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Thursday March 7th, 2013

by Maria Luci

Recently, Hollis Bennett was selected as an artist in residence for the moussem (pilgrimage) of Sidi Ali Ben Hamdouch in Morocco. The purpose of the residency was to pull artists deep into the Islamic culture and Moroccan folklore of the festival. This pilgrimage attracts Sufis from across Morocco and Northern Africa, and Hollis was ecstatic to be chosen to document such a unique experience. To make things even more interesting, Hollis planned on using a 4×5 camera to shoot thoughtful portraits of those attending. His goal was to show both the commonalities and differences between the many attending Sufis.

However, upon arriving in Morocco, Hollis’ plans began to fall apart. While setting up his camera, he was immediately shut down by city council officials, who demanded he remove his tripod. The residency coordinator tried stepping in to diffuse the situation, but to no avail. Shut down and frustrated, Hollis went on to make the most of his trip—even though he couldn’t shoot what he’d planned. He ended up shooting a number of great portraits, while also seeing (but unfortunately not being permitted to capture) women shattering glass on their heads, a cow sacrifice in a living room, people speaking in tongues, and more. He also found himself kicked out of a second location, Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, before ending up in Fez. I got in touch with Hollis to learn more about his Moroccan adventure and the unexpected results. Enjoy!

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Why were you denied shooting the pilgrimage?

Initially, I did have permission as I made it very clear to the hosts that I would be shooting in a very open, visible manner. There is no hiding a 4×5 on a tripod and all that. So, yes, I had permission and then as soon as I set up the first time the city council members and politicians shut me down instantly. The general public and pilgrims were great, very friendly and I’m sure there would have been no problems shooting images of the subjects that I intended—except for the fact that the politicians didn’t want any sort of publicity for the pilgrimage. The current government in Morocco is fairly conservative, this pilgrimage flies in the face of “true Islam” and they feel it is an embarrassment.  For some reason this event has found a strong following in the Moroccan gay community and this is still a very taboo subject in most of the world so, that, among other reasons, is why they didn’t want my images getting out. Instead, they are going to have to deal with a photographer who will turn writer and is going to get the story out one way or the other.

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Why were you kicked out of Moulay Idriss?

Moulay Idriss is a very holy town, just a notch or so below Mecca, Medina and Mazar e Sharif and until not very long ago foreigners were not even allowed to spend the night there. I hit the streets with my local assistant/translator and tried to make some images since I was shut down in Sidi Ali—so as not to pull the remaining hair out of my head and have the trip be a complete wash. Anyways, I made some images one day, took a bit of a break the next and then went back. By that point, word spreads and their local council decided they didn’t want me there either, as apparently I have been labeled trouble in that part of the world (they know me so well). It wasn’t a full kick in the ass and yelling ‘never come back again’ type of kicking out, as that is not the Moroccan way, but it was made perfectly clear that I should check out as soon as possible and head elsewhere. I packed the camera up, spent one more day there visiting some Roman ruins and then took off.

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So what did you end up getting to shoot?

Like I mentioned before, I was making images on the street in Moulay Idriss (before getting the boot) and fortunately it was market day so, plenty of people were out and about. We had about a 50/50 chance to get people to come over and sit for the camera. For the most part, those that said ‘no, we’re too busy shopping/selling’—there is a large merchant class there and that’s how they make their living. Once I got to Fez, I ended up shooting a bunch of artisans as the people that brought me over to Morocco are based there and have a good rapport within that city and there was no issue of pointing my camera wherever I wanted.  I was handing out Polaroids along the way to smooth things over and they were well received.  I think the only issue we had was the smell in the tanneries (atrocious) and a glue-huffer passing out in my frame so I had to get some guys to drag his ass out of frame; second world problems.

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What did you learn from this experience?

I think the biggest thing I learned from this is that when I wall gets thrown up in front of you, you have to go around it, instead of bashing your head against it—nothing good will come of that.  In more practical terms, I need to start bringing an assistant to carry all my film and I should probably throw my boots away after said visit to the tanneries.

View more at hollisbennett.com and see the rest of his Moroccan portraits here.

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