Born to an American mother and a Kenyan father in New York City in 1965, Fazal Sheikh has been photographing displaced people for the past 25 years. But more than just taking their pictures, he’s been listening to their stories, getting to know them intimately, giving them a voice and putting names and faces to the displaced. The result is a body of work distinguished by deep-rooted themes of human rights and dignity.
Sheikh spent most of his childhood summers visiting Kenya, and after studying photography at Princeton University, he returned to that country on a Fulbright scholarship to live in a refugee camp for displaced people. Sheikh was disturbed by photojournalists who quickly moved through these camps on assignment, snapping quick photos, so he developed relationships with his subjects, allowing them to advocate for themselves and their communities on their own terms. He documented them in the way they wished to be portrayed, and included first-person narratives of their stories.
Common Ground, a new exhibit at the Portland Art Museum, features work from eight series by Sheikh, many of them shot in the homelands of his paternal ancestors—his Kenyan grandfather was born in present-day Pakistan. The first series, 1994’s A Sense of Common Ground, features gelatin silver prints taken in a Kenyan refugee camp. The titles of the pieces are the subjects’ names, complete with goosebump-inducing translations: Rwandan refugees the Lukelatabaru family (“One who was born to make war”), and newborn twins Nsabimana (“I beg something from God”) and Mukanzabonimpa (“God will grant me, but I don’t know when”).
Sheikh also spent time working in northern India, documenting the ways that caste systems and gender biases adversely affect women there. The series Moksha features images and stories of women who live in the holy city of Vrindavan, a sacred site for widows who have been forced out of their homes.
Perhaps the most powerful series is Ramadan Moon. Merging documentary and conceptual styles, the sequence is a poetic and immersive experience sectioned off in a darkened room. Set to a soundtrack of prayers sung by Sheikh’s stepmother, Ramadan Moon documents the story of Somali refugee Seynab Azir Wardeere as she seeks asylum in the Netherlands with her son. During the holy month of Ramadan, Wardeere looks to the night sky, hoping that the family she was forced to leave behind is looking at the same stars.
In each series, Sheikh collaborates with his subjects, giving them a platform to share their powerful stories and calling attention to human rights abuses—it’s up to the viewer to pay attention.