Over-photographed: Chefchaouen, Morocco

Once a ‘hidden gem’, the blue city of Chefchaouen in northern Morocco, has become an Instagram sensation. Lured by the enduring appeal of its transcendental blue walls, the huge influx of visitors means the city is now at risk from overtourism.

Back in 2018, travel publisher Fodor’s included the Moroccan city of Chefchaouen in their 10 Places Being Ruined by Instagram list and reported 250,000 Instagram posts tagged #Chefchaouen. That year also saw the release of US/Moroccan rapper French Montana’s Famous video which is filmed entirely among the blue streets of the city, and brought it to a new audience. 

One global pandemic and an extended hiatus in travel later there are now over 960,000 Instagram images tagged in #Chefchaouen, many of them self portraits in influencer-style poses.

“The city is a tourist destination for the Instagram age. Every alley is a new backdrop for tourists to pose in influencer-perfect shots.” says Business Insider. And according to Morocco World News it’s now at risk from overtourism.

I visited the city on recent trip to Morocco and had all of 36-hours to discover the place with my camera. I certainly wasn’t there for the selfies, but I had definitely been lured in by the endless shades of blue. Would it be possible to create something different and unique? 

In this instalment of our Over-photographed series, we look at some ideas for creating less clichéd pictures of this alluring city as well as suggest alternative places to visit instead.

Where is it?

A small city built amid the rocky hills of the Rif mountain range in Northern Morocco, south east of Tangier.

What is it?

A labyrinth of lilac-y blue-painted buildings, narrow cobbled streets, enticing winding steps, elegant doorways guarded by nonchalant cats, decorative black wrought iron railings, nineteenth-century styled street lamps, colourful plant pots with well-kept succulents, women in wide-brimmed hats posing in narrow alleyways.

What really is it?

Owing to its remote position among the Ka’ala foothills of the Rif Mountains, the location was originally chosen as the perfect place to build a fortified stronghold for Moorish troops fighting the Portuguese in 1471. It later became the new home for many Moriscan Andalusian families escaping Spain in the 16th century and Jewish families who were ordered here by Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdullah in the 1760s. They built their homes, hence the Spanish-influenced architecture, outside the fort and this is what created the higgledy piggledy medina of interlaced streets you’ll see today.

Also: it’s not just blue. The Kasbah transforms from an earthy ochre at the golden hours of the day to warm sand with umber veins in the brighter hours, the rooftops are terracotta and there are still plenty of white buildings awaiting a coat of colour.

How did it rise to prominence?

It’s not entirely clear how long the buildings have been blue. Some older residents say they remember them being white many years ago and that it was the Jews fleeing the Nazis in the Second World War who painted the town blue. Others say it was the Jewish influx in the 18th century that started the craze. The Jewish predilection for blue stems from its association with the sky and heavens (and to contrast with the green of Islam).

Another theory is that the blue repels mosquitoes and that it also keeps the buildings cooler in the heat of the summer. Whatever the origins, however, it’s certainly a colour that lures in tourists, especially the Instagram generation who are drawn here in their droves (and floaty dresses).

What’s the problem?

TPOTY founder Chris Coe says “The blue is very seductive and easy on the eye and photographers are very obviously drawn to it. The problem is there’s so much of it and every shot can easily look like just another blue street. If you aren’t careful your shots rapidly become similar and the sense of uniqueness starts to disappear.”

The more people who visit the city to get their own blue photos, the more these narrow, beguiling alleyways become clogged up with conveyor-belt tourism. Which takes away the magical appeal of the city and ultimately leads to problems of overtourism.

Have there been any winning images of Chefchaouen?

Yes! In 2018, then-14-year-old American photographer, Isabella Smith won the Young Travel Photographer of the Year with a portfolio taken in the city. TPOTY founder Chris Coe says “what the judges we particularly drawn to was her use of contrasting orange tones and they way it set off the blue.”

You’ll find plenty of fruit juice vendors selling freshly squeezed orange or pomegranate juice on the main tourist drags.

How can you avoid the clichés?

There are two ways to think about this. You could take pictures of the non-blue places in the town. There’s plenty to choose from: the Kasbah glows a timeless orange in the late-afternoon light, for example. But that would rather miss the point of the attraction, we all love blue!

What else could you play with to create something different? A reduction of the colour palette to tones of similar hues is the star attraction here and little pops of contrasting colour bring out the magic of the blue. You could look for details and juxtapositions.

Chris says “If you decide that the blue town is really the story you want to tell, you need to work out how to tell it in an engaging way. Taking time to find a different approach can really yield benefits.”

During my visit, I got a carried away seeking out ginger cats willing to pose and isolated them against a blue backdrop. I loved the way the orange of their fur looked startling against all the blues.

Chris has some more abstract ideas for you to try “It might also be worth playing with movement, letting people (or cats) ghost through a street or alley. Taking narrow depth to another level you could also try defocussing to let shades of blue merge and take on a romantic glow. Blowing out the highlights or shooting into the sun could be worth experimenting with too. If you’re feeling really bold why not try removing the blue colour completely and shooting in black and white.”

Beyond pretty blue pictures, you could ask yourself ‘what else is going on here?’. Are there any documentary topics that could be interesting to investigate? If I’d had longer in the city, I’d probably start documenting the tourists photographing the blue and the burgeoning overtourism or the people who live in the city. This article from Business Insider tells the stories of many of the city’s inhabitants and is a good starting point for looking underneath the Instagram sheen.

Where else could you go?

In search of colour

Blue is a common colour in many smaller Moroccan towns, especially on the coast from Essaouira southwards. You could seek out blues in these places and try to create single-hued compositions by framing and eliminating other tones and colours. 

Marrakesh is pinky hued in the same way but on a grander scale and with a lot more contrasts, distractions and elements to either eliminate or combine. (And you’ll need to get up early if you want to have the streets to yourself). Casablanca lives up to its name and is the ‘white city’ of Morocco. Though it doesn’t have a great reputation with travellers and white is definitely not as enticing as the blue. 

Off the beaten track

If you want to avoid contributing to overtourism, look for places off the beaten track. One way to do this in Morocco is get in a Grand Taxi to places the trains and buses don’t go and see what you find there.

In El Jadida I found a UNESCO-listed 17th-century Portuguese fort-city, full of narrow alleyways, misleading corners and historical stories seeping out of the crevices. In Taghazout, I found blue fishing boats and ornate doorways, and in Oualidia I was drawn to the colourfully painted pleasure boats that took travellers into the RAMSAR-protected lagoon to see a flock of flamingoes living among the wetlands. But I really didn’t find many other tourists…

More in the series

We’ve covered a variety of other topics in this series, drawing on the winners of Travel Photographer of the Year for inspiration. From landscapes like Jökulsárlón in Iceland to the people and urban culture in Havana, Cuba as well as iconic architectural marvels like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Taj Mahal in India. Is there anywhere you’d like us to look at next? Be sure to get in touch and let us know.

Published

By Diana Jarvis

Diana is a writer and editor at Eye for the Light. She has a BA in History of Art and an MSc in Environment and Sustainability and has worked in travel publishing for 18 years as a photographer, book designer and writer for a wide range of publications. She’s also the Publishing and Photography Director at the British Guild of Travel Writers and undertakes travel and tourism photography commissions. You can see her work at www.dianajarvis.co.uk.