Concerned Witnessing: Fazal Sheikh’s Common Ground

exposure magazine
Nov 14, 2017 · 10 min read

Fazal Sheikh’s Common Ground, which recently showed at the Denver Art Museum through November 12, is a timely reminder of our global refugee crisis and the (in)humanity that lies at its core. To borrow curator Eric Paddock’s words, Sheikh is a “photographer of advocacy,” although other terms also apply: concerned photographer, photographer of conscience, ethnographer — anything, in fact, other than what Susan Sontag has termed a “photographer of atrocity”.

Sheikh’s stated intention is to raise awareness of international human rights issues, and his work encompasses many situations of desperation, need, and resiliency. Common Ground, which he and Paddock developed in less than a year, primarily consists of formal black-and-white portraits of displaced or marginalized people taken globally; in Denver, the portraits are contextualized by first person testimonies, panoramas of groups and landscapes, and fragments of details. Some of his many books are available to read in the galleries, and while extensive, the show’s didactic material is remarkably unobtrusive; there’s plenty of information included, but plenty more to be found later on the web or in the bookstore.

I spoke with Fazal Sheikh soon after he had toured his show with a group of refugees now living in Denver. Many of them had experienced the Somalian refugee camps photographed by Sheikh in Kenya, and there is even a chance that one or two refugees pictured in the show now live here. A museum like DAM, Sheikh told me, offers a kind of embrace to them — a place where their stories can be honored and the preconceptions of visitors might be eroded.

Fazal Sheikh, Seynab Azir Wardeere, Asylum seeker’s centre, Osdorp, The Netherlands, 2001, from the series Ramadan Moon. © Fazal Sheikh. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.

Designing a contemplative environment, he said, is especially meaningful. His installation, Ramadan Moon, shows how transformative a quiet space can be. Situated in a contained, darkened space far from the gallery entrance, the piece concerns Seynab Azir Wardeere, a brutalized Somali refugee living in the Netherlands with her son while her husband and daughters remained stranded in Mogadishu. Visually spare and abstract, the installation alternates portraits of Seynab with images of the night sky; the space murmurs with the sound of a woman (in fact Sheikh’s mother) singing verses from the Koran. Her voice invokes the spirit of Mohammad and the presence of Allah, who will deliver believers from darkness into light.

Fazal Sheikh, Benares, India, 2012, from the series Ether. © Fazal Sheikh. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.

Conceptually, Paddock and Sheikh have devised a floor plan of loosely connected geographic and chronological sections. Ether is the show’s only color series. Taken at night in India’s holiest city, Benares (Varanasi), Ether visualizes a state approaching spectral suspension. Sheikh normally works in large or medium format, but in Benares he used a handheld camera to photograph dormant men sleeping or dying, dogs, embers, and starlit skies all rendered in a subdued, lunar palette. To conflate its curatorial phraseology, what we are seeing is a state “between sleep and dream” where “life and death, waiting and arriving, dying and transition all become one.”

The series is compelling, but it floats uncomfortably in the space. Partly this is due to Daniel Libeskind’s “erratic” architectural design (Paddock at his most diplomatic), which demands money as well concept to function effectively. Ether’s main issue, though, is the relatively minuscule size of its prints. Sheikh wanted images that require an intimate connection with the viewer; his concept is logical but sadly impractical within Libeskind’s cavernous space — on the three occasions I visited the show it was the least visited section.

Installation view of The Circle, showing Shahjahan Apa, Delhi, India, 2007. © Fazal Sheikh. Photos by Rupert Jenkins.

Ramadan Moon and Ether are both poetic; other projects are more didactic and contain facts that leave one reeling. None are more disturbing than those from India, whose traditions continue to incite widespread violence and prejudice against women and girls. Ladli (Hindi for “beloved daughter”), Moksha (“universal spirit”), and The Circle depict women and children who have, if not transformed their lives then confronted and begun to transcend their hardships. On a spiritual level, The Circle refers to death not as an end but as a resting place in the afterlife, from which the soul returns to earth and is reborn. Shahjahan Apa, who’s features are etched with history, is one of five women whose stories are told in an immense concertina-folded book. Close by, a grid of four children tells only of their youth and their status: street vendor, squatter, child bride. To be a woman (or a child) in India — in Sheikh’s entire photographic terrain, in fact — is to have little joy in life except in the company of each other.

Fazal Sheikh, Abdul Manam, Afghan refugee village, Khairabad, North Pakistan, 1998, from the series The Victor Weeps. © Fazal Sheikh. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.

It’s probably unhelpful to pick one series as a “favorite,” but I’m especially impressed by the sweep of The Victor Weeps. In 1996, Sheikh traveled to Pakistan to explore his family history. There, he found his grandfather’s birthplace settled by thousands of Afghan refugees who had been exiled by the Afghan-Soviet war of 1979–89. Like much of the Common Ground exhibiton, The Victor Weeps is a staggering document of endurance and hope in the face of unrelenting loss. Constructed much like a Rubik’s Cube of portraiture, drawings, urban landscapes, personal testimonies, and vernacular studio photos, the series has the complexity of a decades-long anthropological study.

Installation view showing entrance to Ramadan Moon (left), and The Victor Weeps (right). © Fazal Sheikh. Photo by Rupert Jenkins.

As someone whose practice I think of as ethnographic, Fazal Sheikh occupies a treacherous ideological terrain. This was brought home to me after his Anderman Lecture at the DAM mid-September, when some friends and I went out to dinner. We talked photography for a while, and my neighbor at the table mentioned how much she loves the work of the Mexican photographer, Graciela Iturbide: “Of course, her work is ethnographic” she added, as if excusing some kind of indiscretion. “What’s wrong with ethnographic?” I asked, before another guest jumped in with “What’s right with it?” Her particular issue, it turned out, is Edward Curtis, and her response has caused me some concern about Sheikh’s vulnerability to what I think of as the “Curtis critique.” He is, after all, offering photographs of some of the world’s most abused citizens for consumption by some of their most privileged counterparts.

As we know, Curtis is often maligned for staging his images, for dressing his Native subjects in inauthentic clothes, for not naming many of them, and for using apocryphal terms such as “Vanishing Race.” I tend to cut him a lot of slack. It’s a historical fact that he was photographing at the tail end of a systematic genocide; throughout the period he photographed, Native American populations were being decimated and their culture assimilated. Readers of Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher will know that Curtis was more than just a photographer; he also made films, took exhaustive notes, and recorded voices and songs that preserved languages for future generations. Anthropologists have a term for this — they call it “salvage ethnography.” Today his documentation affords Native American historians, academics, and viewers with an invaluable connection to the past; his work provides evidence of history and ancestry that might otherwise not exist.

I’ve heard that on their visit to DAM¹, some of the Somali refugees touring the show complained that evidence of their refugee camp’s shops, stalls, and meeting places — the infrastructures that enabled daily commerce and a semblance of normality to exist — was missing. This has to be taken as a valid criticism. What the former camp inhabitants were saying was not just that the camps were misrepresented, but that they were too. That it is not enough to just show survivors or know their personal narratives: their collective will to create order out of catastrophe must be shown as well.

Exhibitions like Common Ground are of necessity a distillation of voluminous materials. The criticism leveled by the refugees is less warranted if one looks at Sheikh’s books, which include far more written and visual material. Looking through Photo Lucida’s “Top 50” in the context of documentary projects like Common Ground, it occurred to me that much of today’s work can be categorized as being about “me,” “they,” and “us.” Diana Matar’s book, Evidence, is a notable exception to the “me” that most artists start with, which tend to raise little more than a fleeting empathy. Photojournalism’s fly-in-fly-out practice, whereby traumatized “others” are depicting in clichéd pietas and such, is a staple of competitions like World Press Photo but is anathema to Sheikh’s own immersive practice. The “us” category could be looked at as the lower case us of community (Jess T. Dugan’s excellent work comes to mind) and the upper-case Us of global humanity (Steichen’s Family of Man might be the ultimate expression of that). Only a few artists are successful with that, and Sheikh is one of them.

Fazal Sheikh, Abshiro Aden Mohammed, Women’s Leader, Somali Refugee Camp, Dagahaley, Kenya, 2000, from the series A Camel for the Son. © Fazal Sheikh. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.

Speaking about his influences, Sheikh cites his university teacher, Emmet Gowin, Walker Evans, and August Sander. Evans’s iconic portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs (Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife, 1936) is certainly subtext to such images as Abshiro Aden Mohammed, Women’s Leader, taken by Sheikh in the Dagahaley refugee camp in Kenya. However, I think of his work more in the context of contemporary, media-driven projects like “Newest Americans,” which is a “multimedia collaboratory of journalists, media-makers, artists, faculty and students” out of Newark, New Jersey that is dedicated to generating “fresh narratives and insights about our emerging majority minority population and the nation it is transforming.”²

Like Denver’s “Picture Me Here,” “Newest Americans” offers students the tools and training to research and document their own communities. Its reach, however, is global. Subjects ranging from Portuguese Fado music to hot school lunches to DACA are covered in videos, interviews, podcasts, and images, while exhibitions, forums, and class curricula take the discussions into the Newark community and the classroom. Sheikh’s forum is far less impactful, and he will be criticized for showing in elite galleries like Pace/McGill in New York. Yet he also manages to disseminate his work to the communities he photographs through outlets such as the International Human Rights Series, which he established for that purpose. Another is his “Erasures” series, which was made accessible via 25 thousand newsprint editions of books reconfigured into a more accessible format.

Perhaps the ultimate accomplishment is to have created work that, in John Berger’s words, “accuses nobody and everybody.” The photographer’s hope would be that, after visiting the show, we perform some act of penance in the form of a contribution or personal engagement. With Sheikh, he accomplishes this effectively by humanizing the people he photographs and making us want to know them. His allegiance to this approach was demonstrated during his lecture, when each individual was named, their situations described, and their stories related. This was something that carried over from his show and his books, and several people acknowledged and thanked him for it.

Such a scrupulous regard for the displaced, dispossessed, and downtrodden is unusual. Ironically, however, I began to think of the “me, myself, I” as I walked through the show. It is difficult not to consider the possibility of one’s own vulnerability — that our lives might, one day, be as dramatically ruined and uprooted as those seen in Common Ground. Our president, after all, has just threatened to annihilate another country, and when it comes down to it, who’s to say where the next bomb might come from, or on who’s head it might land?

And speaking of the bomb, Sheikh is now engaged on a project in Utah, where so-called down-winders are still experiencing economic and health consequences from uranium mining and the post-WWII nuclear program. His concerns about stewardship of the land have also led him to Israel, where the government-led program to industrialize the Negev desert has led to the systematic destruction of Bedouin settlements. Photographer of atrocity he is not, unless one views atrocity as the slow drip of malevolence that, it seems, we are helpless to stop.

Common Ground was on view through November 12th at the Denver Art Museum, 100 W 14th Avenue Pkwy, Denver, Colorado. It will travel to The Portland Art Museum and be on display from February 24 to May 20, 2018. Homelands and Histories: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh at the Houston Museum of Fine Art has ended but several readings by Sheikh are still available on online and are well worth accessing.

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¹ Organized by the museum’s education department, the aid organization Project Worthmore, and the photographic project Picture Me Here.

² “Newest Americans” is produced by the Center for Migration and the Global City, and faculty in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at Rutgers University Newark in partnership with VII Photo and Talking Eyes Media.

Photo provided by author.

Rupert Jenkins is a writer and curator living in Denver who specializes in editorial, exhibition, and arts management projects. Jenkins is the former director of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center; he is currently developing a history of post-WWII Colorado photography, 1945–95.

The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.

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