About the Artist
Fazal Sheikh is an artist who works among displaced and marginalized communities around the world. His principal form is the portrait, although his projects also encompass personal narratives, found photographs, sound recordings, archival material, academic essays, and his own written texts.
He works from the conviction that a portrait is, as far as possible, an act of mutual engagement, and only through a long-term commitment to a place and to a community can a meaningful series of photographs be made. His overall aim is to contribute to a wider understanding of the lives of people within these groups, to respect them as individuals, and to counter the ignorance and prejudice that often attaches to them.
Each of his projects is collected and published and exhibited internationally in galleries and museums. In addition to his books, many of his projects are also available as free online editions (which are listed on this site). He works closely with human rights organizations and believes in disseminating his work in forms that can be distributed as widely as possible so that it can be of use to the communities themselves.
Sheikh was born in 1965 in New York City. His mother was American, his father Kenyan. His paternal grandfather, Sheikh Fazal Ilahi, after who he is named, travelled from his birthplace in northern India (now Pakistan) to Kenya and settled in Nairobi in 1912. Although Sheikh was educated in the United States, and studied at Princeton University, he spent summers with his father’s relatives in Nairobi, learning Swahili and experiencing a very different culture. It developed his respect for others’ traditions and an acute awareness of the social and economic inequalities that disenfranchised many communities around the world—considerations that would drive his work in the future.
After graduating from Princeton in 1987, Sheikh travelled to South Africa and visited the homelands, areas to which black South Africans had been forcibly deported by the apartheid government in a plan to disenfranchise them. Although he took few photographs, the trip was important in that it taught him that to make assumptions and preconceptions about a place or its people was dangerous, and that what mattered was what you learned over time.
Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, 1990–1994
On his return to Kenya, Sheikh found that conflicts in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia had forced thousands across the border and refugee camps were being hastily erected in eastern Kenya. Sheikh stayed in the camps, and the portraits he took during those months established a way of working that has remained fundamentally the same ever since: a simple, direct, respectful rendering of a person or persons in front of the camera. Over the next three years, he also worked in camps in Malawi, and in Tanzania. The resulting photographs were published in Sheikh’s first book: A Sense of Common Ground (Scalo, 1996).
In 1995 Sheikh made a trip to his grandfather’s birthplace in what is now Pakistan. On the border with Afghanistan, he found over a million Afghan refugees living in villages they had established after the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979. Their children had grown up there and their sons had joined the mujahideen forces to fight the Soviets in the “holy war”. Many had been injured or killed. Now the Taliban were in power after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the refugees were once again afraid to return. Sheikh stayed in the villages with the Afghans, making portraits, recording personal histories, and, as their trust in him increased, recording their stories of their dreams. This intimacy with their lives contributes to the emotional depth of his portraits, and the Afghan material was collected in his second book, The Victor Weeps (Scalo 1998).
Three years later, on October 8, 2001, the United States began its bombing campaign on Afghanistan in retaliation for the September attacks on the World Trade Center. As a means of registering his protest at yet another pointless war in which thousands of innocent Afghans would lose their lives, Sheikh published a pamphlet, “When two bulls fight, the leg of the calf is broken.” Seventy thousand copies were printed and distributed through a network of humanitarian organizations, cultural institutions, and the media. During the first week of the war, 20,000 copies were distributed at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In the subsequent months, as the campaign continued, the pamphlet was reprinted to provide a voice to counter the prevailing mood of repression and aggression.
In 2000, after visiting his family in Nairobi, Sheikh flew on to northeast Kenya, where he found around 120,000 Somali refugees still living in camps that he had photographed in the early 1990s. This led him to complete a piece of work he had begun almost a decade earlier. Then, there had been reports of Somali women being attacked and raped as they searched outside the camps for firewood. In 1993 the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) had set up an official enquiry and hired a Somali woman, Fauzia Musse, to take down the victims’ testimonies. Between 1993 and 1999 the UNHCR received 794 reports of rape, though the real number is believed to have been ten times greater. Sheikh accompanied Fauzia on some of her visits, asking the women if they would be photographed, and listening to their stories. He decided to use the material to make their situation more widely known.
In the same camps he also found several of the mothers he had photographed with their children in 1992. The women told him what had happened to them in the intervening years, and he made new portraits of them with their children, now adolescents. In 2001 he put together a small book, A Camel for the Son, which took its title from a letter written by the Somali women’s leader in the camp, explaining the traditional birthright of male children in Somali society. Rather than go through a commercial publisher, Sheikh set up his own imprint, the International Human Rights Series (IHRS), and with the help of selected human rights agencies was able to distribute the book free of charge.
Soon afterwards he published a second, companion volume, Ramadan Moon (IHRS 2001), which tells the story of Seynab Azir Wardeere, a Somali woman who had fled Mogadishu with her son in 1999, after her family had been attacked and her father killed. She had reached Europe and was living in an asylum seekers’ center in Amsterdam under threat of eviction. Sheikh photographed her during the month of Ramadan, as she stands in the moonlight dreaming of home. His portraits, accompanied by quotes from the Koran, evoke the tension between her longing for her country and her fear of being forcibly returned to it.
Latin America (Mexico, Cuba, Brazil), 2001–2003
By the late 1990s, as his work became more widely known, Sheikh was invited to contribute to group exhibitions and publications, working in different parts of the world. In 2001 as part of the Nature Conservancy anthology In Response to Place (2001), he photographed the migrant workers of the Grand Sertão Veredas National Park in Brazil and, rather than accompanying their portraits with testimonies, he chose simpatias, the short sayings, part folklore, part religion, that the workers use for guidance in their lives.
In 2000, Sheikh was one of fifty photographers and writers invited to contribute to the National Millennium Survey project. For this he photographed and recorded the stories of some of the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who cross the border illegally into the United States each year only to be arrested by the US Border Protection Agency. The work was included in a touring exhibition and a book, Visions of Passage (2002).
In 2002 he joined a group of writers and photographers including Cubans, Cubans living in exile, and Americans, to examine the “consequence of politics” on Cuban society by studying subjects such as rural life, the new middle class, music, and spirituality. Sheikh created portraits of worshippers and explored the modes of spirituality that sustained them throughout their history and which afford them solace as they embark on an uncertain future. In particular, he explored the importance of Santería, the Cuban religion which grew from the merging of the traditional Yoruba religion introduced by enslaved West Africans, Catholicism and Spiritism. The result was a group exhibition and a book, Cuba on the Verge (2003).
In 2003, Sheikh made his first visit to Vrindavan, the city in northern India dedicated to the Hindu god Krishna which offers sanctuary to India’s hundreds of thousands of widows. Under Hindu tradition, when a woman loses her husband, she loses all her social and economic rights, and must depend on her son-in-law’s family for support. In many cases she is considered a burden and cast out or is so abused she leaves of her own accord. In Vrindavan, though many of them are forced to sleep on the street, widows may find shelter in one of the city’s ashrams or government-run shelters and earn a few rupees a day for chanting sessions in the ashrams or temples. This first encounter with the lives and traditions of Hindu women in India would lead Sheikh to spend the next decade studying, photographing, interviewing, and writing about the abuses and inequalities that many women still suffer in India from birth to death. He subsequently published four books—Moksha (2005), Ladli (2007), The Circle (2008), and Ether (2013)—to bring attention to the repressive system that ruled women’s lives and to add his voice to the already vocal lobby in India calling for a more enlightened attitude towards women.
Portraits, with an extended essay by Eduardo Cadava, 2011
In a book that draws on the full range of Sheikh’s work over twenty years, Professor Eduardo Cadava considers the role of the portrait within the wider field of human rights. His essay, which is central to the book, examines the relationship between photographer and subject, the capacity for both empathy and distance, and the ability of each portrait to convey the humanity of one person while at the same time reaching beyond his or her singularity to speak of the shared experience of the community to which he or she belongs. His reading places Sheikh’s portraits within a philosophical and political framework and creates a deeper understanding of his work.
The Erasure Trilogy (Israel/Palestine), 2011–2015
In 2010, Sheikh was invited to take part in This Place, a project originated by the French photographer Frédéric Brenner, which enabled twelve international artists, all of whom use photography, to consider the contemporary situation in Israel and the West Bank. Each artist was offered a residency of around six months which could be taken over an extended period. Sheikh’s projects focused on the enforced displacement and resettlement of communities who had lost their traditional homelands after the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, specifically Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Bedouins. In The Erasure Trilogy (2015, each volume examines a different but contributory aspect of the ongoing Arab–Israeli conflict.
The first volume, Memory Trace, is dedicated to the loss of homeland and the trauma of occupation and denial suffered by the people of former Palestinian territories in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab¬–Israeli war.
The second volume, Desert Bloom, reveals the severe transformation of the landscape of the northern Negev and the struggle of the Palestinian Bedouin to reclaim their traditional agricultural lands and villages from which they have been repeatedly and forcibly removed.
The third, Independence I Nakba, presents portraits of the generations of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis born since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and who have grown up with the Arab Israeli conflict very much a reality.
The Conflict Shoreline, with Eyal Weizman, 2015
In a fourth volume related to The Erasure Trilogy, Sheikh’s aerial images of the Negev are examined and analyzed by Professor Eyal Weizman, director of the Forensic Architecture unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. Invited by Sheikh to interpret and expand on his images from Desert Bloom, Weizman draws on archival records, early aerial survey photographs, legal documents, and personal testimonies to support evidence of the legitimacy of Palestinian Bedouin settlements. Weizman’s extended essay offers a valuable commentary on the significance of Sheikh’s photographs.
Human Archipelago, with Teju Cole, 2018
In 2016 Sheikh invited the writer and artist Teju Cole to respond to a selection of his photographs made in countries including Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Mexico, the Middle East, and the American Southwest. Taking each image individually, Cole’s short powerful texts address the conflicts caused by political, racial and religious division and emphasize the importance of human relationships: the need to accept others and to extend our hospitality to them. A second edition was printed in 2021. During the Covid-19 pandemic, at the request of several institutions, Cole and Sheikh worked together to record a complete audio/visual presentation of Human Archipelago which is included under Online Editions on this site.
In 2018 Sheikh was appointed Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and the Humanities, at Princeton University, NJ, and subsequently Artist-in-Residence at the High Meadows Environmental Institute at Princeton until 2023. As one of four principal investigators—with Eduardo Cadava, Professor of English, John Higgins, Associate Professor of geosciences and Mark Zondlo, Associate Professor of civil and environmental engineering—Sheikh leads a team of artists, scientists, and engineers involved in the Exposure project. Initiated by Sheikh, this centers on environmental justice issues in the Red Rock Wilderness surrounding Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in southern Utah. These are the ancestral lands of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe and the project will include collaborations with indigenous communities, native engineers and scientists engaged in methane and water testing, geological research, and interactive mapping. The team is examining land use, extractive mining, environmental racism, and their impacts on native communities in the American Southwest. It will provide a website and an online syllabus and contribute to exhibitions at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, and the Yale University Art Gallery, in New Haven, Connecticut.
The Moon is Behind Us, with Terry Tempest Williams, 2021
In the spring of 2020, Sheikh’s work on the Exposure project in Utah was brought to a sudden halt as Covid-19 spread across the world. He was locked down in his home in Zurich, while the American writer Terry Tempest Williams, one of his collaborators on the project, was 5,000 miles away at her home in Castle Valley, Utah. Like so many others, they communicated across the days and nights by text and email, reflecting on the state of politics, the climate, racial division, and the Trump presidency, as well as sharing personal exchanges about family and friends. While reviewing his archive, Sheikh decided to make a gift for Tempest Williams as a gesture of friendship and respect. He selected 30 images, one for each year of his working life, a number that corresponded to a complete cycle of the moon. He printed them and sent them off to Utah. Some months later, an unexpected package arrived in Zurich. Inside were 30 letters from Tempest Williams, each responding to one of Sheikh’s photographs. She had written them across 30 days, in another lunar cycle. Studying the images had led her to wider, more philosophical considerations of the ways they connected to contemporary events and when images and words were placed together, both artists where surprised by the intimacy of what they had created in isolation. They felt it could be offered to others who shared their concerns in a time of crisis. The Moon is Behind Us was published in 2021. As with earlier projects, it can be accessed as an online edition on this site.