Fazal Sheikh describes himself as an “artist-activist”. All his black-and-white projects have an investigative and humanitarian dimension, the frontal gaze of his subjects revealing the trusting conditions under which he photographs.
Born in New York and based in Zurich, Sheikh won the 2005 prize from the Fondation Henri Cartier Bresson, which is awarded every two years, for his
two haunting series Moksha and Ladli. Both are an indictment of India’s patriarchal society. Moksha is about outcast widows who have found refuge in the holy city of Vrindavan, where they live in ashrams and worship the god Krishna in temples. Their dream is to reach Moksha – or “heaven” – to be liberated from the painful cycle of death and rebirth. Each portrait is
accompanied by a first-person testimonial, explaining how the women found themselves in their current situation.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Ladli focuses on young girls in orphanages, many of which have been rejected by their parents due to their gender.
Again, the images are accompanied by in-depth accounts about the reality of the girls’ lives.
Eyemazing spoke to Fazal Sheikh on the phone about his work.
Anna Sansom (AS): Your work often relates to human rights. Has each of your projects always related to shedding light on a specific situation?
Fazal Sheikh (FS): My work developed in that direction when I was given a Fulbright fellowship in 1992 to photograph the Swahili communities along the
Kenyan coast; it was the year when Kenya experienced an influx of half a million refugees who flooded into the country across its northern borders. I altered my plans and travelled to visit one of the camps along the Sudanese border. This experience made me realise that what I was seeing was in marked contrast to what I had seen and read about in the western media. I wanted to make people
understand that the issues were much more complex. I try my best to approach any given project with an open mind and to bridge the gap between “us” and
“them”. I like to encourage viewers to consider that it’s possible that – given different circumstances – they too might be in the same situation. I prefer to
render a place through the specificity of an individual and his/her story rather than make broad, sweeping generalisations that can distance the viewer.
Much of my work weaves together an investigation into my own heritage as well as the current social and political issues that the countries face. Even
though I was brought up in New York, I spent my childhood holidays with my extended family in Kenya and it seemed natural for me to photograph that
country and the Afghan border where my grandfather was born. What interests me is engaging with communities, collaborating with them, and rendering
them in a way that is respectful and informative.
I’m interested in working in a collaborative way with the people that I photograph; often the sitter looks at me, the photographer, and – by extension – you, the viewer. I always ask permission to photograph people so it’s clear what my motives are. Because it’s collaborative, people who are not interested don’t become involved. It might also be the first time that people are “given the opportunity” to tell their story; having someone listen to it can be cathartic.
AS: What kinds of stories about the widows’ lives did you hear the most?
FS: The widows have been migrating to the town for over 500 years. The majority are seen as having been responsible for bringing the bad luck that caused their husband’s death. They are often cast out by their families and condemned by strict marital laws, which deny them their legal and economic rights. They come to Vrindavan as a last refuge, a place that might offer the solace of religion and a sisterhood. There were many stories of widows who had been forced out of their homes, brought to Vrindavan and abandoned, or made to feel as though they were now a burden within their own home. Many have
never seen their children again. But there were also stories of widows who came from well-to-do families and had children that wanted them to remain at
home. They had come to Vrindavan of their own accord, wishing to spend the last years of their lives in devotion to Krishna.
AS: Out of everything you witnessed there, what shocked or moved you the most?
FS: What shocked me the most was seeing how, in contemporary Indian society, with all its extraordinary advances, these women continue to be shunned and
cast aside. This sadness was often countered by the heartening bonds and sisterhood that the widows created amongst themselves, bolstering one other and empowering the community in a way that I hadn’t expected.
AS: As the recipient of the Henri Cartier-Bresson prize, how would you describe the key evolutions in documentary photography over the last few decades?
FS: I think that a few decades ago, time and support was given to a journalist going to a place and understanding it from the ground up. Financial imperatives
have changed, and stories are often planned in advance miles away from where the story is unfolding.
Photographers are not given the opportunity to spend time somewhere to really understand what is governing the political situation. Today, people have grown inured to the way in which images are portrayed in the media so people working in documentary mode find that it is incumbent upon them to carve out new ways of rendering their subject. My work is formal and subjective, and I have never
allowed it to be used in the media, preferring to have the projects disseminated as exhibitions, books, and on the Internet. Perhaps the fact of their choosing my
work for the prize was a nod in the direction of a more subjective way of working. I don’t believe that photography is objective, and not many people
would any longer. If we accept that, then we also accept that an image is brought to us through the filter of the photographer’s personal background and infused with the artist’s own life experiences.
TEXT BY ANNA SANSOM
© picture: Fazal Sheikh
Represented by Pace/Macgill, New York
© Fazal Sheikh, Menka (‘Celestial nymph’), Vrindavan, India, 2005