How I got the shot: Nico Avelardi on capturing the leatherworkers of Marrakech

On his latest assignment for National Geographic Traveller, the photographer — a long-term admirer of Morocco’s storied Red City — immersed himself in the pungent, colourful tanneries, unearthing a unique comradery and stunning visuals.

Photographs By Nico Avelardi
Published 19 Feb 2021, 09:00 GMT
Daily life in the souk of Marrakech. A merchant awaits custom outside his shop, contemplating life ...

Daily life in the souk of Marrakech. A merchant awaits custom outside his shop, contemplating life passing by. The early hours of the morning are when the souk is at its most enjoyable, free from hordes of shoppers browsing for their next purchase.

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

What drew you to this story?

Morocco is one of my favourite countries; prior to the pandemic, I travelled there frequently. On this occasion, I was there shooting one project on Figuig, an oasis town located on the northeasternmost tip of the nation, and another on the Ait Bouguemez Valley, which is deep in the Central High Atlas. And, when travelling between the two places, I found myself back in Marrakech. The Red City fascinates me — it’s the place that first ignited my passion for Morocco — and I’m drawn to the many aspects of its thriving cultural identity. I took the opportunity to start exploring the deep-rooted heritage of leatherwork. After contacting my usual fixer, I began working on the story. Later, when I was back at home, I got in touch with the art team at National Geographic Traveller and pitched a preview, which led to the commission: the opportunity to return to shoot the full feature. 

On location, what elements are you seeking out for a successful shoot?

I’m looking for an original narrative — there’s the must-have opener shot that sets the mood for the whole story, then landscapes to contextualize and close-ups to show details. Obviously this varies, depending on the feature. However, what I'm usually most focused on is the people. I feel they hold the key to a successful shoot, whether it's a portrait, a candid shot or just because they emphasise the narrative of the story. I’m trying to connect to the locals. I also try to blend in as much as possible with the environment, observing and experiencing it. I find this helps me to represent it at its best, so I can transport the reader to the place I'm covering.

A leather merchant shop in the artisan quarter trading leathers from a range of different animal skins. They’re worked to different finishes, and often used for unique and niche creations.

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

Who was the most interesting character you met?

It definitely has to be a whole category of characters: the tanners. Tanning is hard labour that’s carried out entirely by hand for long hours. It’s done in concrete pits, mostly under the hot sun. The process gives the place an intense and pungent odour. But despite the tough conditions, there was a fascinating vibe around the workers, a sense of brotherhood, a rooted community, a tangible felicity and pride in their craft. The elders teaching the youngsters in order to keep the tradition alive, the unique personalities, the exceptional outfits, the vibrant atmosphere — all this combined to make these craftsmen the most interesting of my encounters on this shoot.

Was this shoot typical of your career as a travel photographer?

I’m drawn to stories that explore social and cultural dynamics — like identity and heritage — through human stories. I love to get up close and personal with the place and the locals, to move deeper into the narrative in my own way and time, breathing in the neighbourhoods, connecting to the elements of the feature. I like to flow with a story as it takes form, looking for a genuine representation of the subject matter. In that sense, I'd say Marrakech was definitely a typical shoot.

Moroccan tanneries are known for their quality and craft, and nowhere is the deep-rooted heritage of leatherwork better experienced than in the Red City. Within the bustling Medina, tanners, dyers and merchants ply their trade, having honoured the same techniques for centuries. For our Jul/Aug 2020 photo story, photographer Nico Avelardi captured this dyer, wearing rubber galoshes and gloves, pulling a hide from a vat of green dye in Marrakech’s tannery. Read the article.

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

What do you take into account when selecting kit?

I opt for a set-up that’s portable, compact and lightweight, as I cover lots of ground on shoots and like to move with ease. Besides, I want to keep a low profile on location. Two bodies with two prime lenses are all I need to cover my approach. I work with a Leica Q that mounts a 28mm and a Leica M262 with a 50mm. I like to be constrained to just two focal lengths and to work around them. This dictates the choices I make on a shoot, and the search for the images I planned to capture, making the process smoother and more focused.

Where’s on your wish list for 2021?

I started a project on Bangkok just before the pandemic, so I'd like to get back to that soon. I’m a big fan of Asia and have a craving to explore Cambodia, Northern India and Sri Lanka. Last year, I was due to visit Istanbul and return to Morocco and Vietnam, so I hope normal travelling will resume soon so I can get back to doing what I love most.

Discover Nico's Marrakech photo story, below.

For more of Nico’s work, visit nicoavelardi.com or follow him @nico.avelardi

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