Fazal Sheikh is considered to be one of documentary photography’s most important contemporary artists. When we look at his work, however, we can see how it has distanced itself from pure reportage: in his images, where he prevents the viewer from arriving at any definitive conclusions, there is always room for reflection and to establish a dialog with his subjects who, in turn, are given the chance to express themselves. As viewers we can take part in this conversation through his exhibitions and books.
Sheikh’s work focuses on relatively unknown human tragedies. He defines himself as an artist-activist who uses photography to portray different communities around the world, engaging with their beliefs and traditions as well as their political and economic problems. With his photography we learn more about the people he depicts and the circumstances in which they live and at the same time they serve to narrate the story of those who are suffering. What the people in his photographs have to say is extremely important to him: testimonies, stories and dreams that help us to understand them and to see the sitters in a more personal light. The images have a clear aesthetic value, something which may at first appear contradictory when portraying these topics, but by doing so he manages to attract worldwide attention to these injustices. The images and the texts stand alone, but jointly they mutually strengthen and acquire their true importance as a piece.
Sheikh works in series: he focuses for a certain period of time, sometimes lasting years, on one particular project. He learns everything he can about the topic. He strikes up a personal relationship with the people he is photographing in order to learn about their situation and to be able to better perform a job that requires calm, tranquillity and reflection, aspects which can be appreciated in all his work.
From his first photographs taken in Kenya and South Africa towards the end of the 1980s, and his first series of portraits in the refugee camps on the Kenyan-Sudan border in 1992, Sheikh understood how important it was for a photograph to serve as an act of mutual engagement, rather than an unequal encounter between himself, as a curious observer, and his subjects, as willing victims. The respect with which Sheikh approaches the people he photographs and the self-possession which which they appear before the camera allow us to contemplate them as equals, despite any geographical, religious, language, educational and economic differences. Rather than distancing us from them, his photographs suggest that the person photographed and the viewer have more in common than divides them.
Through portraiture, the people Fazal Sheikh photographs embody his subject matter. We can put a human face on tragedy and identify with the suffering of the other. His portraits are straightforward, direct representations; they are, in essence, collaborations with the people portrayed: he has earned their trust, and dispenses with the usual gravity inherent to the genre of portraiture. In much the same way as Walker Evans, who never adopted the condescending or morbid attitude typical of documentary photography, Sheikh is completely removed from the scene. He imposes nothing on the viewer and does not introduce sentimental or redemptive qualities which would diminish the authenticity of his work.