An Interview With Seth Herald: Photographing the West Bank

Leo Kroonen

‘If you’re not educating the viewer in some way, then you are failing to do your job,’ says Seth Herald, a 23-year-old American photojournalist based in the West Bank. His fascinating images capture the daily life, politics and conflicts in the Palestinian Territory and call attention to themes that many from the outside would rather ignore. We spoke to the photographer about life in Ramallah, his latest photo series and why he is capturing the interesting moments in life.

A young man holds a sign showing the former Yasser Arafat and the current president Muhammad Abu Abbas, on the tenth anniversary of the passing of Yasser Arafat in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

You’re currently based in the West Bank. What brought you here?
I thought it would be a good place to find out who I am, and to develop myself as a photographer. I wanted to learn how to navigate conflict areas or demonstrations that happen from time to time. This area has everything from daily life, politics, and conflicts. You have all aspects of news to document around you, and there are plenty of stories to tell if you dig deep enough.
Was the reality on the ground what you expected to find?
No, not even close from what I had studied. At first you know only a little bit about the current state, but you don’t really get a feel for it until you are on the ground.

A bedouin girl stands with classmates on the last day of school before the start of eid al adha.

Has your attitude toward the Conflict changed since?
Definitely. It made me grow up quick. It made me mature. But that also depended on how open of a mind I was willing to have about everything here. I don’t understand how people come here and then walk away with a closed mind. It’s a sad situation here. The atmosphere is very tense. When you see the separation wall for the first time, it hits you. Walking through the check point makes you realize the full scale of the problems. I worry about the country’s developments, but I think everyone here does, especially now.

a girl stands on her roof top in a Bedouin village outside of Jericho in the Occupied West Bank.

Were you scared to visit a country with such a eventful history?
I was asked this before I left the States, and my honest answer is no. I wasn’t scared at all. I was more worried of missing flights than being on the ground in Israel and the West Bank. Although my vision of the Middle East was a hell on earth, death, turmoil, and war, I still wasn’t sure what to expect.
So how is Ramallah treating you?
It’s great here. Honestly the people are wonderful and the hospitality is out the roof. At first it was overwhelming how nice people were here. As an American you grow up with your ‘clique’. You’d never have a random stranger invite you in for tea or coffee and then feed you. Back home that would never happen.

An empty class room in the days leading up to the Islamic holiday of eid al adha.

You’ve recently shot a beautiful series called Bedouins. It looks like an amazing location, I must say.
Yeah, it is indeed an amazing place with beautiful landscapes. Almost surreal in a way. It’s my first time overseas so it’s a breath of fresh air and something new. It was a long day of shooting, talking, and listening. You really have to talk a lot to understand the life of the bedouins. It helps in creating better work.

Was it hard to approach the bedouins?
No, it was actually very easy. Of course you know you have to be personable and gain trust as with anyone. I always gain the friendship and trust of the children first. If they trust me, then their parents are more comfortable. And that enables me to document more easily.
What attracted you to them?
Their traditions and way of life. It was very interesting to me and just caught my attention from the start.
What are you currently working on?
On a photo story about a children’s cancer clinic in Bethlehem. It’s the only hospital of its kind in the West Bank and it’s run by the PCRF and NGO. They are really doing a lot for the people from the West Bank and Gaza. They are being affect by the most recent Gaza conflict.

a Bedouin village on land being claimed as Israeli state land. Bedouins face constant harassment by the Israeli army and often see their homes destroyed and live stock confiscated.

What’s the main reason why you wanted to be a photojournalist?
I’ve always been interested in travelling and meeting new people, and I realized that with a camera I would have a reason to do both. Life and the existence of being inspires me the most.
And what’s important to you?
Education. If you’re not educating the viewer in some way, then you are failing to do your job. In this line of work it’s important to inspire the viewers and make them feel as if they were there in the moments when they view a photo. I would like to have a body of work that when people see it, they can be moved even years and years later.

The son of a Bedouin leader talks about the life he and his family live and the harassment they face by the Israeli Army.

Are you sometimes surprised by your own work?
Not really. I can always do better and photgraph more efficiently. It’s a learning process. One day I will be surprised by my own work, but I’m more trying to surprise the viewer.

A young teen hunkers down to avoid rubber bullets during clashes with the Israeli army in Shu’afat Camp due to the closing of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Do you live in the present?
Yes, it’s the key to live in the moment. I’m really excited about where I am at in my life right now. It’s very new to me and always an adventure. My work as a photographer is shaping me into a more complete person, and has connected me with some amazing people. The life around me, it’s like a history. I’ll never see again the things I witness. My relationship with photography grows more every time I shoot. It’s an important aspect of my life and who I am as a person. It’s the way I see the world as cliche as it sounds.
What does success mean to you?
Well, I think it’s important, but I don’t think you should get caught up in it. Most likely as an artist you won’t be known for what you did or recognized fully until you die. It’s hard to make it in this field nowadays due to such an oversaturated market. So I think it’s more important for me at least to get up and be successful for that day, for that moment. Over time success may come in a bigger package, but I don’t worry about that right now. I just want to make good photographs and capture the interesting moments in life.
By Leo Kroonen

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