Tarek Al-Ghoussein, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian, began his career as a photojournalist photographing Palestinian refugees in Jordan. Al-Ghoussein eventually became disenchanted with documentary-style work and abandoned photojournalism and photography altogether for several years. In 2002 he began making self portraits, placing himself within vast landscapes throughout the United Arab Emirates. In his first iteration of self portraits, he photographed himself in all black wearing a keffiyeh (a Palestinian traditional headscarf). Al-Ghoussein wanted to challenge mass media depictions of terrorists and Western interpretations of the Middle East. He’s since dropped the keffiyeh from the photos in an effort to be more abstract and nonspecific. Now the figure in his photos is wholly anonymous, face obscured, wearing all black.
“K-Files,” his most recent series, is shot entirely in Kuwait, and is the first of his photo series to focus on a single city. These works are set within the city’s historical context. There have been several waves of Palestinian exoduses to a number of host countries including Kuwait, whose Palestinian population reached 400,000 before the Gulf War. In 1990, Kuwait expelled most of its Palestinian population following the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s endorsement of the Iraqi invasion. After 1991, there were less than 30,000 Palestinians left in Kuwait. Looking into images from K-Files, one is struck with a deep sense of loss and longing; the figure in each photo seems to be the only person left in the world.
Al-Ghoussein has said of his work, “It is not about me, it is about a figure or a person, an actor in a scene and it explores the identity of the land and how we define ourselves through the landscape.” Al-Ghoussein’s photos are very much like film stills, each one beckoning a narrative; and considering the comparison of the figure in his photos to “actors in a scene” brings to mind movies like El Topo and Paris, Texas, featuring self-reflective characters roving through desolate deserts. In the former, the protagonist is on a quest, and in the latter he is lost in grief. In Al-Ghoussein’s images, the figure also seems lost, disconnected from a sense of home or belonging, always alone, and utterly dwarfed by the vastness of a structure or landscape, such as the image showing him sitting inside the ruins of a chandeliered hall or standing before a cluster of residential towers. In a way, this figure is also a watcher, a silent observer of his surroundings. Though the environments fill the picture plane, it is impossible to ignore the lone figure in each one.
“Tarek Al-Ghoussein: K-Files” is on view at Taymour Grahne, New York, Sept. 16th–Oct. 23rd, 2014.