Adam Rouhana focuses on the ‘quieter moments’ of everyday life for young people living in one of the world’s most unstable regions
Adam Rouhana first picked up the family point-and-shoot camera aged 12, and over the following 20 years, he has barely put it down. His images of the youth of Palestine show us a different side to the country and its people, and his celebration of the everyday holds its own resistance.
These previously unpublished portraits by the emerging artist, mostly of young Palestinians, sit somewhere between documentary and art, capturing both the incidental and the incendiary as it unfolds around him. A Palestinian American who grew up in Boston, Rouhana has visited Palestine annually throughout his life to see family and he has always taken his camera.
“Photography became a way for me to interact with the world and with people, and it became a default,” he tells Dazed. “So, I sort of relied on it and I don’t know if it was as much talent for photography as much as it was a different relationship with people that kind of kept me doing photography. I was able to go up to pretty much anybody and just approach folks and get to know them point-blank, without any background. Photography is not really a practice, it’s just part of who I am.”
Much of his work focuses on the periods he spends in Palestine, which is something he says has evolved organically over time. In the images of the people and places he encounters on walks, there will often be a soldier, a policeman, a fence, a wall or an observation tower adjunct, as they exist, to school, houses and football pitches. The dissonance between the inevitable continuum and inherent beauty of everyday life existing under oppression is inescapable, as is the affection for the land and its people that radiates from these images. Here there is joy, frustration, resistance and grief but it sits alongside hope and joy. Many great minds have fudged their words in an effort to articulate what is happening in Palestine, but you see and feel it here in Rouhana’s images.
‘Instead of reproducing the representations of occupied Palestine that are so ubiquitous and so obvious, I was able to capture the quieter moments and try to work to create new representations of Palestine’ – Adam Rouhana
The photographer, who is just starting to publicly share his work, is passionate about sharing an unseen side of life in the region which although it is often in the news is only seen through the lens of conflict and rarely represents people’s normal lives: “Instead of reproducing the representations of occupied Palestine that are so ubiquitous and so obvious, I was able to capture the quieter moments and try to work to create new representations of Palestine.”
As the situation in Palestine intensifies in the face of the new right-wing government in Israel, which has sparked protests across the country, the focus on those living under increasing threat in the occupied territories is amplified worldwide.
While Rouhana is not a documentarian or a photojournalist, he is making a document of some kind and, for him, his work sits in an undefined, in-between space. For a descriptor of this, he quotes his mentor, Magnum photographer Gilles Peress.
An Oxford Master’s graduate, Rouhana backs up his work with a deeply considered and well-read approach. Citing the late academic Edward Said’s concept of the ‘permission to narrate’ – which is choosing to tell your story in the face of an oppressive counter-narrative – he changed the way he viewed his photographs of Palestine and began to look at them as a body of work. Since May 2022 he has been under the mentorship of Peress – famous for his photographs of The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the 1970s revolution in Iran – and he is expanding on what began as a passion, transforming it into a practice that he is still defining.
“I think photography sort of sits in this moment between perception and reality,“ he says, quoting Peress. “Before, you know, society gels these images into labels and forced categories. The way that I see it, the camera provides this sort of wedge into that space into that moment, where you can see the images in the heart and then you can try to reconcile the layers of meaning and pull some intuitive truth from all the contradictions. I think by operating in that space, before the world has labelled these images as one or the other, you can step back and see history sort of unfolding before your eyes.”
Rouhana plans to show his work for the first time this autumn in a possible series of shows across Europe and the Middle East and is working with curators Zainab Hasoon and Sara bin Safwan, curator at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. He is also working on a book.
Below, the photographer tells us about a particular portrait called “Boy Eating the Watermelon” (see the lead image, above), which he’s selected as being one of the most seminal in the series.
“There are a number of things that come to mind when I look at this image and, honestly, it’s about the boy… It’s sort of like he’s making love to the watermelon, right? That is what it looks like. So, it’s this idea, I guess, of a passion for the land and his own relationship with the land. You can see he’s in this kind of olive grove and the earth is around him.
“What happened was I was just walking around Bethlehem with my camera, as I tend to do, and I met this group of boys who were just playing on the land. They were very playful and I was just talking to them and we kind of became friends, essentially. This boy started acting almost and he went and picked this watermelon from the ground, he split it open and then started eating it. It was natural and it was just a sort of playful performance.
“The watermelon has, in a way, become a national symbol of Palestine. So, what’s interesting is some people see that and some people don’t. It’s perceived in different ways. But before the watermelon became the symbol of Palestine, it was like an icon because it’s the same colours as the flag. So, you put the watermelon online or whatever, instead of the flag, and it’s a way to subvert the algorithm.
But underneath all of that, I think, is a theme that is resonant throughout my practice, which is a sort of intimacy with the subject. That comes from the way that I look at photography and a lot of it is about my relationship with people, going out into the world and using photography as a conversation with the world... It’s not about putting a frame around something, but it’s about spending time with something before the frame is around it.”