Photographer insight: Ethel Davies Captures Roman Africa

Ethel DaviesTravel writer and photographer Ethel Davies knows the Roman coast of North Africa better than most (see her top 10 sites here). We asked her to give us an insight into how her favourite image came about.

“As a professional travel photographer, I accrued a great number of images over the course of the two years of intensive work and study for North Africa: The Roman Coast (not to mention the various trips I took before my research began),” says Ethel. “Its virtually impossible to choose a favourite, as each image represents a place, an experience and even a feeling.

“If you have even the slightest bit of interest and ability, its difficult not to take a good photo when travelling through the magnificent Roman sites in North Africa. In general, the light is good, especially early and late, when the honey-pink hue of the stones glows. As well as the magnificent assembly of buildings, look out for details. Intact inscriptions can often be lying on the ground and, occasionally, its possible to find faces and torsos of statues scattered around some distance away from their original homes. Dont be limited to the well-trodden routes that the guides follow, either there is much to be seen that hasnt yet made it on to the tourist trail.”

Unable to choose her favourite image, Ethel instead sent us three of her best:

Djemila, Algeria: North Forum Arches

On the day before Christmas, at an altitude of 900 metres, the weather wasnt being very cooperative. Clouds were obscuring the sun and a cold wind was blowing. Although the site was extensive and impressive, I wasnt getting the shots I wanted due to the dull nature of the sky. Suddenly, after a few hours, breaks appeared in the mist and beams of light shone through. To take advantage of this fleeting illumination, I dashed back to my favourite remains, and en route caught a glimpse through this archway. The way the ancient paving stones gleamed, passing through the triumphal arches of emperors long gone, provided almost a better sense of looking into the past than my straightforward, conventionally lit shots.

Between the late time of year and the North African latitude, the sun was bright and I used the first arch to block its flare. I overexposed slightly to get more detail in the shadows, but even so, the light was strong, and the lack of action allowed me to set a small aperture with a longer time. I didnt need to take many shots, only varying between portrait and landscape versions, as the subject and composition seemed obvious to me. Besides, I still had a lot more left to document, and only limited time and fleeting decent weather available to me.

Leptis MagnaLeptis Magna, Libya: The Severan Forum

Picture the superb remains of an ancient Roman city with its excavated area stretching out for thousands of metres until it hits the sea and then imagine there are only about a dozen people on the entire site.

Leptis Magna is a photographers dream, with extraordinary remnants of its glory days lying about and very few humans to get in the way! Indicative, and frequently photographed, is the Severan Forum. The new central square built by the citys native son, Emperor Septimius Severus, replaced the old one that predated his reign. Almost 2,000 years later, Italian archaeologists used this huge area to house all the bits and pieces waiting to be resurrected in place. Among the columns and sculpted details gathered from various buildings are the Medusa heads, their quantity indicating that they were common images throughout the city. In this now somewhat overgrown plaza, these haunting faces appear, propped up on pedestals, leaning against walls and peaking through the grass. Their presence gets to be unnerving after a while, giving the sense that the photographic observer her/himself is being watched.

This image was taken on a perfect October day. The subtle shadowing of the mid morning gave definition to the subjects without my having to worry about later retrieving detail in Photoshop. In addition, the sun was still low enough to allow retention of the subtle variations of the colour of the stones. The brightness of the light allowed me to use a narrow aperture. I particularly like the way the grass crisscrosses the staring Medusa face. This picture is one among many, not because I struggled with the composition, but because at every turn was another shot.

Sabratha, Libya: The Seaward Baths

Sabratha is a wonderful site along the Mediterranean Sea with one of the most magnificent theatres still left standing in whats left of the Roman world. If time allows, however, there is much more to see and one of the great surprises is this mosaic. Part of a bathhouse, typically where some of the best examples of this art form are generally found, its most likely that in its day, this leisure area was situated some distance from the sea. Over time, the constant erosion drew the water closer and closer, and today, the colour of the tiny stones provides a delightful contrast to the blue of the Mediterranean. Its rare to find mosaics still in their original location, as most have been carted away to museums for preservation, and even more unusual to find them in such good condition.

I was here in mid-autumn and the storm season that prevented the ancients from sailing the Mediterranean was already starting. I had to dash between the raindrops, but the sun, when it finally came out, and the shine left over from the rain, brought out the fine points of this site. Speed, both of the camera and the photographer, was important, as I wanted to stop the action of waves in the photo, and to get as many views before the clouds gathered again.