By Lupita Franco.
(Culture) – Photographer Fazal Sheikh has for years been telling the stories of humans being displaced. A few instances… he followed the lives of Africans displaced by civil wars and famine in the early 1990s, accompanying them and documenting their journeys for about two years. Between 1992 and 1994 the American-born photojournalist interacted with people from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan, and a few other countries. Later in 2007 and 2013, he took a look at India and a few other counties, and more pictures to illustrate displacement and social injustice.
The displacement of men, women, and children –and their having to call a refugee camp home for long periods of time is a harsh reality that many wish it didn’t exist. Those who are living it and those whose empathy allows them to feel the pain even when they see it from the distance are calling for it to end or for the world to make it a little less harsh.
Fazal Sheikh is one of those with enough empathy to closely look at them for more than two decades, preparing a compelling mix of words and images to show their stories.
The Portland Museum of Art honored Sheikh’s work and took elements from several of his projects in the exhibit entitled “Common Ground,” at the museum through May 2018. According to curator Julia Dolan, Sheikh’s cornerstone photographic practice is to be respectful and sensitive to those having to experience forced migration.
“Sheikh spent extended periods in each camp, becoming acquainted with the elders and asking permission to photograph their community members,” Nolan said. “He collaborated with his sitters, who were invited to pose in the ways they wished to be portrayed.”
The emotional pain and the uncertainty people experience when forced to leave their town or country can easily become psychological terror. Some people around the world often feel for them, just a little, and then turn away into their own diligence. People’s names become a generic “refugee,” their individuality often thrown into a large basket of nameless, unlike the baskets they once weaved when life was peaceful in their homeland.
Sometimes I wonder why it is so hard to look at them –the displaced–, empathize, and take action.
Take a look at Seynab Azir Wardeere who had to migrate after being rapped in front of her three children while her husband was away; her father was killed as well. She was detained in Amsterdam and ended up having to live at a center for refugees, in her 40s, away from her family.
Or take a look at Labhuben (pictured above), a five-year-old child bride in Chandigarh, India. When this picture was taken, she was already bartered to another family along with her seventeen-year-old brother. On his website, Sheikh’s explains:
“Families have developed a system of barter marriages, known as ‘sata lagna’, in which one family offers a son in marriage to another family, on condition that the second family has a son willing to marry his prospective sister-in-law’s sister. The principle is, basically: ‘I’ll marry your sister if you’ll marry mine.’ The deals are made when the children are very young, and then the girls are kept at home until they reach the age when they can marry, usually at puberty.”
Look at Wesemana and her brother Mitonze, pictured above, are just two of the 250,000 Rwandans displaced and pushed to Tanzania because of genocide.
Unaccompanied Afghan children are also found in refugee camps, often because their parents and families were killed. See their faces. It could be the children in your life or mine. But the face of each one of these children shows the pain and suffering inflicted by displacement.
Through photography and words, Fazal Sheikh’s gives voice to displaced communities, seeking to create awareness about the devastating effects of forced migration. He treats its subject-matters with the respect and plenty of compassion people in such vulnerable circumstances must be treated.
*All photography in this article is by Fazal Sheikh.
About the writer: Lupita Franco Peimbert is a former television news reporter. She currently works as a Public Information Officer (PIO) for Caltrans, and in her free time writes about arts, travel, and all things culture. She saw the “Common Ground” exhibit in Portland in 2018.
Follow her @Lupitanews on Twitter, and at #Lupita Peimbert on Instagram.