To Dean Majd, born in Queens, New York to Palestinian immigrant parents, “photography is about the human condition. I can’t make work that’s only about the New York or Palestinian experience. Staying within the limits of those identities is an easy way out.”
Majd’s project Separation explores the contradictions of faith and grief, family and separation, hope and apartheid. Shot in 2018 during his very first visit to Palestine – and accompanied by his mother, a Palestinian refugee born in exile – Separation is bookended by two aerial photos of Jordan, and chronicles Majd’s journey from New York, to Amman, to the West Bank, to Israel, and back again. He documents Palestinian life along the way, mostly of his own elderly family many of whom he is meeting for the first time, and some for the last time too.
His debut series Hard Feelings is a Nan Goldin-inspired portrait of his community of skaters and graffiti artists in Queens. Separation is equally intimate, but more cautious and distanced, hence the title. “This is my family, I had to approach it with care. I felt like I had to earn the photographs”, says Majd.
While we have become accustomed to the stereotype of Palestine as an inherently violent and terrorised place – captured most recently in devastating images of the rubble of Gaza – Separation is more about the stuff of everyday life. The domestic, rural setting – and golden light – offers some respite from the landscape of urban destruction that we are so often exposed to in media coverage of the so-called conflict. Here, speaking in his own words, the photographer tells us more about his series.
“It was a hard trip. As a Palestinian, you can’t just get on a flight to Tel Aviv, we have to cross by land from Jordan. At the border I was aggressively interrogated by the Israelis like I was a threat to them. But I was just visiting my family. We decided to take the trip because my uncle in the coastal city of Acre – a kind of surrogate father to my mother – was dying of cancer. It was our last chance to see him.
“Separation is a diary of travels. There’s the division of my family, and also my own physical, and emotional distance from Palestine. I grew up in Queens. That’s my life.
“So much of my New York work explores masculinity, especially male and emotional violence. Of course, it’s there in the Palestine series because there’s a harsh reality of apartheid that you can’t escape. But I wanted to show how Palestinians fight to live a normal life despite their oppression. The series is a life-affirming documentation of our existence as people.
“It was important to be honest with myself. I don’t experience apartheid in the same way my family does, so I didn’t want to deliberately seek out the violence of that system. Still, at the border, the Israelis tried to take my camera and they put my film rolls through the x-ray – two, three, four times – even though I begged them not to. Some of the images are fried. In the end, I guess the violence of the state was imposed on the series. In the photo of my mother, I actually think it enhances the intimacy.
“The series is maternal. I don’t speak Arabic, so I needed my mum there to protect me. I also feel I played a parental role too. We had our own world. We bonded so much. The trip was transformative for both of us.
“I’m not religious, but we prayed at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. I went through the motions, I thanked God internally for all the people in my life. When I saw the attacks on the mosque last month I was just devastated. When you’ve experienced the holiness, it’s so painful to see that place desecrated. I took a social media hiatus because it was too hard to watch. I hope these photographs can be healing to others and attest to Palestine’s humanity.”
Follow Dean Majd on Instagram here.