Sabella was born eight years after Israel annexed Jerusalem, so he did not know life before the occupation. Growing up as a Palestinian in the epicenter of Israeli colonialism, Sabella was aware of how photography was mobilized as a means of propaganda, and of the many ways Jerusalem itself had been overdetermined in European and Israeli photographs. Partially in response to this, Sabella’s trajectory as a photographer began outside the city walls, where he captured the natural beauty of the trees and rock formations that make up Palestine’s hilly landscape. “From among the rocks of the Palestinian wilderness,” notes artist and critic Kamal Boullata, “the young Jerusalem photographer defined his own identification with the pristine state of his ancestral land.”
To this day, Steve Sabella’s photographic practice continues to explore the various facets of the artist’s identity as a Palestinian. This is not the exclusive theme of his work, however, nor is it something he approaches from the same angle each time; instead, Palestine appears in Sabella’s work through different forms and in different tones, ranging from the tragic to the absurd, from politically didactic to deeply personal. In addition to photography and video work, which the artist sees as profoundly intertwined, Sabella works in large-scale installations, such as the fiberglass Dependence (2016). Moreover, the artist finds unexpected ways of bringing tactility into his work with photographs, as seen in his 2014 series 38 Days of Re-Collection. Here, Sabella uses photo emulsion to spread images onto scrapings of paint he has collected from the walls of houses in Jerusalem’s Old City. The brittle scrapings themselves literalize a palimpsest: pieces of the present, they nevertheless render the past visible in their strata of colors, collected throughout the years as people painted and repainted their homes. These layers seem to testify to the hands that painted them, remnants and reminders of manual labor even as they bear infinitely reproducible photographic images. These ghostly black-and-white images stand in contrast to the warm materiality of the paint chips, evoking a free Jerusalem that no longer exists for its Palestinian residents.
While photography remains at the center of his work, Sabella does not limit himself to creating images, but also critically appropriates the photographs of others to create compelling digital collages. Perhaps the most significant example of this is The Great March of Return (2019), a “modern-day fresco” where some referred to it as the Palestinian Sistine Chapel, resembling the heavenly ceiling by the Italian painter Michelangelo. For this work, Sabella culled over a thousand images of “The Great March of Return,” a dangerous and powerful assembly held weekly in Gaza in protest of the Israeli blockade, from the work of Gazan photojournalists Atieh Darwish, Mustafa Mohamad, Majdi Fathi, Mohammed Asad, and Ashraf Amra. He then juxtaposed these images with photographs of outer space, creating a kaleidoscopic composition of Palestinian flags, shouting protestors, burning tires, and stunning nebulae to “demonstrate a nation’s eternal fight for liberation.”