The Palestinian circus school intertwining political stories and grassroots social work

Reading Time: 10 minutes

First published on

British documentary photographer Rich Wiles has been based in Palestine for many years. His work explores notions of home, identity, resistance, and has been published and exhibited widely. Rich tells us more about his series Circus behind the Wall (which was shortlisted for the Sony World Photography Awards 2015) and his path into photography. With entries to the 2016 edition of the Sony World Photography Awards closing soon, now is the time to enter your work.

For you, what is the purpose of photography?

Photography is a medium that helps us to question the way we look at the world and what we ‘know’ or think about it. If photography can make us ‘think’ differently, then can it also encourage us to act differently? I believe that it can, and therefore the purpose of my photographic practice, unashamedly, is to be an agent for social change in whatever context that is being sought.

You have lived in Palestine for many years.  What brought you to the country and was photography any influence on this decision?

My time at college coincided with the anti-war movement in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. I was involved in the anti-war movement and it became the feature of my first major long-term project. Once Iraq was invaded I knew that I had to go to document the global and human consequences of decisions made in seats of power.

Through the anti-war movement I met a group of activists who were going to Palestine and invited me to join them as a photographer. Those 3 weeks in Palestine in 2003, amidst the Second Intifada, were life changing and my work in Palestine had begun.

I made repeat trips in 2004, and by 2005 I was living in Aida refugee camp and running participatory photography projects with children in the camp as well as developing my personal projects. Since then, apart from international exhibition and book tours, or short visits to see family and friends, I have been based in Palestine.


Students at the Palestinian Circus School, Birzeit. Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine © Rich Wiles
Students at the Palestinian Circus School, Birzeit. Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine © Rich Wiles


Where were the images shot, what is the circus in the pictures and what was the inspiration for the series?

Circus behind the Wall explores the work of the Palestinian Circus School – a project that was established by Palestinians in 2006 to teach contemporary circus skills to children and youth across the West Bank. The series was shot at the school’s base in the village of Birzeit over the course of several visits to the school.


Students at the Palestinian Circus School, Birzeit, Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine © Rich Wiles
Students at the Palestinian Circus School, Birzeit, Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine © Rich Wiles


The circus school exudes energy and the movement and shape presents rich photographic opportunities, but the more time I spent speaking to people there different layers began to unravel. Circus has no traditional roots in Palestine so the school’s very existence is a reflection of our globalised world, yet the school has found a way to remain firmly attached to its Palestinian context. In its international shows it uses contemporary circus as a platform from which it tells stories of Palestinian life and struggles, but it also brings much needed laughter to many children in its local shows and works for positive societal change within Palestine – it was this multi-dimensional aspect that really struck me.

This year the awards received many submissions shots in black and white.  Why did you choose to shoot your shortlisted series in this style and is this how you prefer to work?

I worked exclusively with black and white film in my first few years in Palestine. Since moving to digital I have done more colour work although my love of black and white remains with me today. It comes down to ‘feeling’ – if I don’t ‘feel’ my images then they’re not working. Sometimes I know instinctively whether a particular project should be colour or mono, but with ‘Circus behind the Wall’ it was whilst editing the first shoot rather than an initial impression. Stripped back to form and tone the work just ‘made sense’ to me in mono.

Magnum Professional Practice all workshops gif