Predominantly a portrait photographer, Sheikh uses his work to highlight humanitarian and other issues (refugees, migrant workers are among his more common subject matter). Rather than simply taking stock images of the other, Sheikh is in no way condescending towards his subjects, and their portraits are all instilled with a dignity and respect despite their plight.
Another favourite type of image is the hand holding something important – either a photograph of a lost one, or an amulet or item with magical properties:
Deceptively simple, the images look at the way people in different cultures deal with loss using their faith or belief systems. As Vicki Goldberg wrote, they represent “sad pieces of paper that are all the living have left of the dead” and goes on to observe:
This record of the pictorial remains of those who have been killed acknowledges that photography has introduced not only new subjects but even new kinds of emotional responses to pictures. (Goldberg 1999, n.p.)
I really like Sheikh’s mission and vision – from the photographer’s personal website:
Fazal Sheikh is an artist who uses photographs to document people living in displaced and marginalized communities around the world. His principle medium is the portrait, although his work also encompasses personal narratives, found photographs, archival material, sound, 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 these groups, to respect them as individuals and to counter the ignorance and prejudice that often attaches to them.
Respecting the subjects as individuals and trying to challenge the ignorance and prejudice that they face – this is exactly the kind of work I am trying to achieve. I think it is important that Sheikh not only publishes his work in book form, but also makes the work available online for wider dissemination. Perhaps this is a way for me to present my work? The portraits are displayed alongside more abstract pictures, Koranic verses, autobiographical testimony and finally information on the history of refugees from Somalia in the Netherlands and relevant articles from the UN convention on human rights. To my mind, there is a lot of text here on the website:
Andy Grundberg expresses how close to cliché Ramadan Moon comes:
Close-up portraits of a Somali asylum seeker living temporarily in the Netherlands alternate with her first-person narration of how her family’s once-pleasant life in Mogadishu turned into a living hell. As prelude and coda to her story, near-abstract pictures of leaves and the moonlit night sky are combined with poetic excerpts from the Koran. It could be corny, but instead it’s dead-on heartrending.
(Grundberg 2002, n.p.)
In much the same way as I want to, Sheikh combines images with first hand testimony from his subjects. This means that they are empowered, given the chance to allow their voices to be heard, and the photographer is an instrument, the means by which they are able to achieve that. This is exactly the position I want to take with my project. Although Sheikh’s images are highly stylized, I am aiming for the look of normalcy in my work, and as such this kind of imagery is not at all what I am aiming for, but the concept is there. Perhaps in this way I can reduce the number of images and increase the number of participants. Food for thought.
In an interview for Artwurl, Sheikh said the following about his understanding of documentary photography:
“Documentary, in the best sense, is able to tap into various levels of aesthetics within the realm of art and perhaps as well into political and social issues.” (Gottesman 2003, n.p.)
In the same interview he mentions the fact that he doesn’t work in the typical way most photojournalists work, sacrificing individuals for grand purposes, but has a more democratic approach to his work:
“Ramadan Moon, my Somali book about the Netherlands, was actually intended to be quite strong politically in that it was sent to most of the judges, parliamentarians, and mayors within the country to underscore what was happening to asylum seekers in the current climate. So this book arrives, sort of unsolicited by them and hopefully they have this experience of it that makes them rethink their policy toward asylum seekers in their country.” (ibid)
He also talks about his desire not to trespass on people, and I think this is an ethical boundary that many photographers (in particular photojournalists or documentarians) fail to recognize and frequently cross with utter disregard for the individuals concerned. He also speaks of the perceived advantage of being an insider, as if having some sort of connection permits access, that it “sanctions a kind of voyeurism,” but he dismisses this as a “racist and divisive” attitude.
Speaking about the global ideas behind much of Salgado’s oeuvre, Sheikh expresses his deep respect for the images, but that he works in a different way: “I’m much more interested in the specificity of someone’s image, name, story, gaze. I want to attend to individuals.” This is the kind of mini-narrative that I’m aiming for – attending to individuals while drawing attention to a wider picture; tackling the issue from a personal perspective.
The final words he says about how images and text function together in a symbiotic way, each complementing the other:
“It’s very typical of the documentary mode that we think that the photograph does everything. I think the photographs do some things very well but I do not think they do everything. In my recent books and exhibitions, text plays a rather prominent role. In the two Somali books, it is essential that the voices be there. The voices allude to a complexity and depth, which is held in the resonating gaze, but which I think needs to be pinned down and made very clear. That’s both a strength and a weakness of the photographic medium. I want the strength of the portraits to make you perhaps sympathetic and interested in then reading the testimonial. And the testimonial resonates with the image in a way that transcends the separate elements.” (ibid)
This is probably the most desirable outcome of presenting image and text together, that the image draws the viewer in to want to find out more about the subject and the narrative fills in gaps that the image cannot contain by itself.