‘It’s important now more than ever’: Slidefest Palestine comes to London

© Rehaf Batniji

In a one-off event at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, Slidefest brings together five photographers exploring overlooked aspects of Palestinian life

“What I really enjoyed was that a lot of the people who came to Slidefest weren’t the kind of people who would normally go to a gallery opening, you know?” asks Mohamed Somji from his home in east London. “They were just people who were interested in learning more about the world. That’s really where it started.”

Somji has just arrived in the capital from Dubai, where he is the director of gallery and community organisation Gulf Photo Plus (GPP), and where he spends the majority of his time. He is discussing one of GPP’s biggest successes – a series of events known as Slidefest. The concept is a simple one: across one evening, a group of photographers present work on one theme in the form of a slideshow, delivering their images and reflections directly to an audience, and thus moving beyond the constraints of a traditional exhibition.

© Samar Hazboun
© Tanya Habjouqa

“I’ve been working with Palestinian photographers for many years, and they’re very keen for their work to get out”

After over 30 events across Cairo, Jeddah, Riyadh and Bahrain, this unassuming format began attracting attendees in their hundreds, prompting Somji to seek new audiences for GPP’s network of image-makers. A sold out event at London’s ICA in 2023 boosted his confidence further, and led to the organisation of London’s second Slidefest – Slidefest Palestine – which will take place on 08 May at the University of Greenwich’s Stephen Lawrence Gallery.

“It’s a cheap way to have, let’s say, an exhibition roadshow,” Somji explains of Slidefest’s success. “When an artist speaks they’re talking about their work in a way that is very comfortable to them. They say, ‘Look, this is what led me to do this project, here’s the project, here’s what I’ve learned from it, here’s what I’m doing next.’” This interaction, he says, offers something beyond the chatter of a champagne reception, or even the more formal introductions and interpretations often provided by curators.

This centring of the artist’s voices will be of particular importance tonight, when presentations are made by photographers based in Palestine and the diaspora. Each will offer a perspective that Somji describes as too often overlooked – narratives of Palestinian life obscured by the news cycle and by the horror of conflict. While such images have an important role to play, he hopes that Slidefest’s quieter, slower projects will offer an opportunity for deeper understanding.

© Maen Hammad

In particular he highlights Maen Hammad, whose series Landing explores the purposeful escape that skateboarding offers to Palestinian skaters – a radical form of resistance and a pocket of freedom. There’s also Tanya Habjouqa’s Birds Unaccustomed to Gravity, which traces the losses and victories that define Palestinian life, and which Somji describes as a “lyrical, visual composition that articulates the absurdities that you see in Palestine”. Both photographers, alongside Rehaf Batniji, Özge Calafato and Samar Hazboun, will join the evening via video call – a less than perfect medium, Somji acknowledges, but one worth embracing in order to hear directly from these image-makers.

“I’ve been working with Palestinian photographers for many years, and they’re very keen for their work to get out,” Somji explains. “A lot of photographers have taken up this mantle of advocacy, because a lot of us feel hopeless and numb while there’s this wanton destruction and death that’s happening. There’s this understanding that it is important now, more than ever, that people have the space to learn about Palestine and are able to show this work.”

© Kegham Djeghalian

Slidefest Palestine is at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, London, from 08 May