Revealing Common Humanity

With strident voices of protectionism, nationalism and a gen­eral retreat from globalisation threatening to dominate current political discourse, the images of Fazal Sheikh (b. 1965) offer a corrective to a climate of fear and distrust of the other. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has recently acquired a col­lection of 75 images spanning the artist’s career, almost all of which will feature in their exhibition Homelands and Histories. Earlier works focus on Africa, revealing the human faces of refugee camps where people have fled conflict in Somalia and Sudan. The theme continues in The Victor Weeps (1996-1998), which visits communities of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Throughout a 25-year career, the photographer, born in New York, has concentrated on marginalised communities, refugees and displaced populations from around the world, notably in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. His method involves spending long periods of time, sometimes years, working with the communities that he seeks to portray, immersing himself in their history and culture in order to approach each individu­al subject from a viewpoint of respect and compassion.

Demonstrating a shared humanity is at the heart of his practice, as he explores the complex ties of memories, people and places that bind together histories, communities and even the individual self, sorely tested in the face of displacement and exile. Sheikh explores those threads not only in the faces of individuals, but also in their visible traces on the landscape and in the way they are revealed in moments of transition – dawn and dusk, dreams and death.

He shifts location and theme in Moksha (2003-2005), an investigation into the sisterhood of widows who live in the holy Indian city of Vrindavan, where many women in later life go to find community and solace, whilst by contrast Ladli (2005-2007) reveals the work of young women in India in orphanages, hospitals, schools and charity shelters. Sheikh makes the leap from monochrome to colour in Ether (2008- 2012) set in Benares, India, a meditation on the transitional states of sleep, dream and death. Finally, Erasure (2011- 2013) depicts a trilogy of approaches to the Israel–Palestine conflict, considering the ruins of the 1948 Arab–Israeli war, the landscape of the Negev Desert where recent interventions in the form of military and mining activity have displaced Bedouin communities, and a series of double portraits of Israelis and Palestinians born every year since 1948. A number of Sheikh’s portraits are accompanied by first-person texts as well as clips of the artist reading out his subjects’ personal testimonies.

As Malcolm Daniel, curator of photography, who organ­ised the exhibition, says: “Sheikh’s deep sense of humanity and clear respect for his subjects are beautifully conveyed through his photographs. His is a welcome voice at a time that is marked by so much fear and distrust of people from the very places that he has chosen to explore with his camera.”

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Until 1 October. For more information:

1. Sheikh, Dawn along the Yamuna, Vrindavan, India, from the series Moksha, 2005. Inkjet print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Jane P. Watkins. © Fazal Sheikh.