I went to a place once…
Not knowing at first that once would become a lot.
I went to a place once…
A place on this earth that I can’t believe my soul has ever forgot.
I went to a place once…
It will always heave my heart.

June 22nd 2016. I took a flight towards a city in the middle east named Tel Aviv, which exists in a place some know as Israel. I had been longing to travel again but was restricted by matters of the heart. Eventually, I booked the flight anyway and that is where this story begins.

This is my ever-changing long-term photo essay about Israel and the Palestinian territories. A place so complex and beautiful at the same time. It isn’t always easy or straightforward to put into words but I have done my best to paint the broadest of brushstrokes and allow the photographs below to convey the rest of the stories to you.

It is in some way, my own version of Aliyah. The act of going up…

A word on navigation

There are over 100 photographs in this article, split over 10 locations. For the impatient among you, you can jump to any of the locations using the links below:


There is no city more named throughout history than the city of Jerusalem. A settlement at the city’s current site is known to have existed as long ago as 3000 BCE and the current old city walls were built c1000 BCE. Over the millennia, the city has been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times and destroyed twice. Not only making it one of the oldest cities in the world but also one of the most complex and fought over.

For me, it now feels like a sort of a second home.

My favorite places vary from the old city to the vibrant parts of the new city like the Mahane Jehuda Market.

There is always so much going on. You see pilgrims going about their business at all of the holy sites, Israeli and Palestinian coexisting and somehow making the most of the situation. On one hand, you see a very modern lifestyle with bars live music and craft beer, and on the other you see traditions being continued as they have for centuries.

Of course, the vast numbers of soldiers and police are a giveaway to the continuing Israeli and Palestinian conflict, although it is not likely something you will experience on the surface while visiting the city, at least during this time, and the other times that I have been there. During everyday life, you will find conflict when you look deeper. It’s in the nuances. A dirty look, a remark, flags, a spit, or during a memorial day when some people stop with what they are doing and others just keep doing what they do…

On the other hand, you will see plenty of beautiful moments. My key moment was the first day I arrived. An old Palestinian man with his grandson asking an Israeli solder to take a photograph of them together. Other than that I have met so many beautiful souls and had so many beautiful moments that I can’t count them on my hands and feet anymore.

And I am sure everyone that will visit the old city of Jerusalem will find them instantly.

It literally is a place of magic.

The Western Wall

Once there was Temple Mount… The holiest place in Judaism. The place where once a huge temple was. And the second one was destroyed by the Romans. Not giving the last standing piece of the wall giving any significance since it was no part of the temple itself.

Having no holiest place to return to and for a long time, ironically a Muslim conqueror named Sultan Suleiman encouraged who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal to settle in the city. His decree remained in force and was honored by his successors for more than 400 years.

Throughout the centuries Jews from throughout the world made the difficult pilgrimage to Palestine and immediately headed for the Kotel ha-Ma’aravi or as we know it, the Western Wall, to thank God.

Prayers so passionate, it has been given the name, the Wailing Wall.

Via Dolorosa

It is believed that this is the path that Jesus walked on his way to his crucifixion. Also known as the Way of Suffering… The route begins at Lion’s Gate and ends at the church of the Holy Sepulchre and is about 500 meters long. And therefore you will see a lot of pilgrims walking along the path the entire day.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

From Via Dolorosa, you eventually end up at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is believed by some that Jesus was crucified here and it goes by the name Calvary or Golgotha. Also it holds the stone of anointing, the stone where Jesus his body was prepared for burial. It is a very emotional place where you see pilgrims not only touching and kissing the stone, but also rubbing pieces of clothing, scarves, or other trinkets on the stone to have it blessed.

Despite it being one of Christianity’s holiest sites, the keys to the church are kept safe and protected by a Muslim gatekeeper. It has been their sacred duty for more than five hundred years…

Dome of the Rock

Important to Muslims as well as Jews, the Dome of the Rock is one of the most impressive places you will ever visit. It towers over the city and can be seen from afar – no doubt part of the intention behind its location.

It is believed by some that the founder of Islam, the prophet Muhammad, ascended to heaven from this place on the winged horse Al-Buraq. In the Jewish religion, this is the place where Abraham is believed to have prepared for the sacrifice of his son.

Mount of Olives

A mountain ridge on the east side of Jerusalem. The name hails from the time when olive groves covered the entire mountainside. Now it is part of the Silwan Necropolis and a Jewish cemetery for more than 3000 years…


Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. During this time, the Muslim quarter of the old city of Jerusalem turns into one beautiful spectacle of light. All the different streets compete which one has the most beautiful decorations.

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About ten kilometres from Jerusalem lies Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories. Another city with an incredible amount of history… The place where Jesus is born but also in modern-day a place where a lot of refugees ended up after the Arab-Israeli war.

The first thing you would one would think when thinking of Bethlehem is indeed the birthplace of Jesus, the songs you sing with Christmas, and the Church of Nativity. But with the passing of time, another landmark has arisen: giant wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories.

Aida refugee camp

The big key on top of the entrance of the Aida refugee camp represents the key of the homes of the Palestinian people and symbolizes the right of return. The right of return is a principle in international law which states that everyone has the right to return to their country of origin or citizenship. Which therefore makes everything so complicated since it is everyone’s homeland.

You will see this key and Handala all across the Palestinian territories. Handala is a small ten year-old boy created by cartoonist Naji al-Ali. And represents his ten year-old self when he was forced to leave Palestine. Handala refuses to grow up until he was allowed to return home. It eventually became a symbol of Palestinian defiance.

Aida houses approximately 5000+ people on about an area of just under 200 square meters.

Dheisheh refugee camp

A gate still stands from the first incarnation of the camp, which was created to temporarily house over 3,000 Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

As soon as you walk into the main road of the camp you instantly forget the busy road that you followed to arrive there. Dheisheh still houses about 13,000 people in an area of about 1 square kilometre. The tents that were once there have been replaced by brick housing.

A temporary respite has become a long-term residence.

The camp a strange reality. So many people but still so empty. It’s a remarkable feeling. Even the local mosque is not used that much. People have better things to do. Making sure there is food on the table is one thing.

You see murals everywhere in the Palestinian territories and Dheisheh is no exception. Most of them dedicated to the martyrs of the people.

My cameras

My gear is secondary to the story I am trying to tell but people will ask. Because this is a long term project, I have had numerous gear changes. Three years in the making, with many more to come means that there will be more!

I started out with a Nikon 1. Not the best camera but it was all I had. All I knew is that I wanted to take photographs and that was the tool I had. Later in the project I used Fujifilm cameras and also an Olympus but I somehow just couldn’t get used to everything I was shooting with. So, with the experience I gained from other projects, I switched back to Nikon for my digital stuff. Eventually it became a Nikon D810 with Sigma Art and Carl Zeiss lenses.

After all that digital stuff I still felt something was missing. A friend of mine suggested why not try analog and so I did… Finally I found the medium I felt comfortable working with.

I use that same Carl Zeiss lens for my analog work. I needed one that fitted my – by now – trusty Nikon FM2n. The other lenses used on my FM2n are a Nikkor 35mm f/2 and Nikkor 135mm f/2.8.

For film I usually work with ILFORD stocks, specifically Delta 400 Professional but I could’t find any ILFORD in Israel, just plenty of Kodak Tri-X 400 and Ektar 100. So that was what I used. Also last trip was developed in Rodinal with a 1+50 dilution for 13 minutes at 20 degrees Celsius.

I am thinking of bringing the film I need for my next trip myself. But if you ever have been in the area, you’ll know the number of x-ray scanners you must pass through in that area is substantial and my train of thought last time was to limit that as much as possible.

One thing I should note is that more future work for this project will be shot on medium format film. I’ll be sure to share when I can.

Some ending words, for now

As soon as I got off the plane on my return journey from my latest trip, I began to realize why all of my photographic heroes worked on their projects for years and years, and how much I still have to do.

I am far done from working on this one…

The next stage in my particular project is getting to know the people better and to seek out some personal stories (as I do with some of my other projects). Incorporating more analog photography and even medium format film is also high on the list – more tools to tell more stories.

In the meantime, I am working hard to become a better storyteller and incorporate everything I have learned so far into this project. It evolves as I do and hopefully, every once in a while you will check out how my photo essay has evolved and progressed.

Thanks for reading,

~ Cristian

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About the author

Cristian Geelen

A traveller that always somehow ends up in strange adventures all over the world. Because of that and a book of Sebastiao Salgado decided to pick up to camera himself and felt it was the perfect way for self-expression. Slowly in the journey named photography...

, and please make sure you also check out their website here.

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  1. Thank you for your beautiful, and at times stunning, photography. And for your heartfelt words as well. I hold very strong views about this part of the world, and would like to journey there some day to confront them in person – assuming they let me in.

  2. Just for your information, the holiest place in Judaism is not the Western (Wailing) Wall, but the Temple Mount itself under the Dome of the Rock where the Holy of Holies stood.

  3. ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’…..never more true than in this apartheid state. Thanks for continuing to
    show the world how it is with your thought provoking photographs.