Girl on a Roof in Chefchaouen: The Story Behind the Image

A hour’s boat journey from my home in Andalucia, across the Strait of Gibraltar, lies my favourite country in the world to visit:  Morocco.  I love everything about the place – the food, the souqs with their colourful merchandise, the chaotic transport system, the balmy moonlit nights, the sound of chanting from the mosques.

My first encounter with the country was a trip to Marrakech in 2011; it was originally intended to be a 3-day city break but within 48 hours I’d cancelled my return flight and spent the next three weeks backpacking solo around the country.  One place that was recommended time and again by people I met was Chefchaouen, the blue city, situated in the Rif mountains in the north and enjoying a more relaxed and peaceful atmosphere than the hubs of Marrakech and Fez.  It took ten hours on a train (at one point sharing a carriage with a goat) and then a rattly old bus to reach the city, but it was worth it.  I had the name of a hostel which had been given to me by a backpacking acquaintance, who assured me that the owner would permit me to sleep on the roof for a mere 4€ a night.  I joined an assortment of travellers, hippies and gap year students and stayed on the roof, sleeping under a large bedspread, for the next five nights.

I spotted the girl on the roof below ours one afternoon; she was posing for another photographer who was standing beneath her and photographing her silhouetted against the sky with a terracotta pot (and I would love to see his images, he undoubtedly got a better shot than me as his subject was making eye contact with him).  Nevertheless the picture was so compelling – the colour play, the light, the quintessential Morocco-ness of the scene – that I couldn’t resist discreetly aiming my camera over the edge of the terrace and muscling in on his shot.  I only took two photos of her, that was all I managed before she moved, and one of the drawbacks of candid photography is that you can’t ask your subject to stand still for a couple more minutes!  This means that timing and composition are everything.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that the only camera I had with me on the roof was a Panasonic Lumix Compact – a trusty handbag companion which served me very well in emergencies (until it died in Warsaw last year).   The camera had a manual settings option which I generally used, the settings for this picture were fairly standard: f 5.6, 1/200, ISO 100.  I also have to hold my hands up to a little bit of cheating in post-processing (something I rarely do, I promise!)…in the original image her head was very close to the top of the frame so I used Photoshop’s free transform tool to give her a bit more head room. (I’ve since found out about this new small camera from Light, with built in wi-fi and a user friendly touchscreen which allows you to edit the shot seconds after taking it, which is pretty cool).

Apart from that, I hope that this photo stands as proof that a hi-tech, state-of-the-art, full frame professional mega camera is not always a necessity and that any photographer worth their salt can capture a moment on any piece of equipment.  For me, this image always transports me back to that rooftop on that hot July afternoon and reminds me that, no matter how gloomy the weather, how grey the sky, how boring the day, there’s a bright and colourful world out there just waiting to be explored.

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