Landscape photos offer breadth and depth to Fazel Sheikh’s images of conflict.
By Zach Mortice
There’s a searing, intimate quality to photographer Fazal Sheikh’s portraits, now on display at the Denver Art Museum. In a round-the-world survey of displacement, conflict, inequality, Sheikh’s posed portraits distill lifetimes (both short and long) of defiance and inhumanity into a single gaze. But their full immediacy doesn’t snap into place until you zoom out much further, to the scale of landscape photography, included as a vital counterpoint in the exhibit Common Ground: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh, 1989–2013, on view until November 12.
Organized by Eric Paddock, the curator of photography at the Denver Art Museum, the exhibit includes 171 images from East Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, the Netherlands, and more, split into eight sections divided by geography. These images take a 1:1 approach at connecting museum-goers to thorny and unfamiliar global conflicts (dowry violence in South Asia, refugee camps in Africa, etc.) through mostly black and white portraits of the people living them every day. Approximately 20 landscape photographs offer added layers of narrative to these intensely personal stories.
Photos of a refugee camp in Kenya show acre upon acre of improvised tents separated by fences made of dried brush. Nearby, photos of a Somali girl with her toddler-aged brother (just two of 300,000 people there) show her eyes blazing with a will to survive. The section of the exhibit called The Victor Weeps documents refugees from the Soviet–Afghan war that settled in Pakistan just before the Taliban asserted control over Kabul. In 1996, Sheikh photographed the war-ravaged city, where many of these refugees fled from. Taken just 21 years ago, these images might as well be 500 years old. They show a city where modernity has been entirely bombed into submission. Crumbling rows of brick structures, punctuated by wooden shacks, look like Sumerian ruins. Far off in the distance, someone rides a bicycle, the only definitive clue to the image’s age. A look into the eyes of the people that fled this country reveals a tableau as hollow and shocked as the land itself, with hope for comfort and familiarity as far off as the bicyclist on the horizon.
“The photography of Kabul has less to do with the place that the portraits are made,” says Paddock, “and more to do with the place where the refugees had lived, and the kind of environment and danger they had escaped when they moved to the refugee camps.”
The name of the exhibit, Common Ground, reflects Paddock and Sheikh’s belief that “people are essentially alike, and despite the differences in our circumstance, we all want the same things. The title is really an invitation for museum visitors to recognize that commonality, and to connect to their sense of empathy.”
By providing spatial context, the included landscape photography makes this “more tangible, and easier to recognize and understand,” says Paddock. The empathy forged through artful portraiture offers one way into the lives of these dispossessed, and the broader landscape depictions offer another, namely: If this was my place in the world, how would I fare, and who would care?