Fez, Morocco

For the connoisseur of medieval labor practices, Fez is a hard place to beat. You can watch 12-year-old boys running metal lathes, hauling inhuman loads and spinning miles of thread for lovely Berber rugs. Or like me you can assuage some measure of guilt by giving one five bucks to show you the sights. My young guide led me through the maze-like old city of Fez el Bali with a pleasant tourist patter. Eventually we found our way to the highlight of any city tour; the leather tanneries where jobs have been passed from father to son for centuries.

You smell the place long before you actually see it. Cow, goat and occasional camel hide are all brought dripping to the tannery, where vats filled with a fragrant brew of cow piss, pigeon shit and lime await. Once rendered suitably soft and hairless, they are hauled to nearby vats for dyeing. Henna for brown, saffron for yellow and poppies for red. Men stand waist deep in the mix, stirring and stomping the skins for a week or more. For their trouble, the men earn as much as $15 a day, a princely wage at local standards. All the while tourists peer down from surrounding balconies, smirking while holding their noses, pointing cameras at the spectacle below.

I spent the better part of two days photographing here, walking among the men and vats carrying $10,000 worth of cameras and I was greeted with nothing but kindness, smiles and generous offers of kif. Why they didn’t flay me alive, divvy up my belongings and turn my sorry carcass into a carry on bag I know not why.

Photographed March 7, 2000 with Leica M6 and 35mm f/1.4 Aspheric lens on Kodachrome 200

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