It is not uncommon for photojournalists to jet across nations and condense entire communities of displaced people into a few snapshots of unidentified individuals. While this is efficient, it fails in showing the diversity, ubiquity, and overall humanity of their struggles. Over the past 25 years, photographer Fazal Sheikh has been diverging from this norm by seeking to connect with his subjects through slow engagement.
Born in New York in 1965 to a Kenyan father and an American mother, Sheikh spent summers in Nairobi visiting his family and listened to his grandfather’s stories of the shifting borders, emigration in pre-Pakistan India, and British colonization.
After earning his degrees in fine arts and art history in 1987, Sheikh returned to Kenya and the surrounding area to begin his documentation of the lives rendered invisible by climate crises, social banishment, and both ethnic and religious strife. Spending many years in these locations allowed Sheikh to cooperate with pillars of refugee communities and his individual subjects to create a collaborative representation. “Perhaps it was more important to engage than to out-of-hand reject,” Sheikh recounted in his Arnold Newman Distinguished Lecture.
A recent exhibit at the Portland Art Museum, “Common Ground,” displays a retrospective of his vast body of work. The showcase opens with his series “A Sense of Common Ground,” which documents multi-generational families in refugee camps. Because Sheikh used a large format camera, each frame required long exposure times and precise adjustment. This process mirrors his intent. Each photograph is paired with text providing names and deeper context. These captions become further detailed as the exhibit continues.
In Sheikh’s powerful color series “Ether,” the lines between life and death are unclear as bodies lie—some covered, some exposed—along the banks of the holy Ganges River in India.
Eventually the viewer is led into a dark grey room with the Arabic Hamds eerily playing in the background. On the walls the series “Ramadan Moon” is hung, depicting the struggle and hope of a Somali woman in a shelter seeking asylum.
As the exhibit winds down, “Ladli” shows students and street performers alongside child brides and survivors of domestic violence. These images highlight the diverse lives and trauma faced by girls in India. The urgency is pertinent as Indian activists call to the reader of the placard accompanying their photo.
At the exit, there is a reading room and educational nook. With recommended reads and stories of local refugees, the room provides space for adults and children to learn more about immigrant and refugee community members. This and many more engaging resources were provided in collaboration with several local refugee-focused organizations including Portland Meet Portland (PMP) and the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO).
The executive director of PMP, Manuel Padilla, told the Portland Mercury that he hopes visitors will reexamine their pre-constructed narratives of refugees. “It’s important to realize that refugees are more than just the sum of their experiences fleeing violence and persecution,” he said. “They are more than victims.”
These photographic series have earned Sheikh numerous awards and fellowships, including a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. To extend the spirit of his work to the Portland metro area, the Portland Art Museum is working with leaders in the community on special programming that will engage the local population, such as local lectures and podcasts hosted by Padilla engaging local immigrants.
The work of Fazal Sheikh is a reminder of the relentless exile and struggle that many continue to face. Sheikh’s work allows visitors the space to slow down and take the necessary time to get to know each person more deeply. While his work is no longer on display at the Portland Art Museum, there are still many ways to engage with it and the pressing issues he is addressing. The Art Museum keeps an archived page which contains some images, the placards, an age-inclusive recommended reading list, Padilla’s podcast, a link to Sheikh’s website, the collaborative organizations, and a link to the resources provided by other museums displaying the same exhibits.