“I want viewers to see us”: Dean Majd on the importance of portraying Palestinians in a positive light
70 years after the creation of Israel and the Palestinian exodus (Nabka), the Queens-based photographer journeyed back to the land where his grandmother fled as a refugee, in an attempt to further understand his family’s history and capture the ins and outs of Palestinian life.
- Jyni Ong
- 16 June 2021
“I want viewers to see us,” Dean Majd tells us, “I feel that I have a responsibility to document Palestinians as much as possible, to continue to tell our stories, because they are valid and we need to be seen for our humanity. Palestinian representation in popular media is almost entirely negative or non existent, and when we do appear in media, we are shown as people who are constantly subjected to violence.” These are the powerful words of the Queens-based photographer, talking us through a highly personal body of work dating back to the summer of 2018, titled Separation.
From late August to mid September, Dean journeyed through the whole of the West Bank in a life changing trip. It was the first time Dean experienced Palestine as an adult, meeting many family members on both his mother’s and father’s side that he hadn’t seen in a long time. Dean’s great uncle Sayyid, who lived in a port city in Israel – Acre – an area known for its beaches, was dying of cancer. An important figure in his mother’s life, together, Dean and his mother made the journey, traveling from Amman in Jordan, through the West Bank of Palestine; visiting Hebron and Nablus where his family is from.
Having been raised in Astoria, Queens (where he still currently resides), Dean grew up surrounded by a thriving amalgamation of people and cultures.. Often cited as “the boiling pot of the world,” Queens is noted as the most diverse place in the US, and in turn, this has had a great influence on Dean’s work. In his ongoing series Hard Feelings, he explores the notion of masculinity, brotherhood, and male-female relationships by photographing his predominantly male friend group.
Elsewhere, in Magnolia, he captures how his environment, and his interaction with it, shapes human connection, touching on the rapid gentrification of his home borough. With this in mind, Dean’s work is deeply honest and personal. “That is the only way I know how to approach work,” he adds, something that evidently comes through in Separation. “I believe there isn’t enough work about Palestine that is personal and isn’t centred around conflict.”
Looking back on the trip, Dean feels very lucky that he could take the trip with his mum, cherishing each other’s company and bonding with other extended family members as well as each other. Being in Palestine allowed the photographer to feel connected to his heritage. He remembers one particular example of this, praying in the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Though he classifies himself as “not a very religious person,” in this instance, he says, it “was the most spiritual and holy experience I’ve ever had.”
He points to an image called My Mother Leaving Prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque, an image that is wholly special to Dean, representing an important moment in the trip and in their relationship. “It felt like a transformative moment for the both of us but especially for her because she is religious,” says Dean. Doused in a yellow sun-drenched hue, the image frames Dean’s mother leaving the mosque that is so important to Muslims all over the world. With that in mind, he says, “it’s horrible to see people attacked when praying there.”
A trip filled with many beautiful moments, there were also difficult moments too. Navigating through the West Bank, for one, was extremely difficult. Also, traveling from Palestine to Jerusalem meant Dean and his mother passed through the Qalandiya checkpoint, through the Apartheid wall. “There were stops within Jerusalem itself that were not easy to deal with,” remembers Dean. Crossing into Israel and then going back into Jordan made everything twice as unpleasant, Dean describes it as “no free movement and it feels like you are being suffocated.” But as an American, he recognises his privilege and how his discomfort was generally minimised. “I can only imagine living there and feeling stifled at all times."
While there were challenging moments, there are also ones to remember. In Sunset Over Nablus, the viewer is welcomed into Dean’s view of the Palestinian city. Dean remembers it as a beautiful city built on the hills, an oasis to Dean and his mum while travelling. “The whole time I was there I felt at peace,” he recalls. “Every time I look at that image it takes me back to standing on that hill, listening to the call for prayer echoing over the city. I love the layering and composition of the image. Nablus feels like it goes on forever. The city feels eternal.”
Dean’s trip to Palestine greatly contrasts the media’s portrayal of the state. The photographer puts it this way: “These images are simple and direct and show real Palestinian experience, real human experience. I want people to see that Palestinians do exist, and that we aren’t the negative depictions that are shown of us, Palestinians just want to live prosperous lives. I want Palestinian viewers to see this work and feel comforted, as well as connected to and proud of where they’re from.”
GalleryDean Majd: Separation (Copyright © Dean Majd, 2018)
Dean Majd: Separation, Aunt Jameela (Crying), Acre, Israel, 2018 (Copyright © Dean Majd, 2018)
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.