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Morocco Photographer's Warning

Warning to Photographers Traveling to Morocco! (Podcast 640)

What's in the Travel Photography Bag (Podcast 639)
Morocco Tour 2018 Travelogue 1 (Podcast 641)

Having just recovered from the worst cold of my life, taking more than 10 days to shake, I’m now finally ready to talk about my 2018 Morocco Tour & Workshop, which was great, but I feel that the treatment I received from the customs officials on entering Morocco deserves a post to itself, so we’ll get this out of the way first.

I’d like to issue a strong warning to all photographers traveling to Morocco. When I arrived in Morocco this year, I walked through the customs area and was asked with a smile if I was a photographer. With a similar smile, I replied yes, and I was swiftly taken into the customs office and asked one question. Do your cameras shoot video?

I replied that yes, they do, but that still photography is the main reason for my visit. On this, without any further questions, I was told that I could not bring my camera gear into Morocco and that I had to…

Leave my camera bag at the customs office and pick it up on my way home!

I told them that I was here to do a photography tour, and there was no point in me being in Morocco without my gear, and their reply was that my only other option was to return home. It was either leave your bag or go home. Those were my two choices. Of course, neither of these choices was acceptible, so I stood my ground.

I asked on what grounds they wanted to keep my gear, and after a few relays, they told me that it was because my cameras could shoot video. I, of course, told them that almost every camera that was made in the last ten years can shoot video, and that without doubt, every other person going through their customs gate could also shoot video, but they were free to enter Morocco.

I was told that I need to leave my bag, and go to Rabat, the capital of Morocco and get authorization from the government. I asked for details of what authorization I needed to seek, and from which government body.

All I got was this piece of paper (right) with the words Rabat and Minister of Communication. They would not tell me what type of authorization I needed.

At this point, I called my travel partner for the Morocco tour and asked them to call the Ministry of Communication in Rabat and ask what kind of authorization I needed. They were able to get through to someone and were told that there is no authorization that I can seek. 

I later learned that to do any production filming in Morocco, you do need to get authorization from the Ministry of Communication, but that is for shooting movies, short-movies or commercials etc. Otherwise, it is not illegal to shoot video in Morocco.

I imagine that this is what the customs officials were hassling me about, but that was based on one leading question; do my DSLR cameras shoot video? Not, are you here to film a movie or commercial. I was never asked why I had the cameras. Just do they shoot video. 

Back-Hander (Bribe)?

Anyway, at this point, I watched a guy come in and pay the customs officials for a few boxed up iPhones, and although this may have been an official payment, the way they seemed to be bartering on the price made it look like a back-hander to me, otherwise known as a bribe.

I know that customs in some countries work this way, so although I spent forty minutes in India once standing my ground adamant that I would not pay them, it had already been well over an hour that I was trying to get my bag into Morocco, so I asked if they wanted me to make a payment. Luckily, and to their credit, I was told that it was not necessary.

So, I asked to see the manager of the guy that I was talking to. It turns out that this was the guy that had brought me in here in the first place. I decided to go straight for the jugular in this conversation and told him that I was here to do a photography tour, and I could not leave without my bag.

I proceeded to say that if they made me leave my bag, I would walk outside and film a video with my iPhone explaining what had just happened to me and that this would be viral on the Internet within 24 hours. 

I pointed out that this would seriously damage Morocco’s photography tourism trade, and I asked if he was ready to take responsibility for that? At this point, he took me to his manager, who took me back into the customs office and asked me to write out a memo stating that I was not entering Morocco to shoot video and sign it. I did this and was let through customs, with my camera bag. 

An Unprovoked Attack on a Good-willed Tourist

This whole fiasco took me a few minutes short of two hours, and quite honestly, it felt like I’d been dragged into an alley by some thugs and given a kicking, just for the hell of it. It was cold and totally unprovoked, and quite honestly I’m shocked and amazed that Morocco is carrying out this kind of practice.

Luckily, none of my tour guests were stopped in a similar way, and luckily the other guest that was due to arrive at the same time as me came in on a flight that was also delayed, so he came out around ten minutes after I did, meaning that I didn’t keep anyone waiting.

Saving Graces

There were two related incidents though that are a bit of a saving grace for Morocco and her otherwise wonderful people.

When I walked outside the airport to the meeting point, shortly after I met our guide who was there to pick me up, a young Moroccan man came over to me with a concerned look on his face. He had a kind face and was a comfort as I was obviously still very stressed. He asked if anything was wrong and was greatly saddened to hear my elevator speech on what had just happened to me.

He asked me not to lose faith in the Moroccan people, and then disappeared for a minute and came back with a bottle of water and short tube of pringles that he handed to me. I tried to refuse but he wouldn’t let me. This act of kindness brought me back to a state that almost felt normal.

The second thing that happened, not including the amazing 12 days that we spent in Morocco since my arrival, was on the way back through the airport at Casablanca, as I went through security checks.

The guy checking the contents of bags started asking me about my trip. He asked all the places we’d visited, and with all the photography gear I had, he asked if I was a photographer. My heart sank, as the thought of spending another two hours getting out of Morocco with my gear crossed my mind, but then he asked if I’d enjoyed the photography here. When I replied that I had, very much, he smiled and said, “I’m pleased to hear that. I hope you come back and visit us again.”

Honestly, as I was already run down from a cold that had a vicious grip on me as I returned to Japan, I almost burst into tears. It made me so happy to receive a kind comment from a guy in a similar suit to the ones that had accosted me twelve days earlier.

Just Say No!

So, that’s my story, that I didn’t wish for, and wish I didn’t have to tell, about almost losing all of my gear for at least twelve days, although possibly permanently. I have two main messages that I’d like you to take away from this. Firstly, if you are going to Morocco to shoot still photography, and you are asked by customs if your camera shoots video, just say no!

But, I can’t end without saying that Morocco is a beautiful country, with mostly very warm and poetic people. A little camera-shy sometimes, for sure, but I really enjoyed this year’s tour, and I’m still hoping to return at some point. I’m still trying to decide whether or not to run this tour in 2019, partly, but not entirely because of this incident. There are a few other things that I have to consider too, before I can make my final decision.

If you are interested to hear how the tour went, see the next post as I start a series of travelogues to share our journey and some the of beautiful photographs that I came back with this year. If you are not a regular visitor, subscribe to our newsletters to get a reminder when the next post is released. Or visit our subscribe page to see other options, such as subscribing to our Podcast feed.

Camel Handler in Sahara
Camel Handler in Sahara

Show Notes

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What's in the Travel Photography Bag (Podcast 639)
Morocco Tour 2018 Travelogue 1 (Podcast 641)
30 Comments
  • David Ross
    Posted at 20:10h, 04 December Reply

    Martin,
    What does the ‘note’ say?
    Were these men after a ‘bribe’ and only ‘chickened-out’ because you objected so strongly?
    I’ve never experienced this behaviour in Morocco !
    Anyway,pleased you had a good shoot.
    Regards
    Dave

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 20:14h, 04 December Reply

      Thanks, David.

      I don’t know what the Arabic script says, but I assume it just says Minister of Communication, Rabat, like the English.

      I answer your question about them possibly being after a bribe in the section above with the header “Back-hander (Bribe)?”

      Cheers,
      Martin.

  • Neil Powell
    Posted at 20:27h, 04 December Reply

    Thanks for the info, Martin. This is a bit scary. Glad it finally worked out for you but it could have easily gone the other way. With all the wonderful places to photograph in the world, I don’t think I’ll want to visit Morocco anytime soon given this risk.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 20:32h, 04 December Reply

      You’re welcome, Neil.

      I think that is a decision that many people will make once they hear this. I might go back, but I will be nervous to do so.

      Cheers,
      Martin.

  • Elie Z
    Posted at 20:27h, 04 December Reply

    My Moroccan friends will be very upset knowing you went through this.

    My other friend had problems with his drone and they kept it in the airport till he left the country. They were polite though and did not ask for bribes.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us and I wish you a complete recovery from your cold.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 20:37h, 04 December Reply

      Hi Elie,

      I’m sure your Moroccan friends will be upset by this. The few people that I spoke to about this in Morocco were too. Most people I meet in Morocco are kind and caring people. They don’t want their country’s reputation tarred either, but unfortunately, their customs officers seem to have other ideas.

      Taking drones to most African countries is a no-no. Some countries don’t even grant permission to take them in, but Morocco does have a program to allow people to request permission to use them ahead of time. If your friend had applied for permission, he would have been fine. Just turning up with.a drone in Africa is generally not a good idea.

      Thanks for the well-wishes. I feel fine now, although my voice is still a little groggy. 🙂

      Cheers,
      Martin.

      • Elie Z
        Posted at 20:49h, 04 December Reply

        Glad you are well.

        The Arabic on the paper just says:

        MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATION

        • Martin Bailey
          Posted at 23:41h, 04 December Reply

          Hi Elie,

          I thought it would. Thanks for letting me know.

          Very much appreciated!

          Regards,
          Martin.

  • Raico
    Posted at 01:14h, 05 December Reply

    On the back of the note it said “only joking welcome to Morocco :-)”

    I was in Morocco for a whole month in 2010 travelling through with my mate who sells 2nd hand goods there. Your experience pretty much sums the place up. If it wherent for my experienced mate I would have easily gotten eaten alive there. Sorry to say it was the worst African country we drove through. (Yes there where lots of amazing times and nice people but the bad outweighed the good).

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 08:48h, 05 December Reply

      Hi Raico,

      That would have been nice if it did say that. 🙂

      We must manage to steer clear of the bad a little better than you did, but I can certainly see where you are coming from. We have our share of negative experiences too, but for me, it’s the nice people that I’ve met in Morrocco that I chose to remember.

      Unfortunately, I now have one bad face that I will never forget, and it came attached to the customs suit that provided me with a bad enough experience to have to consider whether or not I really want to go back there.

      Cheers,
      Martin.

  • Bryan Hudson
    Posted at 01:31h, 05 December Reply

    Good stuff Martin! Thanks for sharing. It’s a shame that one over zealous agent can make the customs experience so bad. This is the reason why I’m very hesitant to take my best cameras or Mavic pro drone into some of these places. I just returned from a two week trip to Kenya. Your experience has given me courage and hope to do so in the future!

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 08:54h, 05 December Reply

      Hi Bryan,

      Believe me, it was not just one. There were two to three officials in that room and they were all set on ruining my visit. Plus, the guy that took me over there. That whole group was rotten. Completely undertrained and they just set out to get me with their leading question. They were thugs and should hold the positions they’re in.

      You definitely shouldn’t take your Mavic Pro to any African country unless you have prior authorization. Most of them require authorization before you land, and some African countries will just not grant it. If you don’t have a pass, leave the Mavic at home. As for which camera, I don’t own any other cameras. My two 5Ds R bodies are it, and I wouldn’t want to shoot with a lesser camera just to avoid this kind of situation. Really, if I can’t get my gear in, the country isn’t worth visiting.

      Regards,
      Martin.

      • Bryan Hudson
        Posted at 10:19h, 05 December Reply

        Thanks for the reply Martin and for giving us this insight.

        • Martin Bailey
          Posted at 15:18h, 05 December Reply

          You’re very welcome Bryan. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Tim L
    Posted at 06:38h, 05 December Reply

    Wow! It stresses me out just reading about this encounter. I’m glad things ultimately worked out. Ridiculous though…

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 08:55h, 05 December Reply

      Hi Tim,

      Sorry to stress you out! 🙂

      Thanks though. It did work out OK and we had a great trip, as I’ll relay from next week.

      Cheers,
      Martin.

  • Jamie Zartman
    Posted at 15:32h, 05 December Reply

    Sorry to hear this Martin. However, great photo of the camels in the dunes.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 15:54h, 05 December Reply

      Thanks, Jamie,

      Yeah, you know, I added that to show that the tour was still a great success and the photography was wonderful. I almost had to do it all with my iPhone, but luckily I’m stubborn enough to have not let that happen. 🙂

      Cheers,
      Martin.

  • Alan Mermelstein
    Posted at 03:49h, 06 December Reply

    Martin,

    I just listened to your podcast, and I truly hope you are feeling better. I hope I don’t sound like a sycophant, but I appreciate all your years of service to our photographic community.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 09:09h, 06 December Reply

      Thanks so much, Alan!

      I really appreciate it. Thank you for following my antics and taking the time to comment.

      Regards,
      Martin.

  • Mark Anthony
    Posted at 04:24h, 06 December Reply

    Was there 3 months ago, bag full of cameras, no probs, just luck of the draw I guess, tho if u go looking like a photographer, I think u will get picked on. . Sitting and waitin @ LHR, next stop India, going back f seconds, now that could be interesting.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 09:14h, 06 December Reply

      Hi Mark,

      For sure, I had no problems last year, and none of my guests did either, thankfully.

      This is what makes it feel so bad. For a country making so much money on tourism and photography tours now, they certainly need to do a better job of training their airport staff. It was a complete fiasco.

      Safe and pleasant travels to you!

      Cheers,
      Martin.

  • Peter Clark
    Posted at 23:09h, 09 December Reply

    Hi Martin
    This is not a recent policy change, after listening to the episode I happened to be watching one of my favourite car channels on Youtube. He had driven to Morocco from the UK a couple of years ago. Getting off the ferry, customs in Tangier searched his Ferrari and they found a small video drone he wanted to use to film the car in the desert. This was impounded. He had to pay a helper to ensure he obtained a receipt at the port in order to get it back, when he left a few days later. The cameras in the cabin were ignored. It seems there are rogue elements on certain shifts at the ports who pick on ‘rich’ travellers.
    regards
    Peter

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 23:11h, 09 December Reply

      Hi Peter,

      Drones are banned without a permit in most African countries.

      This is unrelated to that, but I completely agree about the rogue elements.

      Regards,
      Martin.

  • David Glazebrook
    Posted at 05:09h, 10 December Reply

    Morocco has been on my bucket list for a long time and your experience Martin is certainly alarming. I wonder if the big non-photographic tour companies clients are subjected to the same scrutiny? Do cruise ships go there? The mind boggles. What is it with africa and video? You’ve open a real can of worms in my mind regarding africa!! Thanks 😉

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 09:47h, 10 December Reply

      Hi David,

      The main problem with Africa and drones is that a drone is a very useful tool for a poacher trying to find rhino etc. I have a drone and wanted to take it to Namibia last year, but the process to get a permit is pretty much impossible to complete. I heard from the person that gives out the permits and was told basically if you are not National Geographic, forget it.

      As for video (non-drone) this was my first experience with this kind of issue, and from what I can tell it’s very uncommon. I have never had problems anywhere else, so unless you intend to bring a drone (which I recommend you don’t) then please don’t worry about this too much for other African countries. Even for Morocco, I’m hoping it was just a one-off attack on an innocent photographer.

      Regards,
      Martin.

  • Mark Friedman
    Posted at 07:27h, 10 December Reply

    Hi Martin,

    Obviously a terrible experience. You mentioned that the first question was something like “are you a photographer?” I’m wondering if, since English is not their first language, that is their way of asking are you a commercial photographer? If so, by answering yes and then saying that your equipment is video capable, perhaps they had some vague notion that a permit was required.

    Glad you’re feeling better.

    Regards,
    Mark

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 09:50h, 10 December Reply

      Hi Mark,

      They definitely had a very strong notion that a permit is required, but it was based on two questions. Are you a photographer and do your cameras shoot video? The answer to both of these questions is yes, although I showed them my photos from last year and told them multiple times that I was not there to shoot video. I honestly don’t think it was a language problem. They decided to pick on me, and they did a very good job of it.

      Thanks for your concern though. I am about to start preparing travelogue #1 of the trip, so I hope you enjoy the images etc. later.

      Regards,
      Martin.

  • David Glazebrook
    Posted at 11:16h, 10 December Reply

    Poaching … of course, an absolute scourge, and now that you’ve said that I completely get it. I’ve never been a fan of drones as a photographer. This is mainly due to the noise they make when you’re enjoying the peace and quiet, working out your composition of the landscape before you and then this supersized blowfly hoovers nearby completely disrupting your mojo. On the counter side, different POV they provide can been awesome. Just not within my earshot 😛

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 12:13h, 10 December Reply

      I’m totally with you David. I love the different perspective, but don’t really like them buzzing around while I’m doing my landscape work. 🙂

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