About the Photographer
American, b. 1965
Fazel Shiekh began photographing in refugee camps in 1992 while living in Kenya on a Fulbright fellowship. Observing as photojournalists passed through on assignment, looking for sensational imagery to encapsulate the hardship they witnessed, Sheikh settled on a decidedly different approach, one that merges the roles of artist and activist. For over fifteen years, he has made formal black and white portraits of refugees in their communities, focusing attention on individual people rather than on their harrowing circumstances. His process involves close observation and a degree of collaboration. He states, “The sitters present themselves. My role is not to confer upon, but rather to encourage that which is already inherently part of the person to come forward. The strength of a sitter’s gaze and an entire life lived in their bodies speaks for itself." The portraits, while often ceremonious, are imbued with a sense of intimacy and the viewer is left to examine the sitter's bearing and gestures, to search for signs of their personality or the toll of their experiences.
In one of Shiekh's photographs, Rachel and Ochol, Family Section, Sudanese Refugee Camp, Lokichoggio, Kenya (1992-93), two young women sit beside each other on a bench, looking directly at the camera. Like many of the refugees in Kenya, these women fled from their homes in southern Sudan due to the long-running civil war that raged from 1983 to 2001, ultimately causing the deaths of almost two million people. Their solemn expressions seem to register the bleak reality of life in the camp but their composure and relaxed gestures convey a sense of dignity. Underlining a common humanity, Sheikh's portraits offer what feel like personal encounters with people who would otherwise remain out of sight and anonymous.
Approaching his photographic practice as means to build awareness of human rights issues, Sheikh has worked with dispossessed populations throughout the world, including displaced families in East Africa, Afghani refugees in Pakistan, and migrant workers in South America. As with Rachel and Ochol, Sheikh titles his photographs with the names of his sitters and their location, and his publications frequently include transcriptions of their personal histories, told in their own words. While operating outside of traditional publishing channels Sheikh disseminates his work as widely as possible. In 2001 he initiated the International Human Rights series, a set of books, films and touring exhibitions that he distributes free of charge to a growing network of organizations devoted to human rights and the humanities.