Sefrou, Morocco Observed: The Photographs of Paul Hyman
In 1969, fashion photographer Paul Hyman visited his boyhood friend, anthropologist Paul Rabinow, who was conducting fieldwork in Morocco with the eminent anthropologists Clifford and Hildred Geertz. This website features a selection of Hyman’s images of Sefrou’s people and places, made during his four month stay.
Some forty years later, Hyman’s powerful photographic essay has found renewed interest and appreciation following the 2007 exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA in conjunction with an international conference sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies titled Islam Re-Observed: Clifford Geertz in Morocco, which considered the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006). Forty-two select prints from Hyman’s extensive Morocco folio were on display, giving viewers a revealing, and aesthetically refined portrait of Sefrou’s people and places. The photographs, many of them singularly memorable, offer an enduring insight into these North African people, their customs and daily life. Several color prints made from Kodachrome originals were also shown for the very first time at the exhibit, some of which are featured on this website.
Beginning in the mid-sixties, Sefrou became the site of important research carried out by American anthropologists Clifford and Hildred Geertz, Paul Rabinow, Lawrence Rosen, Thomas Dichter, and others. In their midst only briefly, and with an assignment that was cautiously termed an ‘experiment’, Hyman’s evident ability to mingle with the locals and his strong photographic sensibilities nevertheless produced a penetrating visual portrait of Sefrou, one that would come to be championed as an important contribution to the study of that society, eventually complementing the historically important work of sociocultural theory, the 1979 publication on Sefrou authored by Clifford Geertz, Hildred Geertz and Lawrence Rosen, Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis. No less than sixty-four plates from Hyman’s prolific photo-documentary were included in the Cambridge University Press publication. As an added bonus to the unforeseen success of this collaboration, Hyman’s presence also produced some rare snapshots of these important social scientists at a time of historic work in the field, a scant resource treasured today by their academic adherents.
“Anthropology has had no lack of interest in the visual, the problem has been what to do with it” (filmmaker David MacDougall, 1997). In 1969, photographer Paul Hyman spent about four months in the Sefrou region of Morocco at the invitation of anthropologist Paul Rabinow. Although Hyman produced several thousand images during his Sefrou sojourn, approximately 64 black and white photos were selected for the insert in the 1979 publication on Sefrou authored by Clifford Geertz, Hildred Geertz and Lawrence Rosen, Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis. Geertz described Hyman’s work as “visual notations,” and Hyman as “innocent of academic social science who approaches the world through the lens rather than the typewriter” and as the “professional photographer rather than an anthropologist” who “catches the look of the place, its people and places” yet the possessor of “a mindful eye,” an evocative Geertzian oxymoron. What does this mean and what is the work of ethnographic photography?
— Abstract of paper presented by Prof. Susan Slyomovics at the UCLA conference “Islam Re-Observed: Clifford Geertz in Morocco”. Other papers and topics from the conference, which included a walk through of Paul Hyman’s Sefrou exhibition, are available in the archived schedule of the event.