A Sense of Common Ground

by Dick Doughty

In his two-page introduction, Fazal Sheikh describes his first trip to a Kenyan refugee camp, an experience which shaped his method as an American-based photographer sojourning in Africa. He flew out from Nairobi on a UN plane in the company of aid workers and photojournalists. He watched as the latter, guided by the former, homed in on the scenes of acute suffering and departed to meet deadlines.
As a Fulbright fellow, Sheikh did not have to move so quickly. As the son of a Kenyan father and American mother, the 27-year-old Sheikh watched with literally one foot - or perhaps one eye - in each world, "feeling a sense of unease, an inability to follow along and make the expected photographs." The camp, he found, had its share of acute sufferings, but mostly it was full of people trying to make sense of circumstance, struggling to regain a sense of normalcy amid great uncertainty and loss.
With his fellowship relieving him of the pressure of a stringer's deadline, Sheikh talked with the camp residents. He spoke the language and most importantly, he listened to them over days that became weeks and months. Gradually, over a series of subsequent trips, he began photographing using a large-format camera and Polaroid film that allowed him to give a peeled-off positive to the person photographed while he retained a reproducible negative. The bulky view camera insured that everyone in the camp knew what he was doing, and in his introduction he alludes to his images as "collaborations." No "grab shots" with a motor-driven 35mm; no poking into faces with a wide-angle lens; no fill-flash in the harsh African sun; no surprises to his subjects. His choice of photographic tools complemented well an approach based on cultivating relationships with people who, in one medium or another, are most often portrayed as passive victims, as "Other," or at least as people quite unlike the intended audience of the representation.
The results of his method elegantly reflect this rapport. These are soft pictures of people who have been through hard times. The book is mostly black-and-white portraits unevenly toned (on purpose we presume) and published a bit preciously with the raw edges of the Polaroid film forming ragged frames (Would he employ such raw edges in portraits of wealthy, settled people?) Interspersed with the portraits are clustered photos of barren grave sites, sparse vegetation and a number of fold-out triptychs of group photographs.
Throughout, there is a disturbing absence of things - tools, possessions, food, buildings, evidence of any kind of economy however marginal. This barrenness, a consistent feature of the several camps he visited, shows clearly what anyone who has spent time in a refugee camp knows: that for many, desperation is born less of immediate danger than of ennui; that camp life is not so much frightening as it is devastatingly boring, and that yet on that stark stage there is, rather mysteriously, time for deep bonds to form among families and individuals who face a common adversity.
Sheikh saw all this, and his portraits are as complex as the individuals he photographs. The images are suffused with an inner calm, a strength that neither idealizes (a distancing technique) nor dwells upon trauma. Reflected here is also how Sheikh himself "marveled at the desolate stillness of the desert and the way in which it evoked a curious sensation of calm and solace mixed with a hint of foreboding." He is not out to shock the viewer, nor does he seek to inspire guilt - two more techniques that keep the subject's circumstances at a comfortable distance. Rather, Sheikh gets to us viewers simply and almost with innocence by getting inside the hearts of his subjects by just letting them be. His images are thus quite disturbing indeed, even shocking, but for nothing else than their ordinariness, their neighbor-next-door quality that transcends victimization. This makes the pain and heaviness, so apparent in many faces, all the more real, like these are things that could happen to any of us. These are people you could sit down and talk with right now, if only you could step through the page. Sheikh has given us a sense of the living presence of the subject, to a degree few photographs seem to be able to evoke anymore.
In his searching for an empathetic, collaborative relationship with his subjects, Sheikh engages in the search for the photographer's proper role and method, questions that have dogged the documentary tradition ever since the camera was employed for social and political reasons. He doesn't elaborate on just how "collaborative" each photograph really was: Who chose that pose, that setting, that gesture; who edited? Who really retains power here? How much does this matter? Still, there is no question of the subjects' consent, of their entirely willing engagement with the camera. There is no drama of mood-enhancing lighting here; most images are quite flat, even from place to place; and the distance between subject and camera is kept fairly standard. Formally, we don't notice Sheikh; but emotionally, he's all over every frame.
Though he is a visual soft speaker, his statement is carefully constructed. He knows the history of Western images of Africa including present-day newscasts. A Sense of Common Ground, even in its title, is thus also his rebuke of that history, his writing against that grain.
Sheikh believes "that by expanding our visual representations of Africa we can arrive at a level of understanding, empathy and commonality that will bring about changes in stereotypical perceptions." Nowhere does this become more clear than on page 49 when Sheikh describes an encounter with a doctor (ironically a Kenyan) who attributed the smothering of severely malnourished Somali nomad infants to "the essentially callous nature of Somalis."
The doctor's comment stands with centuries of stereotyping of Africans, and the eight pages that follow show pairs of Somali mothers and infants, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, all of whom touch each other with elemental grace and gentleness. In this way Sheikh embraces a timeless, noble theme: the enlargement of the viewer's circle of humanity, the abolition of "Otherness." With this, his first book, he shows himself to be a sincere, intelligent unifier within the human family.
But sadly, he fails to engage the stereotype of African poverty. Sheikh does not make it clear why he focused exclusively on these several groups of destitute refugees as a subject for documentary work in East Africa. The choice seems almost taken for granted. Within the scope of victim-oriented documentary work, the choice could even be called conventional. Although he indicates that by 1996 many of the people he photographed had found some form of permanent settlement, his subjects are all caught exclusively at the moment of their greatest powerlessness. Despite the elegance of the images and his exemplary methods, these people have not always been in such circumstances. They had homes, farms, trades, professions, educations of varying degrees. By focusing only on the moment of dispossession, he feeds the stereotype of impoverished, literally brute Africa.
Portraits or other photographs that include even minimal evidence of refugee economies or longitudinal work that depicts former refugees in post-camp settings would have done much to this end. The dullness of camp life makes plenty of time for scheming, too: most refugees know friends or relatives who might help, and, so what of the hopes of the people photographed? Their losses are noted mostly by implication, but their futures are left blank and this is ultimately dehumanzing.
Because the book is the product of several years' work and repeated trips to the region, I don't think that it is unreasonable to ask for more such context. At the very least, the captions, which carefully note names, might have noted occupations, evidence of former social status or hopes and plans - anything to belie the impression of a blank future or to confirm it outright when appropriate.
These photos - and their real-life subjects - are too good to be under-served, as they are, by context. Despite this, Sheikh has clearly established himself as a photographer with a powerful, important voice. He shows us that even in this image-surfeited age, a photographer can still knit the human community a little closer together and give us reason to believe again that progress is possible, that our actions and attitudes matter, and that the world is indeed a better place when we listen more closely to one another.
Houston photojournalist Dick Doughty is co-author of Gaza: Legacy of Occupation - A Photographer's Journey (Kumarian Press, 1995).
Fazal Sheikh: Recent Photographs was exhibited at the Houston Center for Photography, November 7-December 21, 1997