American, born 1965
Fazal Sheikh's photographs have documented the plight of refugees in camps across Central and East Africa and the Middle East. However, his photographs are distinctly different from the images of refugees we commonly see in printed news articles. Sheikh's photographs implicitly assert that the individual refugees share humanity with their oppressive rulers. He does so by depicting the individuals in portraits rather than as victims of a social and political drama. Sheikh's photography makes ample use of subtle nuances of gesture and stance.
Sheikh documents displaced communities and their experiences by collaborating with them over long periods in the creation of formal portraits and landscapes. By using his subjects’ names as titles, bearing witness to their traumatic experiences as well as their hopes, and disseminating his work as activist art rather than photojournalism, Sheikh challenges the anonymity and clichés of mass–media representations of refugees. The resulting photographs and texts are respectful, graceful meditations on human gazes, gestures, and beliefs. They assert the dignity of those pictured while broadening our vocabulary for understanding ongoing global conflicts. These three series, which span Sheikh's career, were also in part initiated through his pursuit of his familial heritage in Kenya and Pakistan.
A Camel for the Son (1992–2000) renders Somali women refugees in northeastern Kenya, first, as they struggle to nourish their children after enduring physical and sexual assault, and later, as some organize a committee to seek justice against their assailants. Ramadan Moon (2000) combines portraits, music, and texts to dwell upon the experiences of one woman, Seynab Azir Wardeere, who, after enduring intense trauma during the Somali civil war, attempts to celebrate Ramadan while under threat of eviction from an asylum–seekers’ center in the Netherlands.
The Victor Weeps (1996–1998) depicts Afghan men, women, and children living for decades as refugees in northern Pakistan. Introspective portraits and testimonials offer a multifaceted view onto the experiences and beliefs of the Afghan people, whose country is again at the center of international conflict in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
Fazal Sheikh was born in 1965 in New York City. Since graduating from Princeton University, he has collaborated with displaced communities across East Africa as well as in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Brazil, and Cuba. Sheikh has worked with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, Médecins Sans Frontières, and the International Rescue Committee. The recipient of numerous awards, including the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography and the Leica Medal of Excellence, Sheikh has received fellowships from the William J. Fulbright Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. His photographs are in collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
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