My first shoot in Morocco was at Ranch de Diabat in Essaouria. The advance team for the workshop had made special arrangements for our group to photograph the stable's stallions at liberty. While I was in Morocco, we visited many stables and the daily routine was the same: our party would arrive at 4:00PM, there would a bit of confusion about who we were and what the arrangements were, we'd wait, maybe wait some more, and then around 4:30PM, the first stallion would be led out.
The handlers would remove his halter, give him a slap on the rump and off he'd go, first sniffing around the paddock, tentatively pawing the sand and then slowly sinking to his knees down into it and luxuriously rolling. We couldn't help ourselves and for the first few days, we all "shot the roll."
It got to the point where I felt like I needed a support group. 8 stallions per shoot is 8 rolls x 8 days and well, you get it. There's only so many images I can process and share of horses awkwardly rolling in the sand, with all four legs waggling skyward, and then suddenly leaping aloft, hooves planted for a millisecond before what would turn out to be the best (and shortest) minute of every shoot - the post-roll run.
At Ranch de Diabat, the kicked-up dust in the contrasty late afternoon sunlight, that still hung high and bright in the western sky, was a pretty perfect setting for at liberty equine photography. I say pretty perfect because I had a little crisis of conscience in Morocco. There were two things that gnawed at my gut. First, I felt the "at liberty" was pretty rough. A slap on the stallion's rump was just the beginning. There were also plastic bags, with handlers shouting, running and waving their arms.
I've never owned my own horse, and haven't ridden or spent time in stables consistently in a long time, so I let myself be guided by the members of our workshop that did spend time with horses regularly. I had to trust that they knew what was safe and appropriate. I wasn't completely comfortable with this sort of at liberty work, which felt forced and fearful. I grappled with how to shoot in a sensitive way - to capture the beauty of the stallions' movements - while I struggled with the emotions I was experiencing.
The second issue is that I focus on relationships with my equine photography: a groom walking out a race horse, a horse and rider during a performance, a stallion approaching a tight knit band of wild horses. Here, at this first shoot, there was a fenced paddock and a wall. I was flummoxed. Where was my relationship?
I shot aimlessly for a few minutes and then my vision kicked in. The relationship was the wall. I'd been too focused on my "problem" and all the while, I had this mural directly behind the stallions. The wall had great, crumbling texture and while the faded terra cotta palette didn't appeal to me, I could easily visualize it in black and white. The desert scene was horses, camels, palm trees and my favorite part, a white fabric tent filled with people. It looked like a swooping bird, or even an angel wing. I used the wing to wrap around the horses, to float above them or under them - to highlight the arch in their necks and the long line of their backs. The idea that the wing was really a tent filled with people, and that the horses were integral to the people's culture made me madly happy as I shot.
Eventually, I realized that the relationship I was looking for didn't have to be the horse and the wall mural, it could be the horse and me. The lead image of this post - one of my favorites from the shoot, was a broken down white thoroughbred with a slightly sway back. I kept waiting for him to gather his legs and burst forth like the younger horses did but he didn't have the energy. He reminded me of one of those Chinese New Year dragons, that you see in parades, filled with dancing people, where the front end and rear end movements lag from each other disjointedly. In the lead image, I used my empathy for this older horse and captured him in a stretched, youthful line. The two images above this paragraph are the same older white horse, captured in split second moments of spirit, rendering him more youthful than in life.
At the end of this shoot, I felt comfortable that I'd made meaningful images, and I started to experiment. I slowed my shutter speed way down and rolled my exposure compensation up a stop or two. I created a final series of images that is soft, dreamy, overexposed and slightly blurred. I wanted to see how far away from technically perfect I could get, while still capturing an effective image. For these images, effective meant capturing the essence of the stallion and not just his glossy physicality.
Not everyone "gets" this sort of experimental work, and I understand that. We have amazing digital tools and post-processing technology. Every image we take can be spot-on perfection. Side-stepping perfection reminds me of an adage that a quilt-making friend told me. She always said: Pick the exact perfect color match when you are piecing a quilt, see what it looks like and then throw it out. Instead, pick a red that is a touch off, or a green that's a bit too yellow. Imperfect color combinations hold our eyes longer. They look more like the color profusion we find in nature, and less like a Pantone chart. I think in photography, the idea is the same. We can choose to shoot by the numbers, and create crazily perfected images or, we can choose to shoot with gut instinct to capture emotion and essence. I know my eyes linger on these blurred images a long time. Do yours?
- On the Road in Morocco
- Shooting in Moroccan Ruins, Dunes and at the Beach
- Where's it at in Ouarzazate, Ait-Ben-Haddou and the Flint Oasis
- April Showers bring May...Oh whatever, enough already.
Follow me on Instagram @larajoyphoto for sneak peaks of equine images in upcoming posts.