Amanda Koster

thoughts and experiences of an international documentarian

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Amanda Koster
Morocco Diary, 2006

April 29, 2006, Fès, Morocco. Today I am in Morocco. This is one of 7 days of a project where I am photographing Female Moroccan Musicians, accompanied by an audio crew that is recording the musicians for a CD.

I woke at 6:30 am. Earlier that morning around 3am I woke to the call to prayer. Morocco is predominately Muslim and the call to prayer can be heard throughout the county 5 times a day. After the first call to prayer I fell back to sleep. From there I was up for good and had to pack up my gear before breakfast because our team was leaving right after we ate. From Fès we will drive to Taroudant.

Taroudant is about 6 hours away. The drive was amazing because we were leaving a city area to the southern more arid part of Morocco. With me was the team; Zeyba Rahman, producer, Jody Elf, the sound engineer, Jamey Haddad musician, Taoufiq ben Amour, co-producer, linguist, translator, musician, Aziz El Achhab, our fixer in Morocco and our driver Mustafa. Then there was myself the photographer and videographer and finally Maggie Soladay, my amazing assistant, good friend and photographer in her own write. We were working on a project called ‘Moroccan Women’s Song Project: voices of women in Islam.” Part of the team was recording 4 groups of women for the cd and the other (me), was to document the recordings photograph portraits of the women, and capture b-roll (video). The end goal would be a CD of the women and also a multimedia collection of photographs, video and sound for an instillation/exhibitions that will tour with the CD release, and also content for publications about my work and others related to the project.

I came about this project in the most amazing way. Since university I have had a growing interest in Islam and particularly with women. My thesis became women within Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. 10 years later I was attending a panel discussion on “Music in the Islamic World” at BAM (Brooklyn Academy Of Music) in NYC. On the panel was a woman Zeyba Rahman, a chairperson of the World Music Institute and also the North American liaison for The Fès festival of World Sacred Music. There were many questions from the audience about Islam and musical but the questions that resonated with me were related to women and where was their place within Islamic music. Zeyba offered two sentences about her upcoming project, which is what I am photographing at this point, here in Morocco. I found Zeyba though a search on the Internet, contacted her, flew to NYC and during lunch told her I thought photography and video would be essential to the project. She agreed and so here I am now, in Morocco.

It was critical for me to reach Zeyba. I felt that this project was fantastic, to record female Musicians in Morocco. The music that would be recorded was very traditional and some dated back to 800AD. This music is still preformed today in small intimate dining rooms to enormous international concert halls. The world is growing to love this music. I thought that visuals would be super valuable. I explained to Zeyba my idea for an exhibition that could travel with the CD release and concerts, so that people would have the chance to SEE the women and what they were hearing. I felt an exhibition could create a space for dialogue, possibly forums or panels that might incorporate various community members and educational organizations.

I know, I had big ideas and brought them to Zeyba. But she believed in me and wholeheartedly believes with me that today more than ever more exposure to all aspects of Islam and its beautiful culture should be shared. Zeyba a Muslim herself agreed that my intentions and the exhibition would be successful.

For my projects and my entire career, besides my undying passion to use photography as a tool to teach about the world, I believe that it has been my tenacity that has lead me to where I am today. Without a doubt it has been my deep, inner belief that anything is possible no matter how totally insane the idea, works for me 24/7. Also, I am incredibly grateful for discovering my passion for human rights and cultural diversity at an early age and then a way to apply them with photography later in school.


1pm Taroudant, Morocco. We arrived in Taroudant in the afternoon, in time for lunch. After we settled into our hotel rooms, had lunch and took care of a few emails we found Lameen, the Minister of culture in we would be working with in Taroudant. We headed over to Lameen’s house to meet the musicians and get thing going.

I had to speak French on this shoot, which was new for me. I was born in Geneva and really learned French though osmosis. We spoke it in the house; obviously in Geneva and later New York, and I took a few classes. However my knowledge of French these days has been through travel and the sheer love and necessity of other languages to work internationally. I knew Arabic classes would be useful while in Morocco but my Arabic is nowhere near my level of French so French it was. It was the only way for me to communicate with the women and 95% of the Moroccans we worked with.

The women were waiting for us there. There were dressed in their traditional clothing smiling and chirping amongst themselves. It felt totally amazing to finally, after nearly a year of preparations that there they were, the musicians. It felt fantastic. There were about (7) women hanging out in the most amazing blue colored gelabas (Moroccan women’s dress or ‘over dress’ in a way, they wear this over their other clothing when outside). They took off their gelabas and underneath were wearing their tradition clothing, for the photographs. We thought this clothing would be good for the photos, preserving all aspects of this particular tradition. Looking back I now would like to photograph a follow up project to this, and photograph the women rehearsing, hanging out in their regular day to day clothing and situations. I think it would offer a compete picture of how tradition can co-exist with modern day life. That is something I will work on in the coming year, return to Morocco next year to complete this idea. Inshallah! (God willing in Arabic)

2:15pm. There isn’t not a buildup or announcements or anything, which keeps Maggie, my assistant and I on our toes when it comes to sound. The music just starts. The women begin their music with a simple chant. The chant begins to builds on itself, the rhythm speeds up and instruments are introduced. After awhile the music really picks up and all the instruments are now being played, there is still chanting and now a form of repetition. The chants are meant to invoke a spiritual presence leading to a trance state. The lyrics are about Allah and Sufi saints as well. The music really creates a sense of contemplation and divine focus. I was also finding myself in a contemplative state and it made photographing interesting. I found that the more I invited this feeling in the more I was able to follow the music, follow the chanting and also following exchange that was going on between the musicians. When I didn’t let myself connect with the music and musicians my photography felt very choppy and displaced.

This kind of connection is important for my work and me. Without that connection I don’t feel that I can really photograph people. I am lucky in that I find it easy to connect with people. It is easy and essential for me to find the human in all people and I have turned that into my career. No matter if the person is the CEO of Microsoft or a women who is impoverished and widowed by HIV/AIDS, or a musician in Morocco singing about Islamic Sufi saints the connection must be there. We find the split second where together we appreciate each other’s existence and destiny. This is connection to me.

It is richer with music though. Specifically with this particular music, as I have had a growing admiration and interest in Sufism over the years. It was an incredible experience to react, photographically to this music and this powerful spiritual presence. With this particular project there were overwhelming moments because I have been reading about this music, studying Sufism and hearing about these musical tradition and now not only was I photographing this, but I was also witnessing something that has becoming very important to me. So beyond a human connection with this project there was absolutely a spiritual connection as well, the musicians wanted me to feel it and invited me into their expressions of God. This by the way is what art is to me, and to have that artistic and spiritual exchange is completely beyond words.

There were technical challenges along the way because the musicians perform inside in dark rooms. And, they are constantly moving so I have to really push photography to the limit with ASA or ‘asa’ in digital, with motion, depth of field and focus. “Focus” may suffer throughout this project because there was always such limited light. However, over the years I have learned to just let go of it and appreciate what I get. I have learned to work with what I have when it comes down to editing my images. At this point I know weather I really covered the situation and from there I totally let go. In fact have not even looked at very many images or footage. I have really needed to just mentally process the project first. Funny, the images are secondary to my overall experience while shooting. The image really the byproduct of that human connection that I look for whenever I set out to photograph. Not only do I hope to make that connection but also my goal is for my audience to make that connection. That is ultimately my goal; for my audience to feel as comfortable and connected to the subject that I am working with. And with this project, I hope that my audience will feel some sort of connection to the musicians and this culture and find the people human and good because right now there is so much negativity around Islam.

4pm shooting. The women were awesome. So playful. They were getting into the idea of photography. I was watching a few women intensely. I had to remember when certain things would happen in the song so that I could anticipate a movement again. For example there was one women wailing on a small clay drum. I want to make sure I could shoot underneath her because the action was wild and her expression was so intense. She was really into the music and keeping the beat, almost breaking it in a way. The only way to do this was to predict when she would hit the drum again and be sure to get underneath her in time.

This happens a lot with my work. I need to anticipate peoples moves and also place myself in time to shoot it. Often that means a strange position, an angle and space that most people are not used to sharing. This is where keeping my subject comfortable is key. We have all got to be comfortable with each other or I cannot capture how I see things. I got it though. And she knew what I was doing, I made eye contact with her when she hit the drum, smiled and she knew I wanted to capture that. This is when the connection begins. The musician knew that was important to the music, a powerful moment and that I wanted to photograph that. Once we established that, and I mean in a spilt second, I was there. I was under her, she was focused and playing hard, working with me, we collaborated and I got the shot. The best part about it is none of us skipped a beat. The music stayed on course, the song continued, and no one even realized that silent conversation occurred. We did though, And from then on we were pals. We hungout after the shoot spoke a combination of Arabic and French and we connected. I appreciated her and she appreciated me, our art, our visions and our goals. To achieve this I have to stay totally focused.

What was also challenging for me on this shoot was the need to utilize my sense of sound. Usually I am just watching. And I see harder than I see normally. I fact, usually when I am shooting I don’t really hear anything, smell anything. For some reason my sense of vision is heightened and I can’t see anything but what I am focused on. But with this shoot I had to listen, and pay close attention to the rhythm of sound. Normally it is a visual rhythm that I obsess about but this shoot there as another sense leading me. It really was an amazing feeling.

6pm. We wrap up recording and shooting. The shoot went very well. I was shooting digital, film and also colleting sound and shooting video. My assistant Maggie works similar to my assistant Rebecca at home. Maggie loads the film, keeps track of the flash cards and also my mic. When I am shooting video she will follow me with the mic and direct it in the right place. We had to learn this mic on the fly because I bought it in New York on the way to Morocco. The advice that Gordon gave me was fantastic. I had the same mic that the sound engineer Jody had. He took a look at it and nodded. “Yup, that’s a great mic.”

6:30pm. We all help each other load into the van. After everyone’s gear (photo, video, sound, computers, mics, etc) is in the van, the space is put back together the dust clears we head to dinner. We are invited to one of the women’s homes for dinner. We hang out in a typical Moroccan living room, very long and narrow with couches and cushions along the perimeter of the room. Tables are in the middle and out comes the tea. Moroccans love their tea and they should because it is phenomenal. A mixture of green tea and fresh mint. “Moroccan whiskey” they call it and wow, are they addicted. Most foreigners ask for tea ‘sans sucre’ without sugar because we are all off sugar, or something. The tea is pretty sweet and I too ask for tea sans sucre. It arrives, most of the time with sugar anyway, just not at a bionic level.

We all (musicians, musicians family and crew) all sit, sip tea laugh about the day, sing a little, talk a little mostly just attempt any form of communication. When working internationally and especially multi-lingual, all grammar goes out the window and just pure communication is the goal. We just want to connect and have a good experience. No one worries about language, offending, or making mistakes. It always feels like a miracle that we all just made it to that room, after one crazy idea all the way to fruition. Here we were, laughing talking eating sharing. It worked.

7pm Dinner. For dinner we had couscous with chicken, lamb, raisins, almonds, garbanzo beans, carrots, some other root vegetables, potatoes and Moroccan bread. Moroccan are masters at eating with their hands while the Americans (like me) really struggle. I have traveled and lived in many places where our hands are the utensils, but I just can’t get it down. I try though, and sure enough there is a trail of couscous from the tagine (large cooking pot and also shared plate in the middle) up to my mouth. Oh well, I didn’t see any forks so I just did the best I could. At the end, I wasn’t hungry so I did something right.

11pm. After we ate, everything is cleared, the women are still milling about but we know what is next. We have to say goodbye. The women affected me. We all stall a bit. No one wants to say goodbye. But we have to so a line forms. I hug every women and Amineh; the one I connected with the most is last. We stare into each other eyes for a bit. There are a million things I want to tell her, I want to hear what she is thinking but we can’t. Instead we just stare at each other, for while. I see her tears and next I feel mine. She affected me. I appreciated her and she appreciated me. I knew at that moment we wanted to go off and tell each other all about our lives, our story, our passions and visions. But I had to go and we had to say goodbye. And did I need to tell her? Did I need to tell her how much I love Morocco at that moment, how I whish Americans could have this experience here, really believe that people’s heart and blood are just as warm here as anywhere else in the world, as warm as Ohio or Alabama, or New Delhi? Did I really need to tell her that or do I need to tell you that? Our connection is for you, the audience.

11:30pm. The crew says goodnight. We are quite. We are all affected by the women of Taroudant. Some4imes, after an experience like that there really are no more words. Silence is the most beautiful thing to finish off such a connection. Such a human connection. We quietly wave each other off to our hotel rooms. Maggie and I settle in. We are quite and still. We clean up for bed, talk a little about the film and flash cards but are still very silent inside. As I lay down and begin to fall asleep I think about Amineh’s eye’s. Her tears welling up in her big black eyes. I think about that photo, that picture that I will never take. I can’t take that one I can only tell you. There are millions of photos to make but the ones I remember the most the ones that stop everything for me are the ones I see myself, without a camera. These are the photos that I experience, I feel. These are my favorite photos of all, the ones I can tell you about. It took hundreds of photos to make that on, to get to that place, the invisible image. The image that will never physically exist, but will now exist forever, for you, in your own imagination.

Written by amandakoster

November 15, 2006 at 2:36 am

Posted in morocco journals

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