Cameras, communication and the intimacy of a moment.

My dad suffered from mental illness for the latter part of his life, and this put a considerable strain on my family for over a decade, particularly my mother. One year was particularly bad and they required a lot of support, and after father had been taken off to hospital yet again, my mum suggested I should take a holiday. It was a week before Christmas and I was pretty whacked, physically and emotionally drained, and did not want any hassle from having to sort out something as a solo traveler, my usual method, so I decided to go with a group and managed to get a late booking on a trip to Morocco, my first and only ‘package trip’.

A week and a day into the trip and with a few alarm bells having already tinkled thanks to my heightened awareness of ‘odd’ behaviour, finally, high in the Anti-Atlas mountains in a small mountain village in the middle of nowhere the trip leader, an English fellow, finally cracked, and the bells ceased their tinkling and positively clanged.

Apparently dejected, miserable and really fed-up he moaned “It’s all right for you lot I just get to know some of you and then you leave me,  you all make friends and then go home and keep up friendships and I’m just left here with another group arriving and they all make friends, and go, and I’m left alone again. Its no use I can’t carry on doing this. I’m going back to the nearest town. If anyone wants to come with me you’re welcome.”  It was painfully obvious that our perception of this guiding lark as being some idyllic traveling life was in fact for him some form of torture and one which was having a serious effect on his mental equilibrium.

No amount of talking was going to change his mind, he was intent on being off, to anywhere but here. But a few of the group said they’d prefer to stay in the mountains, so the group  split with the majority going with him. I opted to stay and continue to follow the advertised schedule which I had been delighted with, and which included several more days in what I considered to be an utterly entrancing mountain landscape high above the desert. Leaving us with instructions to meet in a few days time, our guide departed, and accompanied by several adults I was confident he was in no danger of any sort so I wished them well as they departed.

Left alone halfway up the side of a mountain in a little village might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it was a lovely place with amazingly friendly people, and although they were very polite, they had kept their distance from us, particularly the young women. A few hours after the main group and guide departed I took a wander about and encountered numerous people, mostly children, and although we shared no common spoken language we could share signs and gestures which they happily reciprocated, and they all enjoyed some sweets I carried and handed around. But two small boys in particular enjoyed the interaction and my amateur magician’s disappearing coin tricks. But there seemed to be an interest in the fact that the majority of the relatively large group had left, and we few remaining seemed the object of some curiosity. It seemed that the atmosphere had changed and there was a slight but perceptible shift in people’s attitude towards us.

On the second day after our leader had departed I was walking alone through the village when two young women, and the two small boys from the previous day’s fun approached me, and one of the small boys took me by the hand and giggling at my surprise they led me up a narrow path between two houses. The path wound higher and higher above the huts and finally levelled out on a narrow ledge that led across the face of a cliff to where the sound of singing rose. We rounded the corner and found a group of women washing clothes at a small spring, with wet clothes laid out in the sun to dry. They looked in surprise at me, but my guides spoke a few words and they all smiled warmly, relaxed and carried on working.

I was gestured to sit and did so and spent an hour listening to their singing and watching the women work, high above the valley, intense winter blue sky overhead, their voices echoing beautifully. I understood not a single word, but neither did I care. And I never once thought to lift my camera for it seemed as if to do so would be some gross breach of trust and that this whole wonderful scene I’d become a part of would dissolve. Eventually my young woman guides came over and they moved across to the cliff edge and sat together and then made the camera sign to me, and gestured to me to take their picture as they sat together with earnest looks on their faces.


Young women in the Anti-Atlas Mtns, Morocco © John macPherson


And so I did as asked and when they heard the shutter click they grinned and giggled and were up and off. It was a lovely moment and one that seemed so unlikely a few days earlier. And it struck me how little real contact our guide must have had with these mountain people even although he spoke some of their language and had been in this village numerous times. It seemed hugely ironic that someone could feel so ‘alone’ amidst such friendly and engaging people.

Photographers often say to their subjects “just ignore me, pretend I’m not here” in order to try to gain some ‘intimate’ fly-on-the-wall photographic opportunities. I’ve always hated that. In reality what they should say is “please accept me” – a somewhat different concept and for me a much more humane one; one that brings with it the need for interaction, and mutual respect, and which will of necessity elicit the question from your subjects – “why should we accept you?”.  To which your response spoken or unspoken, must be honest and understood.


And now we go. Morocco. © John MacPherson


It’s an interesting concept that invariably what you photograph when you take pictures of people like this, is actually a reflection of yourself.

So, how do you define yourself as a photographer? By the way you view the world, or by the way the world views you?

Something to think about.


Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (5 Comments)

  1. Stan B. says:

    The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become. -Goethe

  2. Catherine says:

    A very thought-provoking article John. What’s important to me is my interest in other people. I want to know more about them and how they live their lives. It’s my own inhibition that holds me back.

  3. Catherine, other people are just like you. They want to know about other people as well, and they may be shy. As you are.

    My old dad used to say – “a stranger’s just a friend you do not know.” And there’s a lot of truth in that. I’ve had some fantastic experiences as a result of speaking to people. But more often making that move to engage someone does not produce an outcome immediately, it simply allows you to make a step forwards thats followed by several more, which much much later leads to a ‘consequence’ of significance.

    Truth is there are way more good people in the world than bad, and everyone (and I mean everyone) has a story to tell, and things that matter to them, and it’s a validation of their life experience if you show interest in all of that.

    I like to call it a ‘celebration of the ordinary’. You could stop a person at random in the street and after 5 minutes talking find out far more of significant human interest than most so-called tv reality show ‘celebrities’ have to offer. Thats the true ‘reality’ of life.

    You said “What’s important to me is my interest in other people” and thats a fantastic place to start.

    I’m going to post about inhibition soon, so come back and see if it resonates for you. And good luck with your work/education!

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