A hundred camels by the well

The Sahara, Northern Mauritania - 2013 | Canon 5D MKIII, 16-35mm@16mm, f/4, ISO 100, 1/1000 sec

Background story

One morning in a Northern Mauritanian oasis village in the Sahara the village-head casually told me – hundreds of camels will come to drink from the village well in a little while. To me this was exciting stuff. Despite the heat already becoming unbearable, I grabbed my camera and ran towards the well.

Nomads with herds of camels were already arriving. I learned through my guide and translator Alioune that a few of them had come all the way from Mali just days ago. For some of these nomads, borders are non-existent. No one is going to patrol the entire Sahara and they know all the routes, just as their ancestors have known for centuries. 

The nomads in this part of the world live in isolation to the modern world for most part. They pick and choose what they want to take from it. The group with the man in the photo had a diesel-powered water pump. It helped them get the water faster from the well to their animals. Everything else about the men was probably very similar to what one would see 50 or even 100 years ago. 

There was initially a lot of commotion around the pump. First it wouldn’t start. Then it pumped water for a little while and stopped. The camels were fighting for position by the well. The camel herder was fighting off the camels.

Everyone was moving around. I watched the scene unfold, moving around too, trying to find the best angle, waiting for the ideal moment to make my capture. And then, with the water finally running and all the camels drinking, the turban-clad nomad glanced my way for just a few seconds. I had my shot.

Main reasons I think it works

The main thing here for me is the synchronisation of all the elements. It’s clear that the camels are drinking or waiting to drink. The camels or the left side of the frame are actually in different stages of drinking – from head bent by the well, to rocking the head backwards, eyes closed in satisfaction. 

If the ingredients for the image are there – stick around, be patient and persistent. This is absolutely crucial to getting a strong image and not walking away with “half” a photograph.

The exclamation point in this synchronisation is the nomad turning my way. This makes the photograph a genuine, unposed environmental portrait of a man with his camels. The way he holds the stick over the shoulder is so natural. Years of shooting have taught me that it’s virtually impossible to re-enact and reproduce these little nuances to a point where they look truly believable.

Another factor that really makes the image work is the limited colour palette. The image is almost tri-tone. There’s a certain harmony and a visual rhythm in having the limited colours. The dark blue of the turban nicely emphasises the protagonist – the nomad.

Most important tip

If the ingredients for the image are there – stick around, be patient and persistent. This is absolutely crucial to getting a strong image and not walking away with "half" a photograph.

In this case I recognised that all the elements were indeed right there in front of me. I simply waited for the scene to unfold and occasionally fired off a few frames at a time (from different angles).

With each click I was ready for the next moment, which was potentially better than the previous. I kept focus on what was happening and kept at it until all the camels went off. 

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