‘Rock Soft’ is the work of photographer Joseph Barrett. The self-published series is the documentation of Joe’s time volunteering with the charity Skate Pal. In a series of images that challenge the preconceived notions of a place and its people, Joe captures the warm and welcoming smiles of those the charity seeks to help, Palestinian children.

Skate Pal is an organisation that utilises skateboarding to connect with local communities, whose work seeks to enhance the physical and mental well-being of young Palestinians.

Joe explains, in great detail, the makings of an important body of work.

WT: How did the initial idea for the project come about?

My interest in visiting Palestine was mainly through my friend Mark Gavigan, who helped build some of the first skateparks in Palestine. I started researching SkatePal, the charity Mark had been working with and decided that I would apply to volunteer as a skateboard instructor. SkatePal encourages creatives who volunteer to document their time working with the charity, as this helps with spreading awareness, and gives an insight into what to expect for future volunteers. I felt it was important to take my camera with me during my visit and to document my experiences. When I returned to the UK, I knew I wanted to collate a series of images to tell a certain story, but to be honest it took me a long time to process the trip and exactly what that should be. It wasn't until a couple of years later that I decided I would start working on a photo book.

WT: Can you explain what Skate Pal does, and what volunteers contribute to when on the ground?

SkatePal is a charitable organisation based in the UK, working with both Palestinians and international volunteers throughout the year to provide the social, health and wellbeing benefits of skateboarding to a community where the youth is affected by ongoing conflict, facing severely limited access to cultural, educational and sporting opportunities. As a volunteer, you will be taking part in skateboard lessons, where you help to teach beginners the basics of skateboarding, which is only possible through SkatePal providing skateparks and communal skateboards in a number of areas through the West Bank. I was based in a small village called Jayyous, where I would give after-school lessons to the children of the village Monday-Friday. In the lessons, you could see first-hand how much enjoyment this was providing for the local community, and it could be used as a tool for positive focus and as a distraction from the political landscape. Seeing the progression of the kids throughout the month was rewarding.

WT: How did you navigate the cultural sensitivity of photographing in Palestine? Did this differ from your usual way of working?

When visiting a country for the first time you have to be mindful of local culture and how you are being perceived in the environment. As I familiarised myself with my surroundings my instincts of what I found was appropriate to photograph would broaden. I had no preconceived notions of what I was hoping to capture during my visit, but it became a daily routine to walk up and down the village with my camera, and through doing this a natural story of images developed. Initially, I found I was drawn to observations around the village, focusing more on textural objects and signs of human behaviour in the landscapes, but as time went on and I began to form relationships with locals this allowed opportunity for portraiture work. The only obvious difference from my usual way of working was the lack of communication, as I don't speak Arabic, and often the locals would only speak very basic English.

WT: How did people respond to the camera? The photographs are so joyful, attributed to the wide grins of the children, despite capturing the degradation of their immediate environment.

Honestly, the response was great, the majority of my interactions came from having the camera on display during my walks rather than hidden away in my bag. I found there was always a heavy presence of youth out and about playing on the streets, so more often than not they would take interest in me passing by, and once they realised it was a camera that I was holding with no obvious prompts they would start to do playful poses for me. At the moment it was just a fun interaction. Some behaviours in human nature are completely universal, and posing for a camera falls into that category.

WT: Was there ever a time when you felt it to be too obtrusive?

I found Palestinians to be some of the most hospitable people I've ever met, and at times I would find myself having wholesome interactions with families, being invited into their homes, and enjoying a cup of tea together. In these moments I felt it was more important to be present and respect their privacy, rather than trying to use these interactions as a photo opportunity. That's not to say I did not want to take a photograph at that moment, but it didn't always feel appropriate. A lot of the children you see in the photo series are kids that I would be interacting with every day, as I was part of an after-school teaching programme in the village, so by the time I felt comfortable enough to be photographing them it didn't feel obtrusive.

WT: Is there a particular moment or photograph that holds significant meaning for you?

It's funny how often your relationship with images changes over time. I never expected this image to hold this level of significance within the series, but I think the primary image of 'Rock Soft' looks through the bedroom window of the house I was staying in out towards a deep, sandy-toned valley of olive trees. There's a personal significance attached to this image as I hold dear memories of times spent in that house, and it represents the warmth of home during my stay, as well as the friendships made. Furthering that within the photo series, I think the significance of a window could be seen as a visual metaphor of the landscape, symbolising the human desire for hope, freedom, and escape from confinement, barriers, or limitations.

WT: Although you made the work during 2018, a period of relative quiet in the region, did you face any difficulties when working with the organisation and the children they support?

Before mentioning any difficulties I want to explain that I found volunteering with SkatePal, meeting fellow volunteers, and experiencing the hospitality of Palestinian people to be one of the most enriching opportunities I've had in my lifetime. That being said it can at times be a volatile environment, and this is something visitors need to be aware of. Being so closely situated to the border of Israel/West Bank we would often have the IDF raiding our village, which usually resulted in a lockdown (no travel in or out), you would feel remnants of tear gas grenades in the air, you would hear rubber bullets being fired, and yet this felt like a regular occurrence for locals. The worst-case scenario we experienced as volunteers was the IDF coming into the skatepark during one of our weekly lessons, which visibly caused high tension and upset for the children, leaving them scared and in tears. The resilience shown in how routine these sorts of events had become for the villagers, and their ability to bounce back to normal life was admirable, to say the least.

WT: How has making this work shaped and developed your storytelling practice?

Rock Soft was my debut photo book, and it taught me the importance of making a tangible object that can tell a precise story, be discussed and celebrated, and most importantly be remembered and revisited. With the recent outbreak of devastating events going on in Palestine, the significance of a photo book that can paint a positive light on an often misrepresented demographic can provide solace for people with pro-Palestine views amongst a predominantly distressing output of images on the topic.

WT: How can people best support the work of Skate Pal?

There are multiple ways you can help SkatePal - You can volunteer, donate money, support them by buying their products, attending their events, or simply spreading the word.


To learn more about Skate Pal’s vital work, head over to their website.

'Rock Soft' is available for purchase via Good Press, please visit their website.

For more of Joe's work, you can follow him on Instagram.


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