“Now, we are Fez!” Mohammed, our driver, announced in his broken English.
I sat up, bolt upright, shut my laptop and looked out the window. Something about the air in Fez gave off a sense of rawness that was so characteristic of Morocco herself. But if the streets of Marrakesh, where we’d just come from, were dipped in the deep terracotta hues of sunset, the labyrinthine streets of Fez’s centuries-old medina were kissed with the dusty sand-coloured tones of the Sahara.
Mohammed’s sharp voice cut through the air as he called the hotel to get directions, turning the steering wheel with his free hand. We weren’t even in the medina yet, but we were already lost. I didn’t mind, though. To me, one of the most eye-opening experiences of traveling anywhere is getting lost.
As we circled around attempting to make head or tail of our location, we’d ended up passing through a street that curved around the edge of a hill overlooking the rest of the city below several times, giving us a spectacular bird’s eye view of the entire city more than once.
Twenty minutes later, we stopped outside one of the entrances into the medina, luggage in tow, waiting for the riad staff to fetch us and sticking out like sore thumbs.
Bakeries, grocery stores, dimly lit teahouses and spice shops lined the road, and bearded old men sat in silence outside small restaurants, sipping mint tea and frowning as they scrutinized their surroundings. Young men pushing carts laden with everything from bread to clothes to old machinery shouted their way through the crowd, and pairs of women dressed in bright-coloured Moroccan djellabas shuffled in and out of the medina.
Children scurried about, weaving through the crowd and shrieking gleefully as they played together. Just inside the gateway, fruit sellers hawked their wares on wooden tables, and the aroma of freshly roasted corn wafted through the air. Just being inside the medina was a feast for the senses.
But some things stay the same no matter which part of the world you’re in: crowds of men of every age huddled together inside teahouses, rapturously watching soccer games on the TV, their conversation interjected with bouts of cheering and jeering.
The entrance to the riad we’d be staying at for the next two nights was an inconspicuous glass double door almost completely hidden behind two grocery stores, which left us feeling more than a little hesitant. But the humble entrance belied the exquisite interior of the riad. We were led down a tastefully lit hallway decorated with bright Moroccan zellije tiles of blue, red, yellow, white, and green, which opened up to a wide open-air courtyard whose emerald green tiles glinted in the sunlight cascading down from above. Plump white pouffes and ottomans neatly circled small hand-carved wooden coffee tables, and the faint scent of sandalwood drifted through the entire riad.
This, I learnt, was a hallmark of Moroccan and Islamic architecture. Traditional Moroccan riads were often purposely designed to have unimpressive exteriors that suddenly open up to elegant inner courtyards enshrouded in privacy, symbolizing the primacy of inner beauty over outer appearances.
In fact, Fez’s entire medina was infused with this elusive sense of hidden beauty. Every narrow alleyway and shophouse-lined avenue within the medina seemed to radiate so organically with a rugged sense of practicality that still somehow managed to be delicate in its beauty. Wandering through the maze of streets in the medina, I found so much attention to detail in the otherwise mundane.
Public water fountains dotted the streets, each of them breathtakingly decorated and painted in vivid colours that came together in an explosion of luminosity. Huge wooden double doors that stood at the entrance to almost every riad, restaurant, Sufi zawiya (spiritual centre), or mosque were embossed with calligraphy and arabesque carvings. Some of the streets in the medina were covered with wooden lattice structures that served to provide shade from the desert sun and filter just enough sunlight to brighten up the narrow walkways without making it too warm. And despite the abundance of butcheries and fish stalls all over the medina, no matter how many times we walked past, there was never any stench or any kind of unpleasant smell that is so often associated with wet markets, because the produce in Fez is always fresh.
The myriad alleyways winding through the medina appeared to be deceptively stuffy, yet the minute I stepped out of the blazing warmth of the streets outside the medina and into any of the alleyways leading into the medina, I was enveloped in a cool embrace that seeped into my skin and instantly refreshed me.
It turns out that the materials used to build the houses within the medina were specifically chosen because of the cooling effect it had both inside and outside the house.
Even though a unifying colour scheme of creams, browns, and greys runs through most of the medina, occasionally, the desert-like hues of the medina were interrupted by vibrant splashes of colour that popped out of nowhere.
As I made my way from site to site within the ancient medina, I came across a rainbow alley packed with displays of oil paintings, bracelets, carpets, bags, and prayer mats. A group of street artists had taken it upon themselves to literally brighten up a dark alleyway within the medina.
As I continued wandering around, I caught a whiff of an overpowering fragrance which beckoned me further and further into the medina until I found its origin: a small shop selling pink rose water that was being made and bottled on the spot. A bespectacled young man in a lime green t-shirt, camo pants and a red taqiyah (Muslim skullcap) stood amidst huge woven baskets of pink rose petals and neatly packaged glass bottles of rose water, diligently simmering the rose petals in water.
Because of the brown monochromatic colours with which she’s predominantly painted, Fez herself may initially come across as rough around the edges and even drab compared to other Moroccan cities.
Yet the maze-like streets of its pristine, ancient medina immediately sweep residents and travelers alike into a cradle of veiled beauty whose authenticity is at once rejuvenating and calming in a world that, in so many ways, has lost its heritage to the throes of modernity. I know I’ll be back here again, one day.
Santriani is a freelance writer based in Singapore.
You can see more of her work at the links below:
Gone stray. How I find myself involved in a documentary project about stray and colony cats
In the beginning, it was not a photo project. It was just me going to take photos in a park where a huge colony of stray cats live. I had started taking photos of cats when I adopted my two cats three years earlier. That was something I had never done before; I had never had a cat, not even as a child. I knew nothing about cats. Honestly, I was not a pet person at all before adopting them. They totally changed the way I felt about having pets at home and it became natural to me to grab my camera to make memories of our daily life together. However, after three years I needed new subjects. So when one of my friends told me about the park, I went there on my first day off from work. Just 40 minutes from home. I had never heard about it before. It used to be an Army Fort until it was shut down in the early 90s. Now it’s a public park.
Some of the old buildings are used as offices and restaurants. Others are abandoned and almost crumbling down.
The park is known for its colony of cats; they’ve been living there since forever. There are also two cat sanctuaries. Volunteers of the two sanctuaries take care of them, providing them with fresh food and water every single day and medical care when required.
The first time I went there I spent almost three hours shooting. I loved it there, seeing so many cats napping in the tall grass or chilling on the ground enjoying the warm sun. It was clear those cats were in good health and well taken care of. I went back there the week after that, and the next, and the next … and so on for a whole year. Every time I shot new photos; every time I met new cats I hadn’t seen before. As months went by I began to know that park and those cats better. I had not realized it back then, but after a few months I was not going there just to take photos of cats anymore. I was getting familiar with them; I was getting involved in their lives, I got to know them by name as I had the chance to talk to the volunteers who worked there. I got to know what their favorite places were. Cats are territorial animals. They like to stay in the same places, but they change according to the seasons. So with each new month, depending on the weather, new photo opportunities arose. From the very beginning I liked most reserved cats that napped or chilled in abandoned buildings. It was not easy to take photos of them because as soon as they heard a noise they were gone. So I had to move as quiet as possible. Besides those places were dark, so technically it was hard to shoot there.
The only available light came from a few windows. And that’s where I had to shoot from. I couldn’t go in there. Some windows were broken, some were left open so cats could go there to sleep or stay dry and warm on rainy days or cold winter nights. My going there to take photos was a real adventure. Every time I went back home with a new capture I realized it was another small piece of their story. By then the decision was taken – I wanted to tell their story with my photos. I wanted people to know them. I wanted to show people how those cats lived and how special that place was, thanks to the volunteers who looked after them.
From the very beginning I shot photos in black and white. It was not a stylistic decision at first but it came natural to me. When I was there I saw the world in black and white. After a year of intense shooting, I realized what a huge number of photos I had taken. And it was only at that time that I felt I needed to try to organize them. To my greatest surprise I realized that it was not necessary. They were already organized. All my shots could be divided into four or five basic subjects.
The year after that I kept going to that park once a week. I still do. I’m still working on those original basic subjects, but after two years I still bump into new situations and meet new cats. That place is magical for me. It always presents something new, even if I don’t look for it. I never go there with a clear idea on my mind. I never go there thinking ‘Ok, today I want to shoot that cat napping on that window.’ It doesn’t work like that. First of all, whenever I go there with such an idea in mind, I never find the cat or the situation I was looking for. And even if I do, I’ve noticed that even if the shot might be technically good there’s something missing. Because it’s shot with my mind and not with my soul. That’s why I never do that. That’s why I go there with a free mind and an open soul. I go there and wait until that park and those cats give me a special moment to capture. Every shot is an unexpected gift to me. Nothing is planned beforehand. Sometimes I go there early in the morning, as soon as the park opens, when all offices and restaurants are still closed and there’s no one around. Just the cats and me. It’s quiet; silence everywhere.
Being with them makes me feel good. And special too. After two years I’ve come to think that those cats know that I’m there for them. They know I want to document their real life and they show it to me. That’s why, as time went by, I decided to keep shooting in black and white. It helps me concentrate on the essential and show it to people. That’s why among my photos there are no small kitties nor romantic situations. There are no stereotyped images that are usually seen in social media. But there are no pityful images either. I do not want people to feel sorry for them. They don’t need that. They are taken care of, they are not out in the street. But I want to raise compassion, which is different, and I want to make people get to know these stray cats and where they live. I try to do this with respect for them to show how dignified and beautiful they are.
For more information about my work check out my feed on Instagram and Facebook.
An Interview with Photographer Idan Golko: A Self-examined Life
In one of my prior corporate gigs, a division VP said to me, “Mark, you seem to lead a self-examined life.” I was surprised by this. I mean, I took this remark as a compliment, but did I? Did I inspect my life? Did I regularly question my existence by screening my thoughts and actions?
r u capable? © idan golko
Fast-forward to mid-2016. The first time r u capable?—a photographic blog that raises simple questions with complex answers—blipped into my tumblr radar. Flashbacks of when I became more aware of my consciousness (meta-awareness) infused my thoughts. This r u capable? concept is onto something, I thought. I wanted to find out more.
“We must look at the lens through which we see the world, as well as the world we see, and that the lens itself shapes how we interpret the world.” – Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
The person behind the r u capable? images and blog is Israel-based photographer Idan Golko. Idan’s brilliant marriage of moody cinematic photographs with thought-piercing enquiries is a meditation on reality. His concept, reminiscent of the Socratic method, illuminates a creative approach to cleaning the lens through which we perceive all things. The lens I’m referring to here is the mind.
“The Socratic method uses questions to examine the values, principles, and beliefs of students.” – Professor Rob Reich, Stanford University
I spoke to Idan on the phone in mid-January 2017. Besides getting to know Idan, I wanted to know the reasoning and symbolism behind his questions. “If I can answer these questions, then I will be a better person,” says Idan. He continues, “then my family will be better. People will be better. The environment will be better and so on.”
r u capable of not feeling alone? © Idan Golko
“I find moments of peace and quiet when I take a good shot. “ – Idan Golko
Mark: When did r u capable officially start?
Mark: What inspired you to create r u capable?
Idan: A very depressive day. I was in the middle of a big (stressful) project. I wanted to express my feelings and distress in the best way I know–through photographs and words. But before this dreaded day – in fact, several years earlier when I was living in Tel Aviv (in a very urban state of mind) – a friend of mine had asked me if I was capable of intimacy.
Well, this “are you capable?” question had a specific tone and meaning along with a repetitive nature. And, the question stuck with me—it popped up again on that depressive day while I was looking at my photographs. I knew I was doing meaningful things in the world, but I was not doing my thing, and I was asking myself the general question: r u capable? Just like that—black and white, yes or no, and the answer was yes. Three hours later, the blog was on the air.
There is a stronger side in me that chose to live and chose the bright positive path. But that side comes from the dark with a lot of struggle. These two contradictions inside me were a great inspiration as well to create r u capable.
r u capable of taking responsibility over your soul? © idan golko
Mark: You met your wife about three and a half years ago. Was this event the catalyst for your life change?
Idan: Yes. The main change for me was when I stopped expending most of my energy for others. Then I was free to put energy into my projects. My wife gave me courage and strength to make this change and focus on my things in the best way.
Mark: What is the central message you are trying to convey with r u capable?
Idan: To raise the awareness to the possibility of choice through confrontation with your shadows. If you are capable of healing your soul wounds, the impact of that in the world is much more significant than you can imagine.
r u capable? (no i can’t, not today) © idan golko
Mark: What is the philosophy behind r u capable?
Idan: The philosophy behind r u capable is quite simple: to recognize your soul’s defaults, and to sincerely ask yourself if you can deal with these defaults. The questions are simple; I’m not inventing anything. I’m just bringing some thought or emotion to another level of awareness. I want to be a better person to my daughter, my wife, my family and friends, to Earth, and to myself. To recognize our bad defaults is half of the problem, and to solve them is the other half. I’m trying the best I can on both ends of the spectrum. I’m not trying to survive only mentally, but also to be content with my reality.
I have no idols, but I’m inspired by many things and people, such as Ian Brown (Stone Roses fame), Thom Yorke, Nick Drake, Dark 80’s, Monty Python, Serge Gainsbourg, tattoos, drugs, world climate, violence, justice, hope, love, the sea, smell, and so much more.
I feel that in today’s world, everything is “bubbling.” I want the good to win. What is the good? I can’t point one finger at it (there are many), but I do know and feel what is happening in the world today is almost the opposite of good.
Mark: Why photography?
Idan: I find moments of peace and quiet when I take a good shot. The images help me to deal with myself. I find answers in the images I take and I especially find comfort in them. It gives me a short break from all the mass inside me and around me. The photographs I take reflect my mental state. I’m looking outside in order to understand better, to learn more about myself, and to improve – that is, to be a better person (to be more human). I use only secondhand cameras. I never use long zooms
r u capable of healing urself? © idan golko
Mark: Define what a “good” shot is to you.
Idan: A shot that makes me feel something whether it’s the person, the scene, the mood, the light – my heart needs to feel.
Mark: What does it mean to be more human?
Idan: It is easier to start with defining what is not human. Being disconnected with the reality around us is not being human. Often, reality overloads our senses with too much information. We can react to this overload by disconnecting. But, that makes us feel less human. To be more human, we must keep our hearts open and build trust in the mysteries of life. The ultimate goal is to have harmony between the external reality and our internal reality.
r u capable of being patient? © idan golko
Mark: Why only secondhand cameras and no long zooms?
Idan: I love things from the past. Using secondhand cameras, for me, is sustainable. I also like the low-tech aspect of the older digital cameras. I guess I am a bit of a technophobe in this regard. I use a FujiFilm x100 and Sony fF28. These cameras are not old, of course, just secondhand.
Long zooms are a big advertisement that you are taking pictures. I’d rather not be noticed because I want to capture something meaningful that is undisturbed.
r u capable of entering ur dark sides in order to find some light? © idan golko
Mark: What do you “normally” do when you are not taking photographs?
Idan: For many years I found myself doing different things in order to survive financially. I worked many jobs, from being a bartender to a business development director to brewery manager to art dealer and collector’s assistant. When I met my wife, three and a half years ago, I stopped “selling my soul” to others. Since then I’m focusing on my photography and writing and also doing other things, such as dealing with music and cinema memorabilia and secondhand items. I love old stuff, I love the rhythm of the analog.
These days I’m also running a very private documentary project, mostly in video, with a well-known senior actress in Israel. It’s been running for almost a year and it will keep running for another year at least.
I’m also a curating a photography exhibition for an Israeli photographer who died 14 years ago. He was photographing street and portraits in Israel during the late 70s and early 80s. The exhibition is planned for May 2017.
So after almost three years of incubation, I’m finally doing my things.
Mark: Do you have future plans for r u capable? If so, please share.
Idan: Yes. I plan to continue what I’m doing and to expand in many forms of creativity. To find and later on to create other platforms that can serve as a vehicle for r u capable?.
r u capable of looking deep into reality’s eyes and understand that u need to cooperate and not only observe? © idan golko
To sustain his projects, Idan has a few irons in the fire. He is working on a documentary project and he is generating revenue from his photography. Wait, there’s more. Idan also creates a signature product he calls “analog-i” where he takes rare music posters and mounts them with vintage frames that he discovers in flea markets. “I am now back on my feet and beginning to see the flowering from the seeds I planted a while back,” Idan says in gratitude.
Is there a lesson in all of this? Has Idan found the holy grail of what all artists seek – liberation from the chains of stereotype? Idan’s photography has an edge and gladly offers a fresh reprieve from the saturation of trillions of cliché images. More importantly, this edge slices through perception, and it perforates our default mode of thinking – our default definitions of what is beautiful and what is ugly.
If Idan has found all the answers, it’s because the revelations came from within, by pondering a simple question—r u capable?
r u capable of being connected to others as well? © idan golko
Find Idan on:
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Dubai is rich in history and outstanding architecture. One of my favorite places to visit and to photograph is Al Ras, a small district in Deira near the creek, which means “the cove”. Each time I go to this place, I always discover something new.
A few months ago, I visited Al Ras with a small group of local photographers. “How did you find this place?” a local asked me as we entered a rusty elevator in an old building in Deira. In this building we found an interesting window. The geometric patterns on the concrete wall created the perfect frame for the busy market outside. For most photographers, it’s always a challenge to find new places to photograph and to create something new. “I got lost in the market, that’s how I found this.”
One of the advantages of doing a photo walk with locals is that it’s a lot easier to approach strangers for a photograph. Not that I’m shy, but I usually struggle asking people for a photo. But as the day went by, I got more comfortable taking pictures, while confused onlookers watched me from the opposite side of the street. This was a good day for me to practice portraiture.
We entered a blue door on a narrow alley and found ourselves in the middle of an old villa converted into small apartments. There we met Ali, a Pakistani worker who happily posed for a few pictures.
The place is also famous for the Deira Covered Souk, where you can buy anything from gold, textiles and spices. One can’t get enough of the incredible number of things that you can find here and the fascinating people you meet in this local market.
In the souk we met a Pakistani guy who sells scarves. At first he was hesitant to do the photo shoot, but after seeing how much his friend was enjoying the photo session, he also joined and allowed us to take his portrait.
We rushed into the old parking building in the souk to catch the sunset. From the rooftop you can see the busy market, the colorful trade boats and the glistening water of Dubai creek. We stayed there for about half an hour and admired the beautiful golden sun disappear behind the light blue horizon. No matter how many times I visit Deira, it will always be a place worth exploring and admiring.
Geny is a Filipino designer and photographer based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. You can see more of her work on Instagram.
I walk to the edge of myself and peer into the great abyss that lives behind me.
1. A dirty blond-haired girl with eyes the color of raindrops plays a childhood game of hide and seek. Her name is stamped on her forehead – Unbalanced. She has been saddled with it since birth. Unbalanced climbs into a shiny green-and-white Ford parked in the yard, scorched by the noonday sun, and plants herself on the floorboard. It’s her favorite place to hide. Her imaginary friend, whom she has affectionately named Protector, counts in an emphatic voice. ONE Mississippi, TWO Mississippi, THREE… She runs straight for the shiny green-and-white Ford parked in the scorching heat. She knows this routine by heart. Pieces of her friend lay on the floorboard.
Gathering her up, she carries her inside. She’s done this eight hundred and ninety-five times before. Always picking up the pieces of her broken China doll friend and putting them back together again. A day and a half later, they play this game once more. Protector counts while Unbalanced hides. As usual, she heads straight for her familiar hiding place. She is greeted by remnants of bone and flakes of sallow skin on a crimson stained floorboard. She looks straight into the eyes of the discarded matter.
She doesn’t flinch.
2. A coming-of-age girl, with the body of a fading orchid, stands alone in the bathroom – her mouth wired shut. Pieces of barbed wire are wrapped around her head. Mocking voices of laughter barrel their way down the crowded corridored walls made of concrete block and shove open the bathroom door. She doesn’t know these intruders anymore. She turned her back on them long ago.
She also abandons Protector.
3. A girl, taking up residence in a woman’s body, finds a new Protector; everyone else calls him by a different name. To him, she is a mystery. To her, he is stability. She loves him like a life raft in stranded deep. He loves her like a buried treasure of rings of gold, so they run away together. She doesn’t know how big dreams can be. He cradles her in his arms as her white satin dress, with the white butterfly appliqué on its train, slides to the floor. They move into a house trailer on Wilderness Trail. Sunshine keeps the clouds at bay. Two years rush by.
4. Then they come in succession:
She cries upon their arrival. She’s never felt love like this before. For the first time, she wears the name Protector.
She can barely catch her breath. Lullabies. Late night feedings. Faces flushed with fevers. Giggles. Wide-eyed wonder at some newfound discovery. Bicycle rides and skinned knees bathed in kisses and bandaged with tenderness.
Some days she feels a sliver of herself slowly being shaved away.
5. Thirty looms overhead like a billowing sky of blackened clouds. Old Man Winter seeps into her bones and unpacks his bags, setting up housekeeping. Lullabies and kisses are replaced with deathbed vigils and reassurance from kids wearing old people faces, their wide-eyed wonder slowly robbed of its innocence. She answers to the name Unbalanced once again.
Some days, she summons the courage to stare death in the face. She comes out of hiding. She showers the man, who loves her like buried treasure, with soft kisses. She rides bicycles with the kids behind their house on Maple Street, their sweet, cherub faces returning with rapturous laughter tumbling out of their mouths. They make a soundtrack full of songs like this.
6. She puts pen to paper and writes the story of someone else’s life. Unbalanced names the protagonist Euphoria. Her deep brown eyes perfectly match her long locks of hair that sometimes trail the clear, blue sky. Euphoria plants a Rose of Sharon in her garden. She waters it and watches as it blooms in the shade of flushed cheeks. After spring and summer fade, Euphoria grows tired and lays down on the cool earth blanketed by her locks of long brown hair. With Songbird on her lips, she drifts off to sleep. Unbalanced hides away the unfinished story under her pillow.
7. For Unbalanced, moods bounce up and down like a basketball. Number Four is born. Her birth brings joy and new life into the house on California. That doesn’t keep Unbalanced from bouncing. Summer, autumn, and winter roll into spring. She goes to bed for two weeks with her lips glued shut. Her mother becomes a surrogate. The man who loves her like a buried treasure drives her to appointments and feeds her prescripted medications.
8. Mostly, she stops bouncing and learns to walk a straight line. Sometimes she gets off track. She develops a deeper love and appreciation for the man who loves her like a buried treasure. Occasionally, she pulls out the soundtrack of bicycle rides and laughter on sweet, cherub faces. They decide to make a new one. Its songs sound just as sweet. She buys a camera and tells stories with her pictures. She pulls out the unfinished novel from under her pillow and lets her words flow from pen to page. She fills in the blanks with dreams that are vast as the heavens and wide as the sea.
She climbs to the top of the abyss, arms outstretched. I meet her there.
Lisa Acton Smith and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Sophie, share the gift of artistry. Lisa is a photographer and writer, while Sophie is a photographer and musician. They live in Brookhaven, MS.
If interested in learning more, you can find Lisa’s photography on: