Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fazal Sheikh

I'm not sure I'm doing this right, because I've never quite figured out how to post pictures successfully, but hopefully this will work. Anyhow, Fazal Sheikh is someone the Deirdre recommend I look into it, and boy am I glad I did. It's an interesting response to photography that has been historically problematic. Fazal Sheikh makes photos of many of the same subjects that other 'war photographers' or photojournalists take pictures of, but he does it in such a different manner. He does just that- makes photographs, and you get that sense from his work.

Some of his subjects have included widowers and 'unwanted' children in India, as well as refugees in camps in Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi. Rather than taking the typical photograph by storming the scene and making 'poverty pornography' of sorts, a viewer can tell that Sheikh's process is completely different because the photographs that result are completely different than other work of this kind. For me, the most marked difference is that his subjects are almost always looking directly into the camera and portrayed in a formal portrait. The viewer gets the sense that the person in the photograph was complicit in its production, that it was a true collaboration, and not someone stolen from this person. Sheikh also names every one of his subjects, thereby avoiding the 'nameless African starving refugee #347' syndrome and offers the potential for his work to do more than just continue to saturate us with photos that we are accustomed to seeing of those regions of the world. This is true of his book, Common Ground, which the Mills library has, which is his work from the refugee camps. I think his work often manages to capture a dignity where other photographers have often produced a generalized sense of pity.

His more recent work, taken in India, has a lot more text accompanying it, which also expands what it is capable of achieving. By reading Sheikh's words, we learn not only the stories of his subjects, but how he came to the work himself, and his placement in its creation. While his work is not flawless, and we still must be in dialogue about why we are so often attracted to making certain kinds of work (specifically work that focuses on poverty etc, instead of turning our lenses to other places) I still think Sheikh's work is tremendously important in this field, and introduces a much more responsible voice into this arena of photography.

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