[slidepress gallery=’thomasfreteur_abusakha’]

Hover over the image for navigation and full screen controls

Thomas Freteur

Abu Sakha…

play this essay


Mohammed Abu Sakha used to be a normal, cheerful kid, despite the violence he witnessed in the West Bank in 2004. In 2008, he joined the first Palestinian circus school, an organization that trains Palestinian children from various West Bank cities throughout the year. When summer comes, they hit the road, taking the kids for a Mobile Circus Tour.

“I feel circus brings me the chance to send my message from Palestine to the world”, he tells. “I don’t speak English very much so I can’t communicate with everybody outside of Palestine. Circus brought me that chance. I can use it as a expression tool to tell our stories.”

I followed Mohammed in August 2009 during a tour of the circus.

In the night of August 24th 2009, the Israeli Occupation army surrounded the house of Mohammed Abu Sakha in the old city of Jenin. His parents were told that they just wanted to talk to him outside, but instead they took him and put him into jail. At that point, Mohammed had just turned 18. He was accused of throwing stones at one of the Israeli attacks in 2004 during the second Intifada – at which point he was 13 years old.



In 2005, I was 25 years old and I shared the same passion about photo documentary with three friends. We founded the photographers’ collective “Out of Focus”, based in Brussels.  Since then, I usually work for local associations and NGO’s. I am also doing a personal project concerning circus around our world like the Palestinian Circus School. It’s more about daily life than shows, and more particularly about the use of art in conflict situations such as occupied territories.

For the two last years, I also coordinate with the collective specific exhibitions. We regularly spread our images out of their usual context by exhibiting in the streets and open spaces. An interesting way to generate reflection…


Related links

Thomas Freteur – Out of Focus


Editor’s note:

Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

24 thoughts on “thomas freteur – abu sakha…”

  1. “It’s more about daily life than shows..”

    ..and that’s what it makes work to me.. you’re close, and it shows. Thank you!

    Is Abu Sakha still in jail?

  2. Congrats on being published on Burn Thomas. A very interesting perspective on the never ending conflict in the middle east. Some really nice shots, a few cliched PJ shots, a few shots in bad light. I think you have found a compelling way of approaching a difficult subject but I think you can get closer and more intimate to really make this an excellent project. Keep working it.

    All the best,


  3. I don’t understand what this essay is about. It is tragic that injustice exists in the world. But it does.

    As for the photos, they look like something for a local feature section in the newspaper. I don’t get any particular feel for the individual you were “following.” I’ve learned nothing about him from your photos other than that he was there. It’s as if you are trying to make someone interesting who isn’t particularly. While we are all trying to make scenes and individual’s interesting that don’t know they are, I don’t think you’ve succeeded here.

  4. i tend to agree with the above statement that the subject isn’t particularly interesting, but i enjoyed the piece as i got a sneak-peak into someone’s life that i generally wouldn’t be able to see. i think that is what gives this essay it’s strength. its not jaw dropping by any standards yet it does have a little something going for it.

  5. Merci merci!
    Indeed Abu isn’t someone really particular…and that’s probably why I chose him. And because, as you said “It is tragic that injustice exists in the world. But it does.”, But, believe me, when it’s hapened to someone close to you, you feel a bit more concerned and although my photographic way of seeing life is still under construction, I feel I have the duty to spread that story. (Hope you will excuse my french way of thinking in english..).
    I will go back to Palestine in the next months in order to follow Abu again in his dailylife and during the Palestine Mobile Circus tour and prepare an urban exhibition there.

    I ll let you know

  6. I enjoyed your work very much Thomas.
    It is interesting to see a different aspect of Palestinian life that I have not seen before. I think your idea is interesting and important and you should continue with it.

  7. I agree with Jim. I would include captioning the images as some of them are too random, especially of other people, I don’t know their significance to the central character who doesn’t feature prominently in the essay. Sure you have a collection of shots about him but the ones that don’t focus on him dilute the overall piece, it might work with a tighter edit which focuses on your main character.

    To me images 2 through to 8 don’t agree with what you’ve written for example. Who is the man in the 3rd image and what relevance does image 4 and 5 have in the essay? None as far as I can tell unless you reign it in with some captions.

  8. Yes, I really should have add captions.

    The first part of this essay is about Abu’s life, in Jenin (the neighbourhood), with his family (the father owns a laundry shop), at the graduation party where they dance together Dabka. Then we slowly start the Palestine Circus Tour (which happen every August since 2007) with the shows and the training around Westbank.
    To finish, we come back to his dailylife in Jenin,like all teenagers, with his friends and family…

    And as I said in the text, this essay is more about daily life than shows, even though that’s not a excuse!

  9. But, believe me, when it’s hapened to someone close to you, you feel a bit more concerned and although my photographic way of seeing life is still under construction,

    Thomas it seems that what you know about the person is what you failed to communicate top the audience visually. It is better to present a finished resolved work than one in progress and I think that you should

  10. Thomas, I always love to read the captions, but In this case i think the images speak so well by them selves… I didn’t read the description before looking at the essay. And to my untrained eye, i felt like it was taking place in someplace like where David is right now. Then I read it was along the West Bank. It feels so close to home… I feel more each day that it’s not religious belief that leads to conflicts.. but lack of respect for each other’s faith. This is the first essay I’ve seen that hasn’t shown a war – it really shows these people are a lot like us in the west… Congratulations on being publish here on Burn.

  11. A very, very, quiet, essay about a very, very, noisy subject.

    I looked at the images prior to reading the text and did not pick up on the stated theme from viewing them.

    After I read the text, I went back and looked at the images again and this time I found power in their quietness, but I did want to learn more about Abu Sakha – both in images and words, and I wanted to learn more about Circus. I, too, would like to know if Abu is still in jail.

    In the case of this photo series, I, too, think good captions would be most helpful.

    I do not believe that there are any uninteresting people. All people are interesting – even the boring ones – and all people are interesting photographically. I hope you do indeed pick up with Abu once he is out of jail (or even while he is in, should such a thing be possible) and that you do tell us his story in a little more depth. This, of course, assumes that he is still in jail and not out already, as that is one vital piece of information that we are missing.

    Is this allowed on Burn? To shoot an essay, get a critique, and then do an update later? Given the theme of Burn, I think it would be a good exercise.

  12. Thomas, thanks for dealing with the issue of caption omissions in your replies above. It is very hard to maintain, or even initiate, a level of objectivity in one’s work when one is so closely aligned, and biased with, the subject matter. Having an editorial assist from someone would help a lot.

    Like many others, I’m very perplexed with the intent of the essay. The bookends show the man-child relaxed, contemplative, and reposed. The peaceful beginning and ending are in contrast to the message I think you are trying to communicate. Again, an editor would have been helpful to get beyond what I see as being a lack of mindfulness here.

    But, it also seems to me we are being very easy on your essay as there are some excellent images to relish. It shows much promise. Thanks.

  13. Thomas.
    I think its an important idea you have here. We in the west to often relate negativity and fundamentalism to Arabic cultures. By choosing a subject that clearly demonstrates that the young people of, in this case, Palestine, are no different from the young in any Western country, is important and to be commended.
    Well done on choosing a theme thats so important at this point in history when Global relations and understandings have never been as important.
    I think your images worked in conveying what you stated.
    Keep it up..

  14. Dear all,

    Abu spent more than 2 months in Jail. Now he is out but still waiting for another trial. We are still in touch and I am going back to Jenin next August for the next Palestine Circus Tour or November to prepare an urban exhibition of my pictures ( according to my finances..).

    To tell the truth, I followed Abu Sakha because I feel quite close to him. We are not genious in what we do BUT we do really believe in human being, that’s why we just keep on!

    Abu’s daily life is as quiet as the pictures are, even though he is from Jenin (one of the most “touched” city in Westbank by the Israeli army and the fundamentalists). So indeed, my text is more like a counterpoint to the apparent tranquility of this essay, because that’s the reality there.

    For the editing side, that’s the most difficult part for me, even though I always try to show my work to someone more qualified. I will try to apply for some workshops in order to deal with that lack (if someone know good workshops around Belgium…)

    Merci pour les critiques

  15. I was more interested in the circus pictures than the others, though I understand why you want to include them. But a feature just on the circus seems more compelling than your focus on one individual.

  16. Some fantastic images. At first I was confused by the lack of captions, but as long as the images tell the story (which most do, but not all) then I think captions are often over rated.

    I think the piece would have been stronger if you had eliminated some of the first few images. The dish on the roof is good as it sets the scene and then jump to him at the doorway. The others in there (older man, little girl, etc) are just confusing. And maybe end it with some strong circus pictures as this is his passion. Your eye and photographs are there most definitely, just needed some editing help.

    Like Peter said it’s nice to see something different and positive about life in Palestine. In some ways the essay might have been stronger without knowing about his arrest, though of course this is a concern, esp to you.

    Well done! Keep at it.

  17. “Thomas it seems that what you know about the person is what you failed to communicate to the audience visually. It is better to present a finished resolved work than one in progress and I think that you should.” Imants delivers the professional critique, precisely. He usually does. I agree in that vein.

    There is something fresh, almost innocent in this set of images. For a change, we see only the personal side, although is it steeped in all the violence & destruction that’s apparent in many of the images. I like this approach. Don’t succumb to the formula of “war” photojournalism here. What works is how you feel about him and that comes shining through. One would have to be an idiot not to have a “side” or strong emotions about the terror that grips everyone in this conflict. Don’t let that cloud it up. What you offer is a timeout to see this person and those intertwined with him, in a new way. There’s still normalcy, even in the worst of circumstances, and you captured that. The essay is not an answer, but an observation. This is good work & I join the chorus of other voices here that support your efforts to work harder to craft this ongoing story. It is compelling in it’s own right. Don’t sensationalize it. Make it even more personal & specific to your experience of & with him. Congrats. You are brave.

  18. Thomas, my name’s sake :),

    I think its a great essay although i’m not sure I get it. Funny that is. It is that which this beautiful art can do (imho). There are in my opinion, some great images in there however it is a little difficult to pull them into a cohesive stream of conciousness – perhaps they aren’t intended that way which is fine too.

    I can’t help comment without referencing image #5, what appears to be a young girl in the distance. This to me is the most powerful of the set. The natural contrast captured in the shot is just wonderful, perhaps a once in a lifetime shot and you managed to capture it. Love it, love it, love it.

    So I think it needs a bit more joined up sequencing to tell a story (which by the way I did read in the artist statement). That is, of course, if I am the target audience but that probably isn’t the case :)

    Well done, keep the photographic faith. Congratulations on burn. A pleasure.


  19. Thomas, this is very important work you are doing with Mohammed. All we in the West seem to see of Palestinian young men is in the context of war and conflict. You are opening a window into the day-to-day existence of people like Mohammed who have lives beyond what we see portrayed on the news. As I say, this is very important.

    You obviously have the trust of Mohammed and his family, as well as his circus compatriots. When you return this summer try to go deeper, more intimate, more personal. I just have a hint of who this young man is and I want to know more. I already care about him but I want to care more deeply.

    I agree with the suggestion to add captions. Some photos are self-evident but others are not. And please keep showing us his whole life, not just his life in the circus. I want to see Mohammed as a whole person.

    This is such a good start. Please share the next installment with us when it comes. Thank you for doing this work…


  20. Hey guys this is Mohammed Abu Sakha,
    All of the Palestinaian people suffer, and i am one of them. Thewhole World should know what is going on in Palestine. For those of you asking the man in picture 3, is my father. I would also like to mention to Thomas, that after you ledt Jenin in five days, the israelies came into my home. I went through a hard time in Jail, and this article isn’t made to make me important or anything, whats important is the messeage it send to the people, about Plestine, because many people dont have much concern. Thank you Thomas for taking the time, and writing this up, i cant wait to see you soon, (sorry about my english, if its hard to understand)

    Mohammed Abu Sakha

  21. Thomas
    The photo story is great.
    As pointed, a circus is the last thing people have in mind when they think about an arab country in general and Palestine in particular.
    But why is the text trying to artificially reconnect this very good story to the conflict while nothing of it is there?
    In my opinion this conection is artificial and brings unbalance to the whole story.
    You are trying to make a political/humanitarian statement with photographic material that has nothing to do with it.

    Mohamed, good luck!
    I wish you success with the circus and a peaceful life.

  22. Pingback: Demands grow on Israel to release circus teacher for disabled children | The Prisoners' Diaries Book

Comments are closed.