Photographs by Fazal Sheikh at MFAH
“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.”
— Robert Frank
“You know a lot about the photographer by seeing his photographs,” Fazal Sheikh says. He gives an impression of a calm, quiet man. Like his demeanor, his works have a peaceful, meditative quality. The people his photographs – men and women, young and old – look relaxed and at ease. Most of them are looking straight at the camera, obviously aware of being photographed, but not trying to strike a pose or express any particular emotion. “I never tell people what to do in front of the camera,” Sheikh says. “It’s their own choice.”
Despite the air of serenity, each photograph is a commentary on an experience that is anything but serene. Sheikh records the life of communities that have been displaced or marginalized. The stories of these people, presented side by side with their images in written and audio formats, bring down to a human level big political issues, such as refugees or Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which often seem so abstract and distant for those of us who live in a different part of the world.
The exhibition “Homelands and Histories: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh” features 75 photographs which span over 25 years of the photographer’s career. The earliest works, taken in South Africa and Kenya, date back to late 1980s; the most recent ones, a trilogy photographed in Israel and Palestine, were done in 2011-2013. The majority of the photographs are black and white.
Having graduated from Princeton where he studied under esteemed master of photography Emmet Gowin, Sheikh embarked on his first journey traveling across the African continent. His interest in this part of the world was personal: his father came from Kenya and the young photographer wanted to explore his father’s legacy. It was in Kenya, on the border with Sudan, that Sheikh saw refugee camps for the first time.
A few years later he came back with a group of photojournalists who spent a day photographing refugees and left while he stayed longer. He learned a lot from this trip about interacting with the people in the camp. “Just asking permission to see a certain area goes a long way,” he says. Refugees are not used to being asked, and he almost always was allowed to go where he wanted.
The photographs featured in the exhibition were produced as cycles and each cycle typically comprises several series. “The Victor Weeps” (1996–98) was shot in northwestern Pakistan where Afghan refugee communities have been living since the Soviet invasion in the early 1980s. Again, Sheikh’s journey was prompted by his family history, in this case, the legacy of his grandfather who was a native of Afghanistan.
The photographer stayed in the area for a week, getting to know people. “There is a whole generation of young people who never saw their native land,” he says. At the same time, older men and women remember too well the villages they left behind and the harrowing events that had driven them away.
Their experiences “are alluded to, but never completely revealed in the landscape of the face,” Sheikh commented on his work. One realizes the truth of this metaphor looking at the face of old mojahedin Rohullah whose cousin was buried alive together with thirteen other men from the village. His somber, deeply lined face stands in sharp contrast to the images of children displayed nearby. Looking innocent and unburdened by the travails of life, they do not realize yet the precariousness of their position as refugees living in a country that is not theirs.
The trilogy that followed –“Moksha” (2003–05), “Ladli” (2005–07) and “Ether” (2008–12) – was taken in India. The first two series focus on the groups that live in seclusion; the third one explores the subject of death.
The term “moksha” in Hinduism refers to the release from the cycle of rebirth imposed by the law of karma, as well as the transcendent state attained by a person as a result of such release. Shot in the holy city of Vrindavan, this series highlights the life of widows who spend their final years together, away from their families. Their days are filled with prayers and meditation. In Sheikh’s photographs, these elderly women look ethereal, as if they are on the threshold that separates the material and the spiritual realms. This feeling of being in some kind of “in-between” moment is echoed in the images of the city which were taken at either dawn or dusk, “the threshold times.”
The title of the next series, “Ladli,” which is a female Hindu name meaning “The Loved One” or “The Dearest One,” conveys a bitter irony. Sheikh photographed girls and young women who live in orphanages, hospitals, schools and charity shelters. Their future is bleak: they will be given away in marriage and, being poor, they face a real danger of being burned in case their families refuse to pay additional dowry to the husband. Although this practice is illegal, cases of bride-burning still happen. One of the images shows a seven-year old girl, Lahbuben, who is already betrothed to a 17-year old boy. Next to it is a photograph of a middle-aged woman, Shahjahan Apa, who lost her daughter to bride-burning and now spearheads Shakti Shalini, the organization that fights to win justice for women victims of domestic abuse.
The city of Benares (Varanasi) is the locale of the third Indian series, “Ether.” Many Hindus come to die in this sacred city in the belief that they will find salvation. Ether is the first of the five great elements in Hinduism. The lightest of them all, it also is associated with death since ether is the only thing that remains when the body disintegrates. In his photographs of people sleeping in the streets Sheikh blurs the boundaries between sleep and death. Looking at the shrouded figures, it is impossible to tell whether these people are alive or dead. “Ether”stands out in the exhibition for both its philosophical contents and technique, being the only series in color.
Unlike other travels which were initiated solely by himself, Sheikh’s trip to Israel and Palestine was a part of a multiyear project organized by French photographer Frédéric Brenner. Sheikh was among 12 photographers who were commissioned to produce a body of work exploring this area in historical, political, personal and aesthetic terms.
The result of this commission was a trilogy titled “Erasure” (2011-2013) which comprises such series as “Memory Trace,” “Independence/Nakba” and “Desert Bloom.” “Memory Trace” is a haunting testimony to the devastation caused by the Arab–Israeli war of 1948. Ghost villages with crumbling houses are still dotting the terrain 65 years later.
“Independence/Nakba” consists of paired portraits of Israelis and Palestinians who were born each year since 1948. It is a poignant reminder that one nation’s victory invariably implies the other nation’s defeat. The same date, May 15, marks Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day, for Israelis, and Yawm an-Nakba, Day of the Catastrophe, for Palestinians.
The third series, “Desert Bloom,” features aerial views of the Negev Desert. Shortly after the state of Israel was established, its first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, proclaimed that the desert would bloom. As a result of consistent efforts, which included mining, afforestation and military training, Bedouins were forced off the land. However, traces of their presence are still visible from the air in the form of outlines of abandoned settlements and corrals.
“See these dark circles?” Sheikh points to one of the photographs. “That’s where the Bedouin camp was, where they burned the manure before leaving. They camped in this location several times, you can tell by the lighter circles close by.”
Ironically, the desert did not bloom. The wind blows the sand over the former tree plantations and mining sites. All that is left today from the dreams of Israeli pioneers are scars on the land. Like Bedouin camps, these grandiose projects have become a thing of the past.
“Weren’t you concerned to fly in the area so close to the border?” “I was lucky to find a pilot who was enthusiastic about this idea,” Sheikh replied with a smile. “When we were in the air, he was constantly communicating with the base. If he said that we had to leave, I knew there could be no arguing.”
What motivates Sheikh to pursue his chosen path – documenting daily lives of communities that are on the periphery or at odds with their neighbors? “I want to broaden the vocabulary of talking about refugees by showing them as communities” the photographer explains. He also adds that, when confronted with two hostile communities, he tries “functioning in the seam between them.” “You learn more by listening to both sides.”
Fazal Sheikh currently lives in Zurich, Switzerland. He is a recipient of many awards, including Fulbright, Guggenheim, MacArthur, and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, as well as honors acknowledging the essential humanism of his work, such as the Prix Dialogue de l’Humanité, Rencontres d’Arles (2003), the Lucie Humanitarian Award (2009), and the Lou Stoumen Prize (2016.)
The exhibition “Histories: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh” is on view through Oct. 1. More information at www.mfah.org.
Story by Elena Ivanova, ISSUE staff writer