Not all the images in his retrospective at the Denver Art Museum are by American photographer Fazal Sheikh. But all the stories are his -- they were entrusted to him.
Among the photographs he did take is a portrait of a woman he met in Vrindavan, a town south of Delhi where Indian widows have traditionally settled. The woman was not a widow herself. She told Sheikh she had never wanted to marry after a friend was murdered by her husband because her family did not pay dowry. Instead, Sheikh’s subject became a traveler who eventually chose to stay in Vrindavan because she felt at home among the widows.
What inspires people to share their stories with Sheikh? When I look at his portraits, I see women especially looking comfortably and confidently at the camera, as if they are at home in his listening gaze.
The DAM show includes some of the work that made Sheikh famous: portraits and landscapes shot during his visits that would last for weeks at a time among camps for refugees from Rwanda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Mozambique.
Sheikh was born in New York. His father was born in Kenya. His grandfather was born in what was then colonial India, leaving before the partition of 1947 set off a harrowing wave of displacement as the modern states of India and Pakistan were born. Sheikh’s personal and family history seem to have given him an affinity for people on the move because of forces and conflicts beyond their control and perhaps even understanding.
In 1996 Sheikh made a photographic pilgrimage to his grandfather’s home region, now part of Pakistan. He found hundreds of thousands of Afghans who had fled the Soviet invasion 20 years before. That project, which he called “The Victor Weeps,” is also part of the show at DAM.
People have given Sheikh mementos as well as stories. The DAM exhibit includes drawings made by children in refugee camps and photographs he made from negatives slipped to him by the owner of a photo studio in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The Taliban fear the power of the images made when humans contemplate one another. Sheikh celebrates it.
At the Denver Art Museum until Nov. 12.