Photographer Fazal Sheikh Discusses Common Ground

Common Ground: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh, 1989-2013, is on view at the Denver Art Museum through November 12, 2017. The exhibition is included with general admission.

Watch the video above to hear more from Fazal Sheikh, and see several artworks featured in the exhibition.

The exhibition is called Common Ground and in the 1990s you worked on a project called A Sense of Common Ground. How important is it to you to remind the viewer that the subjects of the photographs are not all that different than they are, that they do in fact share common ground? And how do you go about reminding the viewer that the space between them and the subject is less than they may assume?

My earliest considerations in Africa in the early 1990s that would eventually grow into the A Sense of Common Ground project, and which revolved around five refugee communities from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, and Rwanda, taught me the importance of creating images that would counter the prevailing sense of the ‘other’ as borne to us through the media, the world of art, and other interfaces.

As an American who was born in New York City and who spent part of each year in Kenya, where my father was born, I had a natural desire to bridge the various strains of culture that were a part of my makeup, marked in my own DNA. I was sensitive to hegemony, and to the importance of creating images that were at once honest, empowering, and which insisted upon the ideal that the supposed ‘other’ may indeed not be so completely different than at once we may have imagined.

Although I was not comfortable working in a journalistic fashion, this was not my sensibility, I was acutely aware of the wish to engage with that material so as perhaps to broaden the vocabulary by providing another mode of consideration as applied to these communities. As I continued to work in the intervening years, and in engaging projects that were at times linked to regions that are part of my heritage, I found it essential to bridge the various divides that I was encountering. I wanted to make work that challenged the notion that only someone from within a given community could possibly render that space, that issue. I worked in the hope of creating projects that reach across the divides imposed by gender, religion, culture, and national priority.

Fazal Sheikh, Abdul Aziz holding a photograph of his brother Mula Abdul Hakim, Afghan refugee village Khairabad, North Pakistan, 1997, from the series The Victor Weeps. © Fazal Sheikh

Your subjects have typically experienced strife in their lives. How did you start to document these kinds of stories?

The starting point for most of the projects in which I have been involved has been an attempt to strip away any preconceptions I may harbor as a byproduct of what I have read or seen about a given area, or community.

In the course of my earliest projects in the refugee communities of eastern and southern Africa, I was beginning to confront the question of how to suitably collaborate and help render communities that had not only endured great hardship, but which had been portrayed in the west through the media in a manner I found to be too reductive, too divisive, and which effectively distanced the ‘other,’ the individual represented in the image becoming a sort of cypher, rather than a person, a human being.

In those first years, I found the process particularly complex, since I had at once to begin to understand the situation, and to carve out a means by which to collaborate and render these communities in a manner suited to my sensibilities, and indeed which balanced, or provided another perspective, on the way they had been represented in the media.

Can you speak about how the process of portraiture is a mutual engagement? Many people think of portraiture as someone standing behind a camera, taking a picture of someone. What aspects of the art of portraiture are they missing?

The act of portraiture is indeed somewhat straightforward, but it is not, as many imagine, a unidirectional encounter. Rather, the photographic portrait is a reflection of an interaction between the person rendered, the sitter, and the photographer. In the course of my work, when there has been an opportunity to scale myself back and to create an atmosphere within which the sitter feels comfortable to present themselves to the camera, the photographer, and thereby the viewer, in a mode of direct openness, I believe this to be the most empowering of options, and one that also happens to encourage the viewer toward a readiness to consider the depths of the images, and the possibility that a voice, or a dream, may further refine and expand upon that which an empowering portrait accomplishes.

For me, this is a question of receptivity, and of scaling back the ego of the person making the image—since a person who has lived a whole life within their own skin certainly has a better sense of how to offer themselves to the camera.

In my case, although I see these acts as rather basic. What I find most important is in fostering a rapport between the image maker and the person portrayed. The image then becomes a testament to that interaction.

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

Is there a testimony from one of your sitters that has stuck with you more than others? Perhaps someone’s story who inspired you?

On many occasions I have met people who offered concise and powerful testimonies. Perhaps, if asked to pare them down to just a few, I would have to say that the three women’s voices which were offered by Seynab Azir Wardeere in the Netherlands, Abshiro Aden Mohammed (pictured above) in the Somali refugee camps of north Kenya, and the testimony from Afghanistan included in the project Our Plight all represent women who are coming from situations within which they suffered not only discriminatory practice, but often a profound history of violence. Yet in each instance they refused to be defined by those harrowing moments in their lives, and resolved to turn those painful experiences into a determination to protect other women from a similar fate.

Carolyn Davidson was the 2017 summer writing intern in the marketing department at the Denver Art Museum.

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