The Silence Teaches

by Greg Horton


Sitting down to speak with Oklahoma City photographer Yousef Khanfar about his art leads almost inevitably to one name: Georgia O’Keeffe. The love of the desert, the commitment to a task, and the accumulation of silence create resonance between their art forms. For O’Keeffe, it was the high desert around Santa Fe, but for Khanfar, it was the vast desert of his native Kuwait that first attracted him.

Khanfar was born to Palestinian parents in Kuwait; his father lived in refugee camps after the partition of Israel/Palestine before relocating to Kuwait. Yousef did not speak for his first few years of life, so his father took him to a doctor who told the elder Khanfar to give his son a creative outlet and not to worry about the silence for a time. The father gave his son a camera, and the first thing the son turned his lens to was the desert.

“I was fascinated with the desert,” he said. “It taught me about silence and peace, and visiting the desert helped me learn more about who and what I am. The silence teaches.”

Although his most famous photograph is a portrait of former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Khanfar still loves landscapes, and like his creative inspiration O’Keeffe, he works hard for each shot, all of which are taken without the help of digital photography or post-development manipulation.

Khanfar said, “I get up at 4 a.m. to work. I will hike miles to a location and wait for the light to be just right. I hike into these places to bring the images to people who can’t go there. Each image is a poetic metaphor I’ve captured with my lens.”

I will hike miles to a location and wait for the light to be just right. 

Gordon Parks, the African American photographer who chronicled the Civil Rights Movement, serves as another kind of inspiration. As the son of a Palestinian refugee, Khanfar is sensitive to race, justice, and human rights. Much of his work is focused on the peace process in the Middle East.

“I am not political; I am for peace,” he says. “We are like cells when we are born. As we grow, our tribes tattoo us, inscribing their doctrines on us, and they make the cell walls thicker and higher, so that it gets more difficult to visit our neighbor. We forget that at the end of the day, we’re all the same species, same blood, and building bridges of understanding should be the main goal of art.”

Khanfar’s new project, Invisible Eve, is also about justice—in this case, criminal justice. He has taken his camera into penitentiaries in Oklahoma to photograph the women incarcerated there, sometimes alongside their children. As with his portrait of O’Connor, which shows her opening a curtain to allow light into a dark room, Invisible Eve allows light into penitentiaries, but what the light reveals is not so dark as we expect.

“I wanted people to see the light in their eyes when they’re with their children,” he said. “To see them as mothers or daughters, not as inmates. The artist is responsible to use his platform to bring the voices of the less fortunate into the light.”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 10. May 15, 2013.