The Feel of Tunnels

Photographer Ervin Bartis tells Brandon Hoops the story behind one of his favorite pictures from Marrakesh.

By / May 2012


The tourists move with the mindless purpose of ants, shuffling from the snake charmers to the monkey handlers to the storytellers, their cameras a sort of GPS for finding attractive fare to raid in the main square of Marrakesh. My wife and I don’t do well these colonies. There’s too much commotion.

We decide to break away, avoid the directives of the travel guides, and carry about like a run-on sentence. On this hot January afternoon, we end up walking to a part of the city where the buildings crowd in on us from all sides and create a network of small, narrow alleys that have the feel of tunnels through a cave.

It’s refreshingly cold and the moisture that hangs in the air soon takes residence on my skin. The scent of a moth balls competes with some spicy cooking for the allegiance of my nose. The noise of the Djemma el Fna (main square) drifts in and out, muffled by the distance.

There is an intimacy to this place. There are no manicured lawns or car-filled driveways to separate us from the people who live here. We can look into their homes because the windows and doors open up to the alleys. It makes us feel a part of their life in a way.

Soon we pass an alley and I notice a girl, maybe 11 or 12 years old, sweeping water away from a doorway, likely a preventative measure to keep dust out of the house. I love the way the light reflects off the path, and I know immediately that I can capture her in silhouette.

Ervin Bartis, 33, lives in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, with his wife and 10-month-old daughter.

I am a pretty social person, but sometimes I don’t like to be around other tourists. If I spent lots of time in touristy places then I end up in a tourist “bubble” that tends to be oriented towards consumption. You spend money like Americans eat fast food, one bite after another until you’ve forgotten how to taste. You take pictures that look like the pictures of the 50 people standing around you.

My goal when I travel is discovery, discovery of a country, a language, a people. That’s why I don’t take photos in the places where I live. I want to have a sensitivity, a fresh eye. At home, I pass the same places every day, I have a routine, I am easily bored.

One of the ways we’ve been able to avoid all the other tourists and photographers and spark discovery is to travel on budget. We stay at cheap hotels. We eat at local restaurants. We go on walks and get lost. This opens up doors and allows for interaction. In small towns or less traveled places, people tend to have more time, they don’t hurry and this allows us to connect with them.

I can’t say traveling or living abroad is always easy. You can get into difficult, even dangerous situations, especially working in the humanitarian field like I do. I’ve been in shootouts. I’ve seen malnourishment. But you take the bad with the good because every region, like every good story, has conflict and tension.

Really, photography is a small piece of what I do. I am an amateur photographer, who never wants to make it a career, fortunate enough to pursue work that I love and that allows me to visit so many different countries. It is a surprising path for someone like me, who comes from a relatively small town in Romania, who didn’t grow up on the internet.

My curiosity wouldn’t let me stay put. I engage with the world “out there.” And when I reflect back, I can’t help but count myself lucky. Every place I’ve been to has shaped me. It would be pretty stupid to travel so much and not be affected by what you see or who you meet.


— as told to Brandon Hoops