Fazal Sheikh is drawn to the dispossessed and downtrodden. A photographer of uncommon candour, New York-born Sheikh has travelled to Somalia, Malawi, Kenya, Mexico and Cuba, capturing refugees and other victims of internal conflict as they flee persecution. The portraits, unsettling in their clarity and bare-faced misery, have earned Sheikh many plaudits, including the Henri Cartier-Bresson International Grand Prize, the MacArthur Fellowship and space in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In India, he has worked with girls and young women, and the dispossessed widows of Vrindavan, building a deeply telling photographic narrative that was exhibited and later published under the titles Moksha and Ladli. Later this month, the NGO Action Aid will distribute a set of 30 of those images to more than 1,000 organizations across the country. Sheikh spoke to Lounge about his journey, connecting with his subjects and raising awareness about their plight. Edited excerpts:
How did Moksha and Ladli come about?
I read a small piece several years ago in The New York Times about Vrindavan. When I finished a project in Somalia and Afghanistan, I decided to make one brief visit to the town, and, somehow, it was more complex than I had seen it
rendered. The first project was Moksha, and when that was complete, I began to wonder what it was like for girls on the other end of the spectrum. So Ladli is a kind of companion to that.
Telling pictures: (from left) Sita Dasi, a widow, in Vrindavan; Simran, a subject in Sheikh’s series on children; the photographer.
Your portraits are very frank. Do you spend a lot of time with your subjects before photographing them?
It varies. Moksha, which was about a somewhat insular society, was complicated. I spent weeks in the town getting to know people, visiting widows and homes. The Ladli period covers different places in India, so I was always travelling and revisiting places, but it took less time than I usually take. Though it’s less about rendering the atmosphere of a town than it is about rendering a story.
Did you ever feel you were invading your subjects’ privacy?
It depends on the situation. In certain situations, it seemed inappropriate to render faces. But it’s a difficult thing to navigate the nature of propriety. The photographs are very formal and somewhat collaborative in nature, so generally, if someone didn’t want to be photographed, then they wouldn’t be.
Some of the people in Ladli have their backs turned to the viewer.
There are two reasons—one, you have a degree of intimacy with the photos, but the person is still retaining something private. And, with the children of prostitutes, you worry about trespass. You don’t want to jeopardize their security. It’s important to tell the story and voices but it is not so important to see the person front-on.
Do you ever show your subjects the photographs?
I usually work with a polaroid camera, so yes, but in other cases, I was having the work developed so I could take it back. In some cases, they were not all that interested, but among the women groups, there was very much an understanding to bring their voice forward, to acknowledge that women are helping one another, and that they are not dependent on external forces to change their situation.
Are there any places that draw you back?
I can’t really compare them in that way — everywhere I’ve worked at various times had connections to my history, whether through documenting politics and society or documenting my own heritage to a place. All have embodied parts of my connection, but I wouldn’t value one over the other.
How do you prepare yourself before going to a place?
The best thing is to allow preconceptions to fade away. I have never visited any area where I found I knew it clearly from the outset. India is very complex. You have great exploitation but, on the other hand, you have women who have formed a kind of sisterhood.
Have you ever had to walk away from a situation?
I’m not so interested in going to places in volatile situations. I’m not a war photographer, I’m more interested in the legacy of those kinds of acts on people. Often, I didn’t think it was appropriate to photograph a subject at a given time, but I might return later in the day and shoot them. Sometimes they relate their story in a certain way and you feel that that’s not the right moment.
Your books and exhibitions often have extensive narratives accompanying the photographs.
The photographs do something very well, but I don’t think they always allude to the breadth of the story. I needed the testimony of my own writing to allude to the levels of complexity there.
A lot of your works are portraits. Any particular reason behind that?
I have shot all kinds of images but I am drawn to portraits because it’s a clear and direct engagement with people. The complexity lies in getting to a position where you can make an image and render the subjects in a way that shows them as being open or direct.