Khalil Raad (b. 1854) was widely known as Palestine’s first Arab photographer. He documented daily life in Palestine, both before and after the Nakba, through mediums including glass plates, postcards, films, and photographs.
Childhood and Education
Khalil Raad was born in Bhamdoun, Lebanon, in 1854. His father, Anis, had settled there when he fled his village of Sibnay in Mount Lebanon after he converted from the Maronite faith to Protestantism. In 1860, Raad’s father was killed in sectarian strife, so his mother took him and his sister, Sarah, to Jerusalem, where they lived with relatives. One of Raad’s paternal uncles taught at a Protestant school in Jerusalem called Bishop Gobat School, which Raad then attended.
Raad was artistically inclined and developed an interest in photography when he met Garabed Krikorian, an Armenian photographer from Jerusalem. He became a student of Krikorian, who in turn had been a student of Armenian Patriarch Issay Garabedian. Garabedian played a pivotal role in the expansion of photography in Palestine, dedicating his life to teaching young Jerusalemites the art of photography, despite hostility from conservative religious bodies in the Ottoman Empire.
The Development of Photography in Palestine
On August 19, 1839, Louis Daguerre and Joseph Nicéphore Nièpce officially presented the invention of photography to the French Academy of Science and the public. Holy sites were the first thing people wanted to photograph, so the practice arrived in Palestine the very same year. Dozens of Arab and Western photographers roamed the land, photographing Tiberias, Beirut, Jaffa, Damascus, and Jerusalem.
The work of European photographers in developing the medium in the Holy Land coincided with the colonial activity of European powers, making the two inseparable. As a result, the Holy Land played an integral role in the development of the photographic medium, and, before Raad, was mostly photographed from a European viewpoint.1
Garabedian taught photography courses in the 1850s within the Church of St. James compound in the Old City of Jerusalem. One of his most notable students was Raad’s mentor Krikorian, who went on to establish the first photographic studio in Jerusalem in the 1870s. His commercial work focused on taking portraits of local personalities, pilgrims, and tourists.
After Raad completed his studies with Krikorian in 1891, he started to photograph independently, and opened his own studio opposite Krikorian’s in 1895 on Jaffa Road, Jerusalem, which sparked a fierce rivalry between student and teacher. The rivalry was transformed into a collegial relationship when Krikorian’s son Johannes married Raad’s niece Najla.
An advertisement placed by Raad in the Hebrew-language newspaper Havatzelet in 1899 provides a feel for the state of the art at that time:
to inform, to announce, and to make known—those desiring photographed pictures of any kind, of the most refined, and at a reasonable price, can apply to me, the undersigned, and I am prepared at all times to fulfill the wishes of any of my admirers, in the best manner possible!2
At the turn of the century, Raad was appointed photographer to the Kingdom of Prussia, which gave him status that allowed him to travel across the region with immunity and freedom, opening the door for a long and fruitful career.
Raad’s Early Career
Raad’s photography style differed vastly from that of his rival and teacher. He was interested in daily life in Jerusalem, including political events and major archaeological excavations. In 1914, on the eve of World War I, Raad traveled to Basel, Switzerland, to learn European photography techniques from his high school teacher Keller.
While there, he met and fell in love with Keller’s assistant, Annie Muller. They got engaged but were only able to marry in 1919 once the war was over.
They settled in a village near Jerusalem called Talbiyya, where Raad continued to document life in Jerusalem and beyond.
Before Raad, the Holy Land was photographed mostly through a colonial and European lens. Raad’s extensive body of work counteracted that. His photography has played a crucial role in documenting life in the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate Palestine. Raad was the official photographer of the Ottoman Army and covered political events as they unfurled in Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon, including the day-to-day life of Ottoman troops in Palestine during World War I. Raad photographed numerous archaeological excavations at sites near Hebron, as well as Tall Adonis, Tall Megiddo, and the earthworks of Jerusalem’s third wall rampart.
Raad’s photography combined aestheticism with historical documentation. His portrayal of life in Palestine depicted farmers in their villages, undermining the myth that Palestine was just empty space before 1948. He also documented Palestinian fighters such as Izz al-Din al-Qassam as they battled Zionist and British Mandate forces.
As a Christian, Raad depicted scenes through a biblical construct, influenced by Western photography. He particularly enjoyed photographing local people, urban and rural development, religious ceremonies, national events, fishing, agriculture, education, culture, processions, and customs. Because he was the first photographer to center Palestinian life and identity, Raad gained the title of Palestine’s first Arab photographer.
Raad liked to connect his subjects to the land. In one image, a man stands in a field of wheat, as though he is growing out of it himself. In another, a man in rags proudly holds a basket of bright, juicy Jaffa oranges, showing how enriched he is by the land.
Raad photographed places of significance from both the New Testament and the Old Testament, such as the house of Simon the Tanner in Jaffa and the Inn of the Good Samaritan. He accompanied his images with captions from the New Testament, forever binding his work to its religious-historical context. For example, the caption that accompanies his photograph of a fisherman on the shores of the Sea of Galilee reads: ”Follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” a reference to the Gospel of Mark’s “Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.” Biblical captions can be found in much of Raad’s work.
Raad’s work indicates how the local inhabitants responded to and experienced the prevailing Western viewpoint forced on the region, and later expresses the complexity and duality of the relationship that was born in the wake of the colonial situation.3
Raad and the Nakba
When the State of Israel was established in 1948, Raad and his family were forced to leave Jerusalem; they went first to Hebron and then moved north to his ancestral village of Bhamdoun in Lebanon.
Raad’s body of work was almost wiped out when Jaffa Road was captured by Zionist forces and his photography studio was seized. An Italian friend of Raad’s made a few trips across the no-man’s-land under the cover of night to retrieve Raad’s entire catalog of work. Soon thereafter the studio was destroyed and likely looted by soldiers and passersby. Raad’s archive of negatives was stored in another building in Jerusalem and is now preserved in the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut. Many of his photographs were reprinted in Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians 1876–1948 by Walid Khalidi and published by the Institute for Palestine Studies in 1984.
During the years following 1948, Raad continued to photograph the region and gained access to the Egyptian-Palestinian front through a Syrian militant friend, photographing soldiers in their artillery positions.
Death and Exhibitions
Raad died in Lebanon in 1957. His career had spanned six decades.
In September 2022, the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut launched an exhibit of Raad’s work called “Palestine . . . Life through the Eyes of Photographer Khalil Raad: A Tribute Exhibition.” The institute selected 64 images from the 3,000 in Raad’s archive to create an exhibition that captured a range of aspects of life in historical Palestine under Ottoman and British rule. The collection was divided into four categories: Palestine—lived experience, Landscapes, Scenes, and Palestine under occupation. The images showcased the land’s natural beauty, as well as scenes from Palestinian cities, villages, and archaeological and holy sites.
The exhibition was part of the Beirut Image Festival 2022—“Memory” program, and breathed new life into Raad’s extensive and impressive archive of work.
Abu Shamma, Hashem. “Politics of Portraiture: The Studio of the Krikorians.” Jerusalem Quarterly, no. 81 (2020): 140–52.
al-Hajj, Badr. “Khalil Raad—Jerusalem Photographer.” Jerusalem Quarterly, nos. 11–12 (2001). www.palestine-studies.org/en/node/78083.
Kline, Brett. “Hey, There Were People Living Here.” Jerusalem Post, July 9, 2010
Nassar, Issam. “Palestinian Photography before 1948: Documenting Life in a Time of Change.” Interactive Encyclopedia of the Palestinian Question.
Sela, Rona. “Resilient Resistance: Colonial Biblical, Archaeological and Ethnographical Imaginaries in the Work of Chalil Raad (Khalīl Raʿd), 1891–1948.” In Imaging and Imagining Palestine: Photography, Modernity and the Biblical Lens, 1918–1948, edited by Karène Sanchez Summerer and Sary Zananiri, 185–226. Leiden: Brill, 2021.
Zananiri, Sari. “Imaging and Imagining Palestine: An Introduction.” In Imaging and Imagining Palestine: Photography, Modernity and the Biblical Lens, 1918–1948, edited by Karène Sanchez Summerer and Sary Zananiri, 1–28. Leiden: Brill, 2021.
[Profile photo: Institute for Palestine Studies]
Rona Sela, “Resilient Resistance: Colonial Biblical, Archaeological and Ethnographical Imaginaries in the Work of Chalil Raad (Khalīl Raʿd), 1891–1948,” in Imaging and Imagining Palestine: Photography, Modernity and the Biblical Lens, 1918–1948, ed. Karène Sanchez Summerer and Sary Zananiri (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 185–226.