When your doorstep hosts an unrelenting photoshoot, you invariably become part of the backdrop.
Kareem peeks timidly around the archway, into the frame. The man drops his camera and smiles at the boy, who ducks back into the vestibule of his home. The man snaps a few more photos of his wife sitting, standing, strutting up the stairs. The man and his wife depart; two more take their place. Kareem peeks timidly around the archway, into the frame.
The relentless shutters of the daily swarm of visitors to Chefchaouen, Morocco’s ancient medina would make even the most ruthless Hollywood paparazzo wince. However, unlike those chasing the fame of a Hollywood star, Kareem’s paparazzi have no vested interest in him personally, except for the fact he happens to live through a small portico on flowerpot-lined Callejon El Asri, dubbed Morocco’s Most Instagrammable Street. Every day of the year from sunrise to sunset, Kareem’s front door is photographed tens of thousands of times, with Kareem finding himself consistently caught in the crosshairs.
In the perfectly innocent quest for a beautiful Instagram snapshot, tourists unwittingly capture snapshots of Kareem’s life too: walking to school with his sister, sitting in the doorway of his home, or talking to his friends on the steps. What we don’t see are all the moments of frustration: Kareem fighting through an oblivious crowd on the way to class, waiting for yet another photoshoot to end before leaving his house, or listening to the constant noise echo from the bottom of the stairs. For every tourist, it’s an unforgettable moment in one of Morocco’s most beautiful locations. For Kareem, it’s just another moment.
After waiting more than an hour, there was finally a brief break in the photoshoots, just a few minutes of quiet. Once again Kareem poked his head around the blue wall, but this time he fully emerged from behind the portico, unaware there was one paparazzo left who had him in his crosshairs. He leaned against the archway and faced away from me while looking up the street, pressing something to his lips. I felt a twinge of guilt as I tapped the shutter. Just a few seconds later one of his friends came barreling downhill clutching a bag of marbles, clicking loudly with each step. Kareem turned and ran past me, smiling and clutching a large shooter marble in his hand, and they both disappeared into the next crowd of paparazzi approaching the steps.
Framing, Technique, and Editing.
In the photograph, Kareem faces away from us and we can't see his face or expression. We don't know him and we don't know how he feels about being constantly photographed outside his home. But just like the Hollywood paparazzi, we often photograph despite our complete lack of intimacy with the subject. He is absolutely isolated from us despite sometimes starring in the frenzied photographs we take on his stairs. I really wanted to convey that sense of isolation and separation in my image using framing, negative and off-frame space, and leading lines.
This sloping street was a perfect opportunity to use Golden (Fibonacci) Spiral framing to highlight elements of Kareem’s world, with Kareem himself at the very center . Using the Phi grid in the Moment Pro Camera app, I was able to frame up the shot and wait until Kareem was in the right position to hit the shutter.
This particular spiral provides balance between the four biggest elements in the photograph, while also moving through them in the order of their importance. Starting on the left with flower pots and a two-toned blue wall, crucial for both context and negative space, the spiral slopes up the steps that lead Kareem to his home and also provide the stage for every model that visits Callejon El Asri. In the small rectangles in the upper right, the spiral rounds the archway and finally settles on Kareem himself, wearing a two-toned blue outfit to match the walls but squarely standing out as the subject of this shot.
While the spiral guides the eye by itself, I wanted to incorporate some other devices to highlight Kareem as the center of the shot.
I chose to drop the camera and shoot from a low angle to utilize the edges of the steps as leading lines (shown in white). These lines guide the viewer from the foreground up the steps to Kareem. Kareem is standing in the archway and actually completes the outline of the door (in red), giving a strong indication that he is right at home in this scene. Last, we see Kareem looking uphill and follow his gaze (in black), giving the photo a sense depth and space outside the frame
Finally, I wanted contrast the busyness of walls and plants with the stillness of Kareem at the center of the spiral. I edited exclusively in Lightroom:
Chefchaouen is overwhelmingly blue, which poses a challenge when you're shooting for a highly contrasted image. First I warmed the overall temperature and generally adjusted exposure:
Since I knew that I wanted Kareem to really pop as the subject in the frame, I added a radial filter that preserved Kareem’s exposure while darkening the rest of the frame, then I adjusted exposures accordingly.
However, the radial filter overexposed Kareem’s pants, so I brushed in some exposure and highlight adjustments. While I was at it, I brushed in some exposure control and some blue coloring to the bright white sweatshirt hanging in the vestibule of Kareem’s house to keep it from drawing the eye away from Kareem.
Despite the temperature corrections earlier, the whole frame is way too homogeneously lit and blue. I added split toning: red highlights and green shadows to balance out the strong blue tones and provide some much needed color variation in the frame. I also adjusted the luminance in this step.
Lastly, I added a medium contrast tone curve and additionally dropped the shadows to push the contrast of the image just a little farther. If you compare the final shot to the original, you'll find that the image is more balanced, Kareem pops more in the frame, and there is better contrast between the greenery and Kareem.
Finally, I would like to thank Said (@s.aych) for welcoming me into his home while it was raining, making me countless cups of mint tea, and showing me the true meaning of Moroccan hospitality my entire stay in Chefchaouen. Also, thank you Fatima (@travelling_morocco) for supporting my photography in Morocco and providing me amazing local knowledge of Chefchaouen. I will see you both again someday, inshallah.