Academic journal article Afterimage

Palestinian Identity: The Work of Tarek Al-Ghoussein

Academic journal article Afterimage

Palestinian Identity: The Work of Tarek Al-Ghoussein

Article excerpt

For many, going home awakens nostalgic feelings and fond memories of childhood. However, for the Palestinian, the identity of home is often highly contested. Many Palestinians who have lived within the region or who have ties to the area often feel displaced as they struggle with notions of national identity and strive to retain their heritage. In his psychologically and politically charged photographs, Tarek Al-Ghoussein addresses issues of identity, displacement, and obstruction while referring to his Palestinian roots and the psychological impact of not being allowed within the borders of Palestine.

In his ongoing "Self Portrait" series begun in 2002, Al-Ghoussein presents images of a solitary figure wearing a kaffiych (a traditional Palestinian headdress), walking in front of such places or objects as an airplane, ship, or waterfront. These images are not documents of actual occurrences but rather renderings of constructed events. Nevertheless, these photographs conjure up images of terrorism for many post-9/11 viewers. In a 2004 interview, Al-Ghoussein stated that he wants to use the kaffiyeh in different situations to see how people react to these various scenarios in order to reference the many times Palestinians are depicted in the media and "how we are being represented as terrorists." He finds this "frustrating [because] it is the only aspect that is being portrayed," (1) and continues, "I wanted to question people's perceptions and previous conceptions of the Palestinians." (2)


Al-Ghoussein, whose parents are Palestinian exiles, was born in Kuwait in 1962. Due to his father's work, he lived in different locales including the United States, Morocco, and Japan during his childhood. He received his undergraduate degree in photography from New York University and a Masters degree from the University of New Mexico. He currently teaches at American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Before entering into academia, he was a photojournalist and he has exhibited internationally at such venues as the Aperture Gallery in New York City; the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Bonn, Germany; and the Royal Museum of Photography in Copenhagen, Denmark.

When he began the "Self Portrait" series, Al-Ghoussein did not realize that his imagery would be so politically charged until his motives for having his picture taken beside the Dead Sea (with Palestine in the far distance), wearing a kaffiyeh, were questioned by a police officer. Innocently, Al-Ghoussein, who was struck by the beautiful scene, set up his camera on a tripod, composed the shot, and then had his friend take the picture, Untitled 2 (Self Portrait Series) (2003). However, while taking the photograph, a Jordanian police car pulled up beside his automobile, unbeknownst to Al-Ghoussein and his colleague, and observed the event. When the two headed back to the car, the police officer began to question Al-Ghoussein. He was taken to the police station and questioned for twenty-two hours. According to Al-Ghoussein, the police:

  asked me what was I doing, who was I, why was I wearing the
  Palestinian scarf, why that particular scarf--not the red scarf or
  the other type of black scarf? And it just made me realize how
  charged that scarf was. And how much, even in the Middle East, it has
  become almost a symbol of terrorism. I guess that just made me
  realize it's not just a symbol in the West, it's become a symbol in
  the Middle East as well. (3)

At the time this photograph was taken, Al-Ghoussein had been grappling with his interest in the series. This key event made him realize that the series was significant to his cultural production.

At the 2003 Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates, the series of large 2- x 3-meter photographs were back lit by light boxes hung on the wall. Al-Ghoussein remarks, "It was a play on advertising and the light box is a traditional advertising tool. …

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