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The Morocco Files

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Thomas Campbell’s latest assemblage of photography, Seeing Fatima’s Eyes, draws together images from two decades of travel to Morocco in a hardcover book published next month. In issue 24.1 of TSJ, readers will find an excerpt of Campbell’s surf documentation from the northwest corner of Africa. Here Campbell sits down over beers in the Santa Cruz mountains with longtime friend Jonathan Steinberg to discuss the travels that formed the book.

Alex Knost laying into one on his personally shaped 8’6″ mid-length (22″ wide, 15″ tail, 17″ nose, 2.75″ thick—with an 11″ flex fin). Boilers, central Morocco, 2011. Photo: Thomas Campbell

Steiny:  So, you’ve traveled a heck of a lot over the years. In those movements how did you ever end up in Morocco, of all places?

Thomas:  Well… I kind of got there randomly. It was at the beginning of the period when I was traveling a lot. I was gone on that journey for over a year and a half. That trip started back in 1991 when I hitchhiked across the U.S., from California. I stopped to hang out with friends in Nebraska, was in a skate-art show in Chicago, a skate camp in Pennsylvania, and eventually got to New York. I spent a month there and ended up getting a cheap ticket to Europe to go on a skate tour around the United Kingdom and Scotland. After that I went over to Wales for a few months to hang out with my buddy Skin Phillips, drew some surfboard logos, and got a few surfboards in the process. I took the ferry over to Spain and camped out at Mundaka for a month. I got super good waves—that wave is amazing—and got to skate some parks near Bilbao (we didn’t have parks in the U.S. at that time). From there I went to Portugal and posted up at the campground in Ericeira. Had a stellar month of surf there and I kept seeing the same people that I surfed with at Mundaka coming through. Some of them were like, “Oh, we’re going to Morocco next. It’s much cheaper and the waves are good.” My money was running out, but I wanted to surf more and I was like, “Oh, OK.” So I tried to ask different people to find out more info about Morocco. They said, “Yeah, you just go to Anchor Point, you know, and you can camp out right there.” I had one board at that point, my other one went in half in Mundaka. Other than that I had a tent, a sleeping bag and a bag of stuff. So I got a bus down to Morocco from Lisbon. I think it took like 24 hours or something to get there on the bus.

Wow.

Just because, there was a lot of waiting, and transfers, and all this stuff. I made it there and it really seemed a lot like Baja to me. Like if someone dropped you off in the middle of nowhere on the coast in Morocco, you’d be like, “Oh, I’m in Baja.” Until you saw someone coming by dressed in a jalaba, with a pack of camels. But yeah, at that point I realized that I just found the culture really intriguing. The crazy thing is you could go around a corner and look at a scenario with, say, the metal smith or people herding goats or whatever, and it would seem like how life was a thousand years ago. I had just never been in a place with that kind of visual depth and history. And the culture was just about as polar from the beach town I grew up in, in California (Dana Point). So I found it really fascinating, and the waves were really good and it was really inexpensive.

Dave Rastovich, solid b-turn on a central Moroccan pointbreak— riding a 5’9” Gary McNeil-shaped torus drive, stringer-less twin fin. 2014. Photo: Campbell

So you started making art in Morocco? Painting?

Eventually. The first time I went there I camped out for a month at Anchor Point and surfed, and skated a little bit in Agadir, but kinda just hung out with the people that were camping there. And then I heard about this place called Tafraout, which is more in the south of Morocco in the Anti-Atlas Mountains. So I sold my surfboard, my tent, my sleeping bag, and whatever else I had, because I was really running out of money.

You didn’t have a trust fund to burn?

No, I was making it happen on my own dime. Or I mean on my own dirham—and there weren’t many dirhams left. Anyway, so I sold all that stuff and I went to the mountains and I tried to figure it out. I talked to a guy at this hotel and said, “Hey, could I paint a mural in the room? In exchange for staying in the room?” I ended up talking him into it. So besides painting the mural in the room, I made a bunch of paintings on paper for about a month there. I was still running out of money at the end of the month and there was this one guy back in Taghazout that—I think I’d shown him some pictures of my art—and he’d said, “If you make me a painting, I’ll buy it from you,” and we kind of agreed on something. So anyway, I painted this guy a nice painting, and I took the bus six hours down there. I went to his place hoping to get like three hundred dollars for the painting. It was a nice three-by-three-foot painting on paper. I walk into the store this guy owns, and he looks at me in the eyes and I can tell he’s thinking, “Oh, haha, I see. This guy needs this.” And he was just like, “I am not giving you three hundred bucks.” He’s like, “No way. I’ll give you 50.” Or 30, or something ridiculously low. And I was like, “Uh oh…oh no.” No one knew who I was. I had no game back then, especially there. So I tried to haggle with him. I think I got like, I don’t know…30 or 40 bucks or something for it.

Earlier, I had met a few cool surfers named Ednan and Davey who told me that they were going to come Tafraout. They said that, if I wanted, I could jump in with them and get a ride back up to the north of Spain on their way to Paris. So we left and started heading back north, heading for Europe. On our way we stopped in Rabat to see this Moroccan surfer guy named Abduela. Right by where he lived in the medina I saw this art gallery. I thought it had some cool naïve modern Moroccan art in it. I went in there and met this French guy named Christian who owned the gallery. So I said, “Hey, I’ll come back to show you some paintings that I did when I was in the mountains.” So I brought my paintings in there, and he liked them and he bought some right then. Not for crazy money, but I didn’t have any money at the time so four or five hundred dollars was great, and I was so psyched. My friends weren’t going to have to pay for me for everything anymore. And anyway, he said, “Why don’t you come back next year, and let’s have a solo exhibition?”

(Left:) Craig Anderson gets a cover up. (Right:) Four-leggeds doing the humpty hump. Central Morocco, 2011. Photos: Campbell

So that’s what led to you coming back to Morocco for the second time?

Exactly. I planned the show the next year in February. I came back and spent the whole winter producing paintings in Taghazout for my show and another solo show later in the year at the Alleged Gallery in NYC. At the time I was really scrappin’ it together, financially. I was writing for skateboard magazines, and I wasn’t even taking pictures yet for a living. I wasn’t selling much art yet. I just had very little funds, but what I did have was a surplus of faith that things would work out. So I was just like, “OK, I can go to Morocco and live cheap.” So I rented an apartment-house style place. It was a really rustic spot with three small bedrooms, right in Taghazout just inside of Anchor Point. It was $80 a month. I could afford it, you know? Here at home I couldn’t even afford to have my own studio. I just couldn’t pull it. But in Morocco, I could afford to live and work. It was really an amazing time. I kind of let the amount of swell dictate when I would surf or paint. Actually, that is still what I do. When there are waves, I’m kind of useless. I have to surf.

I’ve seen the pictures of you working there. You were painting like crazy.

Yeah, it was a really good movement of work. One funny thing about working in that house was that I kind of fucked it up. I put plastic down when I painted, but paint went everywhere. I was really worried that my Moroccan landlord was going to be pissed. When I did my exhibition in Rabat, the government TV station came to the opening, and did a little profile on me and my art. The opening reception was kind of a big social to-do. It was a little bit formal for this dirt-baggy, red-dyed-hair, skater/surfer kid from California. Even the Prince, who’s now the King, and the Princess came to my exhibition. When I talked on the news I said, “Oh yes, I’m staying in the south, near Agadir, in Taghazout, and it’s very nice. I’m surfing and producing paintings. I really enjoy Morocco.” There’s only like one or two TV stations in Morocco, so a bunch of people in Taghazout had seen me on TV. And when I went back to Taghazout, I was a little bit of a celebrity in the town.

[laughter] That’s great.

My landlord was like, “I don’t know if you understand. No one on the TV has ever said the word Taghazout before!” Taghazout was just a very small fishing village, and my landlord was just so jazzed to have the attention come to his little town. He said, “Because of you being on the news there’s going to be more Moroccan people coming here.” It was totally bizarre. And then I told him, “I’m really sorry that I fucked up your house with my paint.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter.” He was just so cool about it. I see him, too, when I go back there. He’s pretty old. But he and his kids are always stoked to see me.

I was going to ask you… you’ve also gone for skate trips. What was it like to go on a skate trip in Morocco?

Well I started working for Transworld Skateboarding in 1987, when I was 17. By 1997, I was the Photo Editor of Skateboarder magazine. I just always wanted to take people to exotic places. Morocco is a place where people don’t expect you to go skateboarding, and I knew some spots from skating there myself. So yeah, I took a few guys—Geoff Rowley, Donny Barley and Steve Olsen—and it was awesome. There was not a lot to skate, or there wasn’t at that time at least. Now I think there’s a lot more to skate. I think it’s one of the fastest developing countries in Africa.

Growing fastest?

Yeah, and so I think there’s a lot more concrete nowadays and a lot more things to skate. Now it’s a skate destination for European skaters.

Did the Moroccans trip on the skating at first?

Yeah, there were a few places where people were skateboarding on a rudimentary level. Morocco isn’t that removed from Europe. They were a French territory and there’s kind of that cross-cultural French thing going on. I think in the bigger cities like Agadir or Casablanca there’re people skating a little. But yeah, it was cool. It was super fun and we found weird roofs and rock formations and stuff to skate. It’s probably not a place you’d wanna break your leg, but, uh, that didn’t happen…

Dan Malloy flying on a 6’1″ Fletcher Chouinard Designs DM3 model. Central Morocco, 2011. Photo: Campbell

So obviously your first trips were by yourself. How different was it to take people and be the tour guide instead of being toured?

It was interesting. Geoff Rowley spoke French a little bit from growing up in England. But Donny and Steve didn’t speak any French. My French wasn’t that great at all, but I was kind of amazed at the level I had to rise to in order to facilitate the trip. I’d never spoken that well before, and haven’t since, but it was mandatory that I perform to get everything happening during the trip.

And this is before you made your surf movie, so you had never taken people touring that much?

No, no. This was ’97. So I hadn’t really. I’d been on skate tours in Europe. But not guiding the tour. It was cool. It felt like I stretched and learned a lot. Dan Malloy and I went there in 2003. We were in Paris on the way back from Sri Lanka and were like, “Maybe we should go down to Morocco for a bit.” We saw that there were some waves, and we just went down for a few weeks because we wanted to try to film some more surfing on fishes. So that was the first time that I’d ever brought anyone that was a really good surfer to shoot some stuff. There ended up being a few clips in Sprout from that trip. And we shot a few pictures. I guess the thing is, I’d been shooting pictures and all the while I’d been going … more just like documenting the culture and shooting the weird little things that I found interesting. But eventually I had the idea to incorporate the whole body of work from all my trips. I think in 2010, I decided that I wanted to take a group of surfers there and shoot the kind of surfers that I like in that place so I could add more depth to the collection of images. Because the kind of surfers that I like are unique: you can’t just go some place and see the kind of surfers that I generally shoot. The first trip was with Alex Knost, Craig Anderson, Dan Malloy, and Ryan Burch. The Joel Tudor Duct Tape Invitational in Santa Cruz was going on. Alex won the contest, and the day after the contest we got on a plane and flew to Morocco. After that trip I thought that I had enough photos for the book to be done. But then I think I went back the next year to shoot more general life type stuff. My friend Roger and I went for a few weeks and just drove around and surfed and shot more of the culture. Then I think Dave Rastovich and I were talking and he was telling me how he’d always wanted to go to Morocco. So we organized a trip with Rasta, Lauren Hill, Trevor Gordon, and Ryan Burch. It was awesome. We got super good waves. It was pumping the whole time. We didn’t really have much time to do anything else but surf, eat, sleep and then we were gone. Which is a good problem. This book kind of encapsulates a journey of learning bit by bit about a place… about the culture, the waves, and the beauty.

An excerpt from Thomas Campbell’s book-length photo essay, Seeing Fatima’s Eyes, is featured in issue 24.1 of TSJ.