating.

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Singer Mariam Koné with Oum

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Bass player Damian Nueva:

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Saxophonist Dimitri Grechi Espinoza

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Saïd Tichiti on guembri (three-string lute), krakebs (iron castanets) and vocals

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Singer Lise Hanick (Canada / France)

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Assaba Drame (Mali) on talking drum

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Aziz, (Morocco / France) lead singer of the band Aflak

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The drummers

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One of the local artists recites a poem.

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All the artists in residence are on stage to celebrate the end of three days of festive music-making and collaboration. By the time we make our way back to the camp the cold desert air is really beginning to bite, but the roaring fire that’s burning in the courtyard at Le Petit Prince camp draws us in and we settle down on the circle of carpets, sweet mint tea in hand, as the musicians generously share more music late into the night.

There are photos of the artists in residence rehearsing together in this post.

Taragalte Festival - concerts - part II

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Continuing the selection of photos from the concerts on La Scène Taragalte…..

These are images of Aziz, lead singer of the French/Moroccan band Aflak:

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Kiran Ahluwalia (India) performs solo, and with local musicians:

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Lahcen doesn’t miss the opportunity for a quick picture with Kiran as she comes off stage.

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Singer Lise Hanick (France):

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The next post (part III) is images of the last night of the festival, when the Moroccan singer Oum and all the artists in residence come together on stage for an intense, high energy performance, honed in rehearsal and jamming sessions over the previous few days.

Taragalte Festival - concerts - part I

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Dusk arrives quickly in the Sahara Desert and the temperature drops rapidly, so as the sun dips behind the distant dunes, I return to the camp for my fleece, scarf and socks, in preparation for an evening of music on the main outdoor stage at the Taragalte Festival.

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Meanwhile, in the east, the full moon sits heavily on the horizon.

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The invited artists bring a wealth of different musical traditions and styles to the festival, and the free concerts on the outdoor stage are energetic and colourful, drawing an enthusiastic local audience from the surrounding villages, as well as all the delegates from the festival.

Here’s a selection of images - firstly, the young Tuareg band from M’hamid:

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Singer Mariam Koné from Ségou in Mali:

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If you’d like to see more pictures of concerts in the Taragalte Festival, click here.

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