by Jeff Sykes

Artist captures the struggle of the individual amidst a wider conflict | @jeffreysykes

Todd Drake‘s photography transcends language and culture.

Despite the fact that a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m often speechless when I attend one of his exhibits or listen to him describe the experience behind the lens.

I first met Drake when he was showing his Help: Hidden Work, Hidden Lives exhibit on the campus of NC A&T State University in Greensboro. I was experimenting with documentary video production at the time, and Drake was gracious enough to let me craft a project based on that work.

His latest project came to life after he spent time in May 2013 in the Palestinian city of Ramallah and in East Jerusalem. The exhibit, Double Vision: Perspectives from Palestine, opened this past week at Founders Hall on the campus of Guilford College.

The exhibit runs through Oct. 22, and Drake is speaking on campus today at 4 p.m.

“It’s my perspective looking in as an outsider and their perspective as Palestinians looking at their own world,” Drake said as we toured the exhibit. “I think it’s a good compliment.”

That Drake could bring the first-person experience of students trapped in a wartorn land of strife to the sylvan campus of a private, upper-class college dedicated to Quaker passivity is a good example of the juxtapositions that often make his work salient.

College representatives prepped in the lobby for Family Day; they were ready to pass out burnt red T-shirts and directions across campus. Students hurried up and down the steps, while talking of the weekend’s activities, or lounged in soft chairs cramming for a project deadline or an impending exam. On the wall hung photographs depicting the struggle of youths half a globe away who can’t leave their town for the razor wire and military patrols that isolate them from communities closer than Guilford College is to UNC-Greensboro.

With the constant drumbeat of war coming from the Middle East it’s easy sometimes to forget the immediate, first-person experience of people trying to eke out a daily life amidst the conflict.

Drake said that plays into his Double Vision theme. The competing views of pro-Israeli forces and the rest of the world often blind us to the immediacy of life in the occupied West Bank.

“It’s a clashing narrative,” Drake said. “We tend to pick one side or the other. It’s more honest to recognize there are two narratives playing out.”

Drake has made a global impact with his ability to give agency to often overlooked individuals. A colleague at a local college recommended his work to a diplomat, who in turn recommended Drake to the U.S. State Department. Drake has served as a cultural ambassador since 2007, and has traveled twice to Bahrain during the Arab Spring movement, in addition to trips to Saudi Arabia and the West Bank. He teaches classes on photography, culminating in student exhibits. He once taught women in strict Muslim countries to take self-portraits “” with or without the burqa.

Drake said he was confronted at once with the sense of confinement and despair that children in the West Bank experience. Students are not allowed to visit friends in nearby towns. Families looking for a day at the beach are turned away at checkpoints because a family member’s pass is not good on Sunday. Drake compared this daily limitation to the Jim Crow era.

“That kind of general harassment is what I felt I was seeing,” he said.

A list of the images from Drake’s exhibit only begins to tell the larger story: a busted out sign that reads “Welcome to Bethlehem,” a picture of Jewish youths celebrating “All-Jerusalem Day” taken from a cab while the Palestinian driver cursed the Zionist intent for that Holy City and a large wall charred with smoke, the remains of the garbage container in ruins below.

A most compelling photo is of a Palestinian man, a forlorn look on his face, standing amidst the graves of his ancestors. The man had lost his home to illegal Jewish settlements. A wall alongside the gravesite separated the man from his land.

Another photo shows mobile homes parked on a hillside. Drake said it was the vanguard of a new settlement as he explained that the Israelis claim the land with trailers and then win a judgment from Israeli courts before building the permanent settlement.

“I hope people take long enough time to hear the voices in the show,” Drake said. “There are two wars going on in Palestine. One is every day, a small series of events that wear people down. I think that’s just as important as the bombs and the bigger war we see on television.” !


Double Vision: Perspectives from Palestine opened this past week at Founders Hall on the campus of Guilford College. The exhibit runs through Oct. 22. For more information visit Todd Drake’s website