London-based photographer Sam Dearden shows the West Bank in a different light. It’s a soft, golden light that casts a dreamy aura over the final hours of the sweltering Palestinian summer days. The teenagers and adolescent boys in his photos aren’t armed or patrolling checkpoints or throwing homemade bombs; they are relaxed, happy, enjoying each other’s company. And each one of them is either riding or carrying a skateboard.
That’s because Dearden shot the photos you see here at the Islamic Club in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, where he was helping to build a skate park in 2014. He was there with SkatePAL, a nonprofit organization that teaches skateboarding and builds parks across Palestine. Over the five and a half weeks he visited, between wood working and pouring concrete, he found time to capture his experience in his photo series Hurriya.
SkatePAL was founded in 2012 by skateboarder Charlie Davis, a University of Edinburgh Arabic graduate who had lived in Palestine for a time as an English teacher. Davis noticed that in occupied territories, opportunities for recreational sports were often few and far between. And while architects often focus on building necessary infrastructure like hospitals and housing during times of crisis–and rightly so–social spaces can be every bit as important for creating a sense of stability and community amid chaos.
Dearden heard about SkatePAL through a friend of his, who said that the nonprofit was looking for people to fill several spots that had opened up suddenly. It just after an Israeli attack on Gaza in early July, following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by two Hamas members, and many people who had signed up for the trip dropped out. Dearden had just finished his bachelor’s degree in photography at the University of Bournemouth in Britain and decided to join.
Like most of the others he was working with, Dearden grew up skateboarding and was relatively handy when it came to making ramps. He helped build wooden framework and lay concrete. There are times that the organization gets help from people who design skate parks professionally–the American skate park designer Dave Duncan has visited–but most of the building is done by whatever volunteers are willing to join.
The other half of the volunteers’ job, says Dearden, was to teach local kids how to skateboard. There are no skate shops in Palestine, most of the kids have never been on a board. Volunteers bring as much as they can with them on their flights over. Davis is working on getting boards to Palestine so people can buy their own–but for now, all of the parks have skateboards people can use.
Since the summer days were too hot for skateboarding, most of the kids would get to the park in Ramallah just as the sun was starting to set. They learned to skate on the ramps that had been completed or were taught basic skills on a flat concrete soccer pitch close by. Dearden also photographed kids in the West Bank city of Zababdeh, where SkatePAL had just completed a skate park. In both places, Dearden says the light in the hours before dusk was “surreal and otherworldly,” saturated with purples, golds and yellows.
For most of the volunteers, skate parks were a community space growing up as much as a place to skate. They consider that to be an important thing for kids living in Palestine to have, in a conflict zone. “Its hard to say it’s a sport because its so expressive,” says Dearden. “But you do have the support of everyone around you. A lot of the kids there love it.” One of the kids Dearden got to know, Mohammed, picked up skating the fastest he’d ever seen. Another friend he made while he was there was Aram Sabbah, one of the Palestinian skate instructors in Zababdeh. At the time, Sabbah could teach but not skate–he was on crutches after he was shot in the knee during a protest.
Dearden’s photos are serene and hazy, with soft colors and a sense of languidness. They make the skate park look like a safe space in a country at war. In many ways, it is: Ramallah is “a vibrant city, and the kids aren’t violent kids,” he says. “I wanted to show that images of post-conflict scenes can be just as powerful of a story. Kids pick up boards and do what they want with them in their own environment, even in a place of a military occupation. That’s a pretty powerful, too.”
[All Photos: Sam Dearden]