Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.TP.13.2.3 | PDF

Fazal Sheikh’s Photodocumentaries
Bir­git Mersmann

Migrant Portraiture and Life Imaging in Fazal Sheikh’s Photodocumentaries

Bir­git Mersmann
This arti­cle explores the role of migrant pho­to por­trai­ture for life imag­ing by pro­vid­ing a close read­ing of two pho­to­books by con­tem­po­rary pho­tog­ra­ph­er Fazal Sheikh – A Sense of Com­mon Ground (1996) and The Vic­tor Weeps. Afghanistan (1998). Visu­al sto­ry­telling is a core fea­ture of this social and human­i­tar­i­an photographer’s work, through which two main ques­tions are addressed: how are real-life migra­tion expe­ri­ences as sur­vival sto­ries and per­son­al biogra­phies inscribed in the por­traits of refugees and migrants? Which form(at)s of por­traits are cho­sen, and which prac­tices of por­tray­al are employed for the pur­pose of doc­u­ment­ing migrant lives? Based on Jean-Luc Nancy’s por­trait the­o­ry and Gior­gio Agamben’s notion of ‘bare life’, the author intro­duces a process-ana­lyt­i­cal cat­e­go­ry of the ‘migrant/refugee por­trait’ in order to grasp the com­plex (de-)figuration process­es con­nect­ed with the sociopo­lit­i­cal issues of human dis­place­ment. In Sheikh’s long-term por­tray­al of migrant/refugee com­mu­ni­ties and his con­cept of rela­tion­al por­trai­ture, she rec­og­nizes an effec­tive doc­u­men­tary pho­to prac­tice for de-oth­er­ing and dem­i­grantiz­ing the por­trait of the migrant as a  stereo­typ­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the ‘oth­er’.
Cet arti­cle explore le rôle du por­trait pho­tographique de migrants dans la con­struc­tion d’une représen­ta­tion visuelle de leur vie, en se livrant à une lec­ture en pro­fondeur de deux ouvrages pho­tographiques du pho­tographe con­tem­po­rain Fazal Sheikh: – A Sense of Com­mon Ground (1996) et The Vic­tor Weeps. Afghanistan (1998). La nar­ra­tion visuelle est au cœur de l'œuvre sociale et human­i­taire de ce pho­tographe, qui pose deux ques­tions prin­ci­pales: Com­ment les expéri­ences vécues de migra­tion ressen­ties comme des his­toires de survie et les biogra­phies per­son­nelles sont-elles inscrites dans les por­traits de réfugiés et de migrants ? Quelles formes de por­traits sont choisies et quelles pra­tiques de représen­ta­tion sont employées pour doc­u­menter la vie des migrants ? S’appuyant sur la théorie du por­trait de Jean-Luc Nan­cy et la notion de Gior­gio Agam­ben de “vie mise à nu,” l’auteur présente une caté­gorie de procédés ana­ly­tiques du por­trait de com­mu­nautés de migrants et de réfugiés des­tinés à expli­quer les proces­sus com­plex­es de (dé-)figuration asso­ciés au ques­tions de déplace­ment de pop­u­la­tions. À tra­vers son long tra­vail de représen­ta­tion de com­mu­nautés de migrants et de réfugiés, et son con­cept de por­trai­ture rela­tion­nelle, Sheikh révèle une pra­tique de pho­togra­phie doc­u­men­taire visant à dé-autéris­er et démi­gr­er le por­trait du migrant en tant que représen­ta­tion stéréo­typée de "l'autre".

The visu­al­iza­tion of human migra­tion is con­nect­ed to doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy and pho­to­jour­nal­ism in par­tic­u­lar ways. Move­ments of peo­ple from one place to anoth­er require what could be termed a trav­el­ling cam­era, able to track the wide­ly branch­ing net­work of human migra­to­ry routes, nodes, and abodes. In the con­tem­po­rary world of glob­al migra­tion (Mavrou­di & Nagel 2017; Papaster­giadis 2000), the con­di­tion of trav­el­ling pho­tog­ra­phy for pro­duc­tion of vis­i­bil­i­ty in migra­tion has been rein­forced. Tem­po­ral­ly and geo­graph­i­cal­ly exten­sive trav­els to sites all over the world have become an essen­tial pre­req­ui­site for doc­u­ment­ing the glob­al dimen­sions of human migra­tion and dis­place­ment via pho­tog­ra­phy. In the con­text of con­tem­po­rary pho­tog­ra­phy of migra­tion, its pow­er to this end is attest­ed to by long-term pho­to doc­u­men­ta­tion projects com­mit­ted to a form and ethos of visu­al doc­u­men­ta­tion that has been described as slow pho­to­jour­nal­ism.1 Char­ac­ter­is­tic of this approach are longer pro­duc­tion times and long-form nar­ra­tives of in-depth sto­ry­telling.2 This work method priv­i­leges the cre­ation of pub­lished out­put in forms such as the pho­to­book as an alter­na­tive, glob­al­iza­tion-crit­i­cal, and reflec­tive “slow-down medi­um” of jour­nal­is­tic photography.

The con­nec­tions among human migra­tion, com­mit­ment to long-term trav­el, and slow pho­to­jour­nal­ism are exem­pli­fied well by Sebastião Sal­ga­do, Jim Gold­berg, and Fazal Sheikh, who invest­ed lengthy phas­es of intense doc­u­men­ta­tion in the pro­duc­tion of their pho­to­books. To real­ize his glob­al-scale pho­to project “Migra­tions. Human­i­ty in Tran­si­tion,” Sal­ga­do trav­elled to 40 coun­tries, con­duct­ing pho­tog­ra­phy over a span of six years. The arrange­ment of his mate­r­i­al over such an extend­ed time and such vast geo­graph­i­cal dis­tances was facil­i­tat­ed by infra­struc­tur­al and oth­er sup­port from his own press agency, the Paris-based Ama­zonas Images.3 The con­crete results of his long-term pho­to doc­u­men­ta­tion project on glob­al migra­tions were pre­sent­ed in the form of two pho­to­books, Migra­tions: Human­i­ty in Tran­si­tion (2000) and The Chil­dren: Refugees and Migrants (2005). Jim Gold­berg, in turn, spent four years in work that led him to near­ly 20 coun­tries, from Rus­sia and the Mid­dle East to Asian and African coun­tries, to photodoc­u­ment the sto­ries of refugees and immi­grants who had arrived in Europe. This long-term project was chron­i­cled in a com­pendi­um of four pho­to­books under the title Open See (2009). Final­ly, pho­tog­ra­ph­er Fazal Sheikh has trav­elled wide­ly, to very dif­fer­ent regions of the world, among them con­flict zones, to work with peo­ple liv­ing in dis­placed and mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties. His engage­ment in pho­to projects in Africa, Afghanistan, India, and Israel/Palestine is char­ac­ter­ized by longer-term com­mit­ment to each par­tic­u­lar place and/or com­mu­ni­ty. The pho­to­book plays a cen­tral role in his work: it serves as a medi­um for visu­al nar­ra­tion as well as a means of glob­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ori­en­ta­tion for audi­ences. In his view, this form rep­re­sents “the best pos­si­ble, the most com­pli­cat­ed, the most acces­si­ble, the most engag­ing way of work­ing because it doesn’t have the lim­i­ta­tions of some­thing like an exhi­bi­tion. An exhi­bi­tion has a restrict­ed num­ber of view­ers. Books are much longer last­ing. And for me, per­son­al­ly, books are a means of grow­ing. One informs the next” (qtd. in Jobey 2009, 31). His val­oriza­tion of the pho­to­book medi­um is expressed in the fact that, since gain­ing inter­na­tion­al acclaim, Sheikh has cre­at­ed his own pho­to­book series, the Inter­na­tion­al-Human-Rights Series (IHRS).4 In keep­ing with the char­ac­ter­is­tics ascribed to slow jour­nal­ism (Le Masuri­er 2015, 142), he val­ues accu­ra­cy, qual­i­ty, and reportage of con­text; seeks out untold, visu­al­ly undoc­u­ment­ed human sto­ries; relies on the pow­er of the nar­ra­tive (of slow sto­ry­telling); encour­ages co-pro­duc­tion, even with the peo­ple pho­tographed; and views the audi­ence, too, as col­lab­o­ra­tors. In addi­tion to edit­ing his own pho­to­books, he posi­tions his photodoc­u­men­tary work in the exhi­bi­tion field. By cross­ing the bor­der between pho­to­jour­nal­ism and (doc­u­men­tary) pho­to art, he rein­vents the prac­tice of pho­to doc­u­men­ta­tion in the era of glob­al media while cre­at­ing genre-migrat­ing images.

A clos­er look at the above-men­tioned photodoc­u­men­taries reveals that the pho­to por­trait rep­re­sents a cen­tral genre there­in, strong­ly cou­pled with the pho­to­book for­mat. Since por­traits have always been the focus of atten­tion in human­is­tic and human­i­tar­i­an pho­tog­ra­phy, it may be unsur­pris­ing that they are preva­lent in doc­u­men­tary images deal­ing with human migra­tion. Two major func­tions and mean­ings of the por­trait appear inter­wo­ven in the pho­to­book in con­struc­tive appli­ca­tion: 1) por­tray­al of human indi­vid­u­als (also in rela­tion to their groups and com­mu­ni­ties) and their per­son­al lives; and 2) por­tray­al of human, social, cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic life con­di­tions in a par­tic­u­lar place, time, and situation.

Con­sid­er­ing both per­spec­tives, this arti­cle explores the role of migrant pho­to por­trai­ture for life imag­ing by tak­ing Sheikh’s pho­to­books as its cen­tral mate­r­i­al. Visu­al sto­ry­telling is a core fea­ture of this social and human­i­tar­i­an photographer’s work, through which two main ques­tions can be addressed: how are real-life migra­tion expe­ri­ences as sur­vival sto­ries and per­son­al biogra­phies inscribed in the por­traits of refugees and migrants? Which form(at)s of por­traits are cho­sen, and which prac­tices of por­tray­al are employed for the pur­pose of doc­u­ment­ing migrant lives? Before delv­ing into the detailed analy­sis of Sheikh’s pho­to work, sub­stan­tive image-the­o­ret­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions of the notion and mean­ing of migrant por­trai­ture are required.

1. ‘The other portrait’: Figuration in migrant portraiture

Avec le por­trait – avec ces façons, ces manières, ces éclipses et ces ruines – se jout le sort de la fig­ure en général: de la représen­ta­tion, de la fic­tion, donc de la présence et de la vérité; du vis­age, de la présence et de l’absence. De l’autre, de sa prox­im­ité, de sa dis­tance. Dans le por­trait se retrace, se retire, se rejoue, très sen­si­ble­ment sous nos yeux la pos­si­bil­ité pour nous d’être présents” (Nan­cy 2014, 12).

This char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the por­trait, offered by image philoso­pher Jean-Luc Nan­cy, fea­tures sev­er­al aspects that appear high­ly rel­e­vant for approach­ing migrant por­trai­ture as a pow­er of fig­u­ra­tion. Two seman­tic sens­es ety­mo­log­i­cal­ly inscribed in “portrait(ure)” play a piv­otal role in the photodoc­u­men­tary depic­tion of migrants and refugees. They seem to be in par­tial con­tra­dic­tion with each oth­er, although they are intrin­si­cal­ly con­nect­ed in form­ing a kind of pair­ing: draw­ing forth and with­draw­ing. The word “por­trait” is lin­guis­ti­cal­ly derived from the Latin word pro­trac­tio, a nom­i­nal­ized form of the verb por­tra­here, which means “drag­ging out.” It refers to extract­ing the essence, or a char­ac­ter­is­tic ele­ment, and mak­ing it a salient vis­i­ble fea­ture. The “oth­er” mean­ing of the por­trait is derived from the Ital­ian ritrat­to, a con­cept that entered gen­er­al use in Renais­sance times for tech­ni­cal ref­er­ence to a portrait/image. This came from the verb ritrarre, which sig­ni­fies “to represent”/“to depict” but also “to with­draw” and “to retract.” Pro­ceed­ing from this sec­ond ety­mo­log­i­cal mean­ing of the por­trait (ritrat­to), Nan­cy has built a com­plete por­trait the­o­ry of what he defines as “the oth­er por­trait,” l’Autre por­trait, in his sem­i­nal work of the same title (2014). He focus­es on the with­draw­al inher­ent to the por­trait as a form of visu­al­iza­tion. Accord­ing­ly, he defines the oth­er por­trait as a por­trait of “l’autre retiré, l’autre en tant qu’autre du même (ou du pro­pre, ou du soi) con­sid­éré dans en retrait – une retraite, un recul, voire une dis­pa­ra­tion” (2014, 13 f.).

Por­traits of flight and migra­tion medi­ate the two com­ple­men­tary mean­ings of the por­trait in their own dis­tinc­tive ways. They ven­ture into the field of pos­si­bil­i­ty of “being present” and being rep­re­sent­ed, of ren­der­ing vis­i­ble the lives of migrants, refugees, and dis­placed per­sons, who are with­drawn from vis­i­bil­i­ty as “oth­ers.” Por­traits of migra­tion and refugeeism are depic­tions of tran­si­tori­ness and fugac­i­ty, of the with­draw­al from life, of the absence of a dig­ni­fied human life. They are rep­re­sen­ta­tions of what Gior­gio Agam­ben in his book Homo Sac­er (1998, 71 ff.) has defined as the “bare life.” On one side, their imagery is on retreat, as they dis­play defig­u­ra­tion as a visu­al con­se­quence of the dis­in­te­gra­tion and degra­da­tion of life. In this regard, they are “oth­er por­traits” in the sense of Nancy’s altro ritrat­to. On the oth­er side of this “oth­er,” with­draw­ing por­trait, they are reveal­ing and pro­trud­ing por­traits in that they draw absence into pres­ence in search of poten­tial­i­ties and modal­i­ties of fig­u­ra­tion and representation.

Art his­to­ri­an and image philoso­pher Got­tfried Boehm has called atten­tion to the fact that ear­ly def­i­n­i­tions empha­sised the impor­tance of por­trai­ture as a process of fig­u­ra­tion rely­ing on depic­tion capa­bil­i­ties, before the por­trait gained form and qual­i­fi­ca­tion as an image genre of indi­vidu­um-bound human like­ness (1985, 45 ff.). This process-ori­ent­ed approach to por­trai­ture as an abil­i­ty to (re)present informs the fol­low­ing efforts to iden­ti­fy the strate­gies and con­cepts of migrant por­trai­ture employed by Sheikh for cap­tur­ing the mov­ing and tran­si­to­ry life expe­ri­ences and mem­o­ries of refugees and migrants. These are tools for de-oth­er­ing and dem­i­grantiz­ing the por­trait of the migrant as a stereo­typ­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the oth­er expelled from states, cast out of soci­eties, and often also stripped of human rights.

For pur­pos­es of analy­sis, the cat­e­go­ry “migrant por­trai­ture” is artic­u­lat­ed as a com­mon denom­i­na­tor of two mean­ings: it refers to the pho­to­graph­ic por­trait image of migrants, encom­pass­ing that of refugees, exiles, and dis­placed per­sons,5 and to the por­trait of migra­tion as a depic­tion of the soci­etal phe­nom­e­non of human dis­place­ment. The lat­ter facet even allows for an under­stand­ing of migrant por­trai­ture as migra­to­ry por­trai­ture. Through this dou­ble cod­i­fi­ca­tion, it becomes pos­si­ble to inter­lace the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of per­sons (from indi­vid­u­als to groups) with por­tray­als of their liv­ing conditions—here, the migrant or refugee con­di­tion in spe­cif­ic (geo)political, social, and cul­tur­al cir­cum­stances of con­tem­po­rary his­to­ry. Fur­ther­more, in the notion of por­trai­ture, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al strate­gies of depic­tio and descrip­tio are joined in a unique way. This mesh­ing cre­ates a fruit­ful entry point for ana­lyz­ing photodoc­u­men­tary por­trai­tures as spe­cif­ic media and social con­fig­u­ra­tions of migra­tion (hi)stories.

2. Somebody to hold on to. Relational portraiture in Sheikh’s photobook A Sense of Common Ground

The con­tem­po­rary (post-)migrant con­di­tion of liv­ing in many places in the world (Feld­man 2015; Nail 2015; Moslund et al. 2015) is the core sub­ject of Sheikh’s photodoc­u­men­tary por­traits. Thus far, he has pub­lished five pho­to­books on the top­ic of dis­place­ment, refugeeism, and migra­tion:6 A Sense of Com­mon Ground (1996), offer­ing a por­trait of camps for African refugees in Kenya, Tan­za­nia, and Malawi; The Vic­tor Weeps (1998), a por­trait of Afghan men, women, and chil­dren who for two decades had been liv­ing in refugee vil­lages in north­ern Pak­istan on account of the wars in Afghanistan; A Camel for the Son (2001), a por­trait of Soma­li refugee women in north­east­ern Kenya; Ramadan Moon (2001), a one-per­son por­trait of Soma­li refugee Seynab Azir Wardeere, who was under threat of evic­tion from an asy­lum-seek­ers’ cen­tre in the Nether­lands; and Por­traits (2011), in effect a meta-pho­to­book on the motivic fig­ure and socio-cul­tur­al con­fig­u­ra­tion of the por­trait, com­posed from por­traits fea­tured in the oth­er four photobooks.

In his marked pho­to­graph­ic inter­est in the por­tray­al of dis­placed peo­ple, Sheikh has been dri­ven by his own biog­ra­phy. A sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion immi­grant to the Unit­ed States, he was born in 1965 as the child of a Kenyan man and Amer­i­can woman in New York City, where he grew to adult­hood. His family’s migrant path can be traced back to Pak­istan: his grand­fa­ther was born in (his­tor­i­cal) north­ern India before mov­ing with his fam­i­ly in 1912 to Kenya, at that time a British colony. In Nairo­bi, the grand­fa­ther became a wealthy landown­er and busi­ness­man. This fam­i­ly his­to­ry of migra­tion is an impor­tant anchor point for under­stand­ing Sheikh’s pho­to­graph­ic work, par­tic­u­lar­ly The Vic­tor Weeps, which, in por­tray­ing Afghan exiles in north­ern Pak­istan, was moti­vat­ed by the search for his fam­i­ly roots in Mus­lim cul­ture and soci­ety. Hav­ing spent con­sid­er­able time in Nairo­bi and being flu­ent in Swahili, Sheikh can be con­sid­ered a migrant between US and Kenyan soci­ety, between West­ern and African cul­tures. Echo­ing sen­ti­ments of many peo­ple with a bicul­tur­al back­ground, he once con­fessed to feel­ing like a for­eign­er in Africa on account of being per­ceived as an Amer­i­can (Jobey 2009, 17). Indeed, his por­traits express his long­ing for assim­i­la­tion with the peo­ple he pho­tographs, to be aligned with them. Sheikh is in con­stant search of the “oth­er” for find­ing and defin­ing his self, not in terms of iden­ti­ty but in how he is relat­ed to the world. For this rea­son, his por­traits of dis­placed peo­ple amount to self-dia­logue por­traits. The fact that he began with self-por­traits in his ear­ly pho­tog­ra­phy, when he was study­ing pho­tog­ra­phy and art his­to­ry at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, and moved on to “ven­ture out into com­mu­ni­ties” (Jobey 2009, 17) to cap­ture por­traits of the oth­er in extreme liv­ing con­di­tions affirms this inner por­trait con­nec­tion between intro­spec­tion and outrospection.

A Sense of Com­mon Ground (1996) was Sheikh’s first pho­to­book pub­li­ca­tion. In 1992 he had been award­ed a Ful­bright schol­ar­ship to pho­to­graph among the Swahili-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ties on the Kenyan coast. Upon his arrival in Nairo­bi, he was con­front­ed with the influx of half a mil­lion refugees flee­ing var­i­ous war zones in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Soma­lia. With the assis­tance of the Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees (UNHCR), Sheikh obtained autho­riza­tion to pho­to­graph with­in the refugee com­mu­ni­ties. He trav­elled between camps in Kenya, Malawi, and Tan­za­nia for three years, but the deci­sive vis­it would be his first trip to the Sudanese refugee camp in Loki­chog­gio, on Kenya’s north­west­ern bor­der with Sudan, in June 1992: it deter­mined his method of work­ing and how he would por­tray the refugees’ sit­u­a­tion in the camp. In the intro­duc­tion to A Sense of Com­mon Ground, he reports on how his fel­low pho­to­jour­nal­ists worked to catch the sto­ry quick­ly and keep to the parts of the camps indi­cat­ed by the UNHCR pub­lic offi­cers.7 Sheikh rec­og­nized the act of pho­tograph­ing as not a quick snap­shot but a long-term process of famil­iar­iza­tion, of devel­op­ing mutu­al inter­est, trust, and a sense of know­ing. First of all, it required per­mis­sion from the peo­ple, their con­sen­sus and col­lab­o­ra­tion. Only under social-rela­tions con­di­tions of mutu­al agree­ment and active par­tic­i­pa­tion could the pho­tog­ra­ph­er reach his goal: “to be aligned with the peo­ple” in the por­traits (qtd. in Jobey 2009, 17) in a kind of famil­ial bond.

The pho­to­book A Sense of Com­mon Ground is divid­ed into five chap­ters, each of which cov­ers a par­tic­u­lar refugee sit­u­a­tion in Kenya. The first one shows por­traits from the Sudanese tran­sit camp in Loki­chog­gio and the more per­ma­nent refugee set­tle­ment in Kaku­ma; the sec­ond is ded­i­cat­ed to the Ethiopi­an camp in Wal­da; the third is devot­ed to Soma­li refugees liv­ing in camps near Dadaab and Marafa; the fourth address­es cir­cum­stances at the Mozam­bi­can camps in Malawi; and the fifth con­sid­ers Rwan­dan camps in Tan­za­nia. The intro­duc­tion to each chap­ter pro­vides con­cise yet detailed back­ground infor­ma­tion on the par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal, eth­nic, and/or reli­gious con­flicts that caused the refugees to leave their home coun­tries, among them the civ­il wars in Sudan and Mozam­bique, the trib­al fam­i­ly wars in Ethiopia, and the Rwan­dan geno­cide. Com­pa­ra­ble to a jour­nal­is­tic report, the intro­duc­to­ry por­tion of each chap­ter pro­vides, in addi­tion, con­crete sta­tis­tics relat­ed to the num­ber of refugees and a map clar­i­fy­ing the refugees’ routes and camp loca­tions. This form of pre­sen­ta­tion makes clear that the unique por­traits cap­tured in the var­i­ous places have not become gen­er­al­ized into a “com­pos­ite char­ac­ter” and there­by helps the read­er to remain ori­ent­ed. They are clear­ly locat­ed, polit­i­cal­ly sit­u­at­ed, and tex­tu­al­ly framed.

The image align­ment, page lay­out, and chap­ter-lev­el orga­ni­za­tion fol­low a sim­i­lar pat­tern across all five sets of refugee (hi)stories. Sequences of sin­gle, dou­ble, or triple por­trait images fill­ing entire pages of the book; series of nine pho­tographs on one page; and framed pho­tographs set against a white back­ground are inter­rupt­ed by fold­out folio spreads. In trip­tych for­mat, these bring out the vast­ness, infini­tude, and dead­li­ness of space—be it in panoram­ic pho­tographs of almost desert­ed land­scapes, of bur­ial grounds, or of large groups of refugees. Thanks to this image arrange­ment, por­traits of indi­vid­u­als, when unfold­ed to wide‑angle images, become posi­tioned in the larg­er envi­ron­ment of the refugee camp com­mu­ni­ty and the open, end­less space of nature.

A group por­trait of about two hun­dred unac­com­pa­nied minors8 (Fig. 1), cap­tured in the Loki­chog­gio camp short­ly before the chil­dren were to con­tin­ue their migra­tion south­ward to the next camp, is high­ly illus­tra­tive of this open embedding.

Figure 1: By Fazal Sheikh, a group portrait of Sudanese unaccompanied minors at the Lokichoggio refugee camp, in Kenya © Fazal Sheikh

This presents a loose­ly gath­ered group of Sudanese child sol­diers turned refugees in the open bush land of the desert. They resem­ble a group pos­ing for a school pho­to­graph. By the for­mal adop­tion of this por­trait type, a social bond and com­mu­ni­tar­i­an sense are estab­lished among the fig­ures of the minors in this large and anony­mous crowd. Only one boy stands out in front of the rest, indi­vid­u­al­iz­ing the expe­ri­ence of the mass. His gesture—he presents his toy air­plane to the camera—could be read as an expres­sion of escape, or the lack of it.

Besides por­trait images, the pho­to­book con­tains per­son­al testimonials—namely hand­writ­ten let­ters in which refugees offer accounts of their sit­u­a­tion. The first let­ter, print­ed in the sec­ond chap­ter (p. 28), was for­mu­lat­ed by elders of the Borana peo­ple who had fled the civ­il war in Ethiopia. It describes the per­se­cu­tion of the Borana tribes by the rul­ing Tran­si­tion­al Gov­ern­ment of Ethiopia and also ongo­ing trib­al clash­es in the refugee camps in Kenya that had result­ed in the dis­ap­pear­ance and killing of Borana refugees. The final words of the let­ter are an appeal for inter­na­tion­al assis­tance: the elders beg for help, to pro­tect them and allow them to return to their homes in Ethiopia. In the sec­ond let­ter (p. 44 f.), a group of Soma­li elders liv­ing at the camp in Liboi protest against the deci­sion to close the camp and trans­fer them to two oth­er camps, fur­ther north, which direc­tion for them sig­ni­fied “the way of death.” These per­son­al tes­ti­mo­ni­al accounts, jux­ta­posed with a pho­to por­trait of their authors, illus­trate that the refugees’ lives are not safe even in the camps; they are exposed to per­se­cu­tion, vio­lence, sex­u­al abuse, and killing. In doing so, they artic­u­late the pow­er of Sheikh’s (photo-)documentary method of approach­ing and liv­ing with the peo­ple, espe­cial­ly the com­mu­ni­ties of elders, for direct­ly wit­ness­ing their life sto­ries and giv­ing visu­al and writ­ten form to these per­son­al tes­ti­mo­ni­als in his series of photographs.

With his refugee por­traits tak­en on site while liv­ing in the camps, Sheikh attempts to revise the stereo­typ­i­cal mass media rep­re­sen­ta­tion of African refugees. In his view, “the lives of those peo­ple are more com­plex than the way that they have been rep­re­sent­ed. Being an African or refugee is only one facet of who they are as human beings. I would like to bal­ance out the equa­tion, to broad­en and chal­lenge our pre­con­cep­tions as struc­tured by the media” (qtd. in Light 2010, 3).

What por­tray­al strate­gies does this pho­tog­ra­ph­er apply to broad­en the rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al scope of the pho­to doc­u­men­ta­tion of refugees? The over­ar­ch­ing objec­tive behind the visualiza­tion could be char­ac­terised as a por­tray­al prac­tice of derefu­giza­tion, a con­cept I intro­duce as one com­ple­men­tary to dem­i­granti­za­tion (Römhild 2015; Yildiz & Hill 2015). In Sheikh’s por­traits, the refugees are not reduced to their sta­tus and role as refugees. They are not pre­sent­ed as anony­mous human fig­ures but indi­vid­u­al­ly iden­ti­fied by name9 and by the camps where they live. Their agency is acknowl­edged also in that they are rep­re­sent­ed not as dis­placed per­sons, vic­tims of their past and present life cir­cum­stances, but as reori­ent­ing indi­vid­u­als who “have grown with their cir­cum­stances,” carv­ing out “who they are now, for bet­ter or worse. Not only for worse” (qtd. in Jobey 2009, 19). Almost with­out fail, Sheikh cap­tures the refugees in “bet­ter­ing” cir­cum­stances: in moments of friend­ship and love, as they are about to be repa­tri­at­ed, or in recov­ery. An exam­ple is shown in Fig­ure 2, which includes Athok Duom, recov­er­ing from malar­ia. The fig­ures are sel­dom sin­gled out (or zoomed in upon) with the effect of declar­ing them vic­tims or heroes; they are shown in togeth­er­ness, man­i­fest­ing human bonds.

Figure 2: Fazal Sheikh’s triple portrait of Akuot Nyibol (centre) with Riak Warabek (right) and the pregnant Akuot’s daughter, Athok Duom, who is recovering from malaria, at the Sudanese refugee camp in Lokichoggio © Fazal Sheikh

The choice of dou­ble, triple, and group por­trait as the pre­dom­i­nant for­mats for por­tray­ing refugees empha­sizes the ele­ment of social human­i­ty that Sheikh val­ues high­ly. By using a sim­ple Polaroid cam­era that pro­duces both a pos­i­tive and a neg­a­tive, Sheikh embraces a slow pro­duc­tion process. His refugee por­traits can be described as for­mal but not for­mal­ized por­traits. They are char­ac­ter­ized by a sim­ple, direct, and respect­ful ren­der­ing of the person(s) being record­ed. One facet of the respect­ful­ness is expressed in the mid­dle dis­tance that the pho­tog­ra­ph­er takes (and retains) between his stand­point and the posi­tion of the pho­tographed subject(s). He is clear­ing the stage for the sub­jects to present them­selves to the cam­era while he with­draws to a posi­tion of receiv­ing, let­ting the pic­tures come to him. In A Sense of Com­mon Ground, one finds no close-ups and no affect images that put expres­sive faces on dis­play. Usu­al­ly, the sub­jects are rep­re­sent­ed as two-third or full-body fig­ures, with space around them indi­cat­ing the envi­ron­ment. There is not a sin­gle bust-like por­trait in these series. That would sig­nal close­ness and reduc­tion. His sub­jects are shown instead in their full cor­po­re­al pres­ence, and, most impor­tant­ly, they are posi­tioned in a way that high­lights their phys­i­cal loca­tion and per­son­al (bod­i­ly) integri­ty. They are com­fort­able and sta­ble on wood­en chairs or embank­ments, stand­ing solid­ly in a group, and—in a motif that per­me­ates the photobook—shown in front of trees or even sit­ting in them (as in the case of the pic­ture of Agai Miri­am Aden, an unac­com­pa­nied minor in the Kaku­ma camp). Spa­tial sit­u­at­ing, bod­i­ly ground­ing, and sym­bol­ic root­ing can be iden­ti­fied as major strate­gic fea­tures in Sheikh’s por­trait reper­toire. The com­bi­na­tion of uproot­ed­ness, fugi­tiv­i­ty, and tran­si­tori­ness of the refugee con­di­tion is coun­ter­act­ed by sta­bi­liz­ing place­ments. Here we encounter reroot­ing and repositioning.

The mytho­log­i­cal uproot­ed­ness of the baobab tree, which appears in many of the pho­tographs as a back­ground fig­ure or a trunk to lean on, becomes sym­bol­ic of the move­ment and ten­sion between dera­ci­na­tion and the new, firm root-tak­ing. One might, as Eduar­do Cada­va has argued in his arti­cle on Sheikh’s por­traits (2011, 14 ff.), under­stand the recur­ring motif of the tree in A Sense of Com­mon Ground as a tree of life, a branch­ing-out fig­ure of fam­i­ly genealo­gies, inher­i­tances, and lega­cies. The posi­tion­ing and reroot­ing of many refugee fig­ures in the lines and net­works of tree trunks can be inter­pret­ed as an act of inscrib­ing them in lines of ances­try and fam­i­ly his­to­ry, in par­al­lel with the repro­duc­tive life cycle of nature.

Anoth­er salient motif tied in with the famil­ial bonds is vis­i­ble in the close bod­i­ly con­tact that many refugees in the images main­tain. In a lit­er­al sense, these por­traits are touch­ing images, pre­sent­ing in numer­ous ways and con­fig­u­ra­tions the touch of hands in deeply reach­ing ges­tures of belong­ing and togeth­er­ness, trust, com­fort, and pro­tec­tion. Hands might be placed on the chest as self-touch­ing, self-hold­ing, and self-pro­tec­tion; they might rest on shoul­ders or heads; they may equal­ly sup­port heads or hold oth­er hands, those of loved ones; or they might hold objects (sticks, toys, etc.) or images, whether holy images or por­traits of fam­i­ly mem­bers who are deceased or oth­er­wise beyond the reach of those hands. The pho­tographs with the touch of hands reach out to rep­re­sent the inti­mate social rela­tions and fam­i­ly bonds upheld in the refugee com­mu­ni­ties. Tak­en togeth­er, they express the attempt to hold on to phys­i­cal, social, and emo­tion­al life but also artic­u­late efforts “to car­ry and hand over, to hand down, like a kind of lega­cy or inher­i­tance, a frag­ment of the past” (Cada­va 2011, 21).

In some por­traits, the touch­ing hands express the dif­fi­cul­ty and bur­den involved in “hold­ing on.” For exam­ple, in the por­trait of Nya­pa Deng and her daugh­ter in Loki­chog­gio, the male hand upon the bare head of the child has the weight of a bur­den. It is ambigu­ous in that its ges­ture is pro­tec­tive yet at the same time vio­lent also, with a firm grip on the head as if pulling it away. This impres­sion is inten­si­fied by the photo’s com­po­si­tion. The male fig­ure is cut off by the frame—only this hand and a slight con­tour line of the man’s body remain. The sev­er­ing of fam­i­ly bonds and the vio­lence of sep­a­ra­tion caused by flight and migra­tion are haunt­ing­ly cap­tured in this double/triple por­trait. A sim­i­lar com­po­si­tion, again with the cropped-out and face­less fig­ure of the father, is found in the por­trait of Hadi­ja (Fig. 3).

Figure 3: Fazal Sheikh’s portrait of Hadija and her father at a Somali refugee camp in Kenya © Fazal Sheikh

Sheikh’s detailed cap­tion informs the view­er that this eight-year-old girl, Hadi­ja, remained silent ever since she was sep­a­rat­ed from her moth­er while cross­ing the bor­der from Soma­lia to Kenya. Here, the father’s hand speaks of ten­der bond­ing and strong pro­tec­tion as the man reach­es out from behind his daugh­ter to rest it on her shoul­der, to hold (on to) her. The expres­sive face of Hadi­ja forms a stark con­trast to the child’s mute­ness. It is the still­ness of pho­tog­ra­phy that enables the mute­ness to speak vivid­ly. The bor­der at the top of the image cuts direct­ly through the mouth line of the father fig­ure, under­scor­ing the reliance on bod­i­ly ges­tures’ com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Accord­ing to Cada­va, this touch­ing por­trait of Hadi­ja reflects how, in the words of Judith But­ler, the pre­car­i­ous­ness of life can be grasped: “One would need to hear the face as it speaks in some­thing oth­er than lan­guage to know the pre­car­i­ous­ness of life that is at stake (…). We would have to inter­ro­gate the emer­gence and van­ish­ing of the human at the lim­its of what we can know, what we can hear, what we can see, what we can sense” (But­ler qtd. in Cada­va 2011, 6).

3. Collaborative photography and the construction of the communal portrait: Sheikh’s The Victor Weeps

Sheikh’s photodoc­u­men­tary The Vic­tor Weeps can be viewed as a semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal book, for it cou­ples the search for his own migrant fam­i­ly his­to­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly that of his grand­fa­ther, with fam­i­ly sto­ries of Afghan refugees in north­ern Pak­istan. Here, the photographer’s per­son­al inter­est in fam­i­ly life sto­ries becomes evi­dent as the main moti­va­tion for his photodoc­u­men­tary sto­ry­telling. Per­son­al encoun­ters with the refugees for an exchange of indi­vid­ual accounts demar­cate the begin­ning of the pho­to-por­tray­ing pro­ce­dure, with Sheikh first ask­ing “the mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty for their will­ing­ness to col­lab­o­rate in the doc­u­men­ta­tion” (Light 2010, 2). He com­ment­ed thus on his way of work­ing: “In my recent work among the Afghan vil­lages of exile, the elder’s agree­ment to work with me, to pro­vide insight, as well as pro­tec­tion, has been cru­cial” (ibid.). With this col­lab­o­ra­tive com­mu­ni­ty approach as a giv­en, “[t]he act of pho­tograph­ing becomes an event in the vil­lage. We con­struct the image togeth­er. Many of the peo­ple have nev­er been pho­tographed before, and the Polaroid pro­vides a point of ref­er­ence for dis­cus­sions that fol­low in which the res­i­dents of the com­mu­ni­ty offer their opin­ions on how the doc­u­men­ta­tion may unfold” (Light 2010, 2).

In the tes­ti­mo­ni­als and evi­dence pro­vid­ed, the doc­u­men­ta­tion in the pho­to­book is rich and quite var­ied. It oper­ates on the basis of close inter­weav­ing between pho­tog­ra­phy and text. Afghan children’s draw­ings serve as a pref­ace, open­ing the pho­to­book. They are fol­lowed by panoram­ic pho­tographs of ruined cityscapes from the Afghan cap­i­tal, Kab­ul, cap­tured a month pri­or to the Taliban’s cap­ture of the city. Turn­ing the pages that dis­play these images of the rav­ages of war, one finds them jux­ta­posed with Afghan poems com­ment­ing on the dev­as­ta­tion, on the loss of faith and life. After this unflinch­ing por­tray­al of the rea­sons for flee­ing Afghanistan, there is a per­son­al account by author-pho­tog­ra­ph­er Sheikh. Under the title “The Land of Afghans,” he reports on his mov­ing encounter with senior mem­bers of the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty in the refugee vil­lage of Bizen Khel. This text pre­ludes a sequence of por­traits of male elders, most of whom had been Mujahideen fight­ers. The set of por­traits con­sti­tutes the first part of the pho­to­book. They are accom­pa­nied by per­son­al bio­graph­i­cal accounts and a let­ter from the elder­ly peo­ple in the images but also by poems and poet­ic com­ments. The let­ter, between two of the pho­to por­traits, was writ­ten by for­mer elders and com­man­ders of the Agra Dis­trict, in Afghanistan’s Log­ar Province. In it, they describe their deci­sion for the tribe known as Ahmed Zai to migrate to Pak­istan in con­se­quence of the Sovi­et-Afghan war and there seek inter­na­tion­al sup­port to enable a return to their home vil­lages. The sec­ond part of the pho­to­book fol­lows the same image-and-text com­po­si­tion. Ded­i­cat­ed to por­traits of elder­ly women and chil­dren, it holds a mir­ror to the social hier­ar­chies and gen­der divi­sions in Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties. Where­as the bio­graph­i­cal por­traits ear­li­er in the book high­light the his­tor­i­cal hard facts of the Afghan war and the seizure of pow­er by the Tal­iban through the lens of fam­i­ly his­to­ry, the sec­ond part explores per­son­al war mem­o­ries and future-focused imag­i­na­tion through “dream sto­ries.” Final­ly, the third part of the book fol­lows the route of the Afghan refugee exo­dus in reverse, there­by empha­sis­ing per­son­al and com­mu­nal sto­ry­telling of rem­i­gra­tion and return. It shows por­traits of peo­ple liv­ing along the migra­tion pas­sage between the trib­al regions of north­west­ern Pak­istan and the Afghan cap­i­tal. In the man­ner of an insert frame, this sec­tion sets forth por­traits by Jalal­abad-based stu­dio pho­tog­ra­ph­er Ridzwan­ul Haq (see Fig. 4), there­by form­ing both a hybrid and a con­trast between Sheikh’s own pho­to por­traits and those by the Afghan por­trait photographer.

Figure 4: Portrait photographs from Ridzwanul Haq’s work at his studio in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, featured in Fazal Sheikh’s photobook The Victor Weeps © Fazal Sheikh

Faced with the rul­ing Tal­iban regime’s pro­hi­bi­tion of fig­u­ra­tive images, the stu­dio pho­tog­ra­ph­er had decid­ed to offer his por­traits to Fazal Sheikh. In con­se­quence, the stu­dio por­traits become trav­el­ling pho­tographs them­selves, migrat­ing to the pages of the pho­to­book for a place of refuge, medi­um of pro­tec­tion, and source of remembrance.

The larg­er por­trait of Afghan exiles liv­ing in north­ern Pak­istan is con­struct­ed by a com­plex sequence and inter­re­la­tion­al lay­er­ing of dif­fer­ent mate­r­i­al forms and media gen­res of por­trai­ture, among them Sheikh’s own por­trait pho­tographs of men, women, and chil­dren in the com­mu­ni­ty; por­trait pho­tographs of deceased rel­a­tives that com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers brought to him to be pho­tographed; found-footage stu­dio por­traits; and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal tex­tu­al por­traits of both the author-pho­tog­ra­ph­er and the refugees por­trayed. “I was weav­ing togeth­er some­thing much more com­pli­cat­ed, not just because of the found pic­tures, or the tes­ti­mo­ni­als, but also because of my own rela­tion­ship to the place,” explained Sheikh (qtd. in Jobey 2009, 21) in describ­ing his por­tray­al strat­e­gy. With this state­ment he stress­es the role of the pho­to­book as (semi-over­laid or ful­ly over­laid) auto-doc­u­men­tary to con­nect his own life sto­ry of return­ing to the land of his fore­fa­thers with the life sto­ries of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The por­traits of the community’s male elders as pre­sent­ed in the first part of the pho­to­book are very respect­ful, even though most of them use close-up images. The elders are shown in their tra­di­tion­al cloth­ing as Afghan peo­ple and part­ly also as Mujahideen, with a tur­ban, an Afghan pakol, or a Peshawari topi on the head, and a long beard. The focus of these pho­tographs is on the head and face, appear­ing out of com­plete dark­ness in an almost mag­i­cal light(en)ing of strong con­trasts, be it in pro­file, three-quar­ters, or frontal por­trait for­mat. The spot­light of the cam­era is direct­ed at the fur­rowed faces of the elders marked by their life expe­ri­ences as fight­ers, vic­tims of war, and refugees, as fathers and com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers. Usu­al­ly, the gaze of the per­son por­trayed is direct­ed away from meet­ing with the cam­era (Fig. 5). It is with­drawn from the view­er, in being direct­ed downward/sideways or being hid­den by closed or half-lid­ded eyes or by hands held in front of the face in a rather pro­tec­tive gesture.

Figure 5: Fazal Sheikh’s portrait of Nasruddin © Fazal Sheikh

When the gaze is ori­ent­ed toward the view­er head-on, there is no sug­ges­tion of direct eye con­tact and per­son­al address. Instead, the view­er reads reclu­sive­ness, intro­spec­tion, and even empti­ness due to the shad­ow­ing and blur­ring of focus at the eyes. Often, the front-on views are pre­sent­ed from slight­ly below. This per­spec­tive con­veys a sense of dis­tance despite the extreme close­ness to the per­son. Most, though not all, of the por­trait images are accom­pa­nied by a piece of text, such as an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal account, a poem, or a prose state­ment by an Afghan poet or his­to­ri­an iden­ti­fied by the image sub­ject as an expres­sion of his view on life and the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of Afghan peo­ple. This text is direct­ly con­nect­ed with the image in the lay­out, too—they are on the same spread of pages. This par­al­lel tex­t‑with-image arrange­ment empha­sizes that the por­trait images can be ful­ly com­pre­hend­ed only in light of the subject’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal account or cho­sen excerpt. Rohul­lah, for exam­ple (shown in Fig. 6), tells the read­er about the death of his cousin Qari Monir in 1981.

Figure 6: Fazal Sheikh’s portrait of Rohullah © Fazal Sheikh

In his per­son­al sto­ry, he gives an account of how his cousin, togeth­er with oth­er elders and mul­lahs, dis­ap­peared in the desert, hav­ing been tak­en there by com­mu­nist troops, with a shep­herd lat­er find­ing the bod­ies of the 14 miss­ing lead­ers, Qari Monir among them. They had been buried alive. He cites this inci­dent as what con­vinced him that the com­mu­nists “were will­ing to kill us all, not just those who were fight­ers […] so we decid­ed to leave the vil­lage and take our fam­i­lies to the safe­ty of Pak­istan” (Monir qtd. in Sheikh 1998, 61).

In some cas­es, the pho­to­graph­ic por­trait is pre­sent­ed as a stand­alone image fill­ing one side of the two-page lay­out while the oth­er page is left blank, with­out any tex­tu­al com­ment. This com­po­si­tion gives voice to silence, to a person’s speech­less­ness in the face of the dra­mat­ic, trau­ma-pro­duc­ing events of war, flight, and exile. Mute­ness is made vis­i­ble. Here, sto­ry­telling, based on per­son­al encoun­ters between the pho­tog­ra­ph­er and the pho­tographed, also allows for voic­ing per­son­al his­to­ries and biogra­phies of suf­fer­ing that can­not be read­i­ly deduced from sin­gle pho­to-por­trait images alone. In the case of the woman’s image in Fig­ure 7, one might not even be able to state with cer­tain­ty that this pho­to­graph of the per­son iden­ti­fied as Rohgul qual­i­fies as a por­trait pho­to­graph, since the face, the mark­er of a person’s iden­ti­ty as an indi­vid­ual, is hid­den behind the lat­ticed screen of the burqa.

Figure 7: Fazal Sheikh’s portrait of Rohgul © Fazal Sheikh

The objects shown that sur­round the rep­re­sent­ed figure—the crutch and the rotat­ed shoe lying on the ground—can be tak­en as signs for imag­in­ing what might have hap­pened to Rohgul, as refer­ring to a hand­i­capped per­son who near­ly lost her life; yet the clas­si­cal por­trait of an indi­vidu­um, her char­ac­ter, sta­tus, and expres­sion, is with­drawn in this pho­to­graph. This is stressed by the closed ges­ture of the woman, gath­er­ing up the burqa drap­ing in front of her body (while, in so doing, she reveals parts of her feet and legs). From her first-per­son account, we learn that she had been mar­ried to a police offi­cer and enjoyed a good life in Afghanistan until, in 1989, her hus­band was shot on his way home by one of the Mujahideen fac­tions. Her neigh­bour­hood became the front line between war­ring Mujahideen forces, and the fight­ing left her youngest son, Fawad, dead and Rohgul her­self seri­ous­ly wound­ed. Although doc­tors at the hos­pi­tal advised her to have her leg ampu­tat­ed, she refused and ulti­mate­ly man­aged to keep it. In the end, she fled to south­ern Pak­istan to live with her cousin. The final pas­sage of her per­son­al account express­es her hope of return­ing to the land of her birth “when the gov­ern­ment gives its peo­ple jobs rather than Kalash­nikovs” (Roghul qtd. in Sheikh 1998, 140). Only when the pho­to and text are read in com­bi­na­tion, when the visu­al depic­tion and tex­tu­al descrip­tion are con­sid­ered joint­ly to bring visu­al and oral sto­ry­telling togeth­er, does the image of Rohgul turn into an individual(ized) por­trait of the per­son as well as a personal(ized) bio-image of Afghan war his­to­ry. The text-image approach to life doc­u­men­ta­tion is a clear­ly defined method in Sheikh’s pho­to­graph­ic work. “It seemed to me almost impos­si­ble to sev­er one from the other—and whol­ly inap­pro­pri­ate,” he stat­ed in con­ver­sa­tion with Liz Jobey, con­tin­u­ing: “I came to believe that the pho­tographs did some­thing very well, but work­ing with the issues I was engaged with, I found it impor­tant to flesh out what the pho­tographs didn’t do. They were not get­ting to the depths of what I need­ed, so I used the people’s voic­es” (2009, 21).

Pre­cise­ly for voic­ing their life sto­ries, the Afghan refugees pho­tographed by Sheikh often brought their own por­trait pho­tographs into the con­ver­sa­tions, among them snap­shots of dead rel­a­tives or por­traits of hero­ic fight­ers who had been killed in the war. These per­son­al pho­to por­traits are includ­ed in the pho­to­book as visu­al tes­ti­mo­ni­als of war vic­tims. They are dis­played in par­tic­u­lar pre­sen­ta­tion modes, one of which is hands hold­ing out the pho­to­graph to show it to the cam­era. The ges­ture is demon­stra­tive, per­haps part­ly reproach­ful, but at the same time lov­ing, car­ing, and pro­tec­tive. It also points to pho­tographs as images that are hand­ed over and col­lec­tive­ly shared. On a more gen­er­al lev­el, it is evi­dence of pho­tog­ra­phy as a mode of transmission.

Figure 8: Fazal Sheikh’s presentation of a portrait shown to him in 1997 at an Afghan refugee village in Ghazi, Northern Pakistan, of a child killed in Soviet bombardment © Fazal Sheikh

The touch­ing hand here con­nects the lives of the sur­viv­ing refugees with the lost lives of their deceased fam­i­ly mem­bers, most of them sons and broth­ers killed in Mujahideen fight­ing but some of them unin­volved chil­dren. If this body part is shown as an open palm from which one can read the family’s war his­to­ry (as in Fig. 8), it trans­forms into a pars-pro-toto por­trait of the per­son pre­sent­ing it.

Anoth­er form of memo­r­i­al por­trait demon­stra­tion is vis­i­ble in pre­sent­ing the photo­graph on the ground. The stony and dry sub­soil forms a stark con­trast to the por­trait photo.

Figure 9: Fazal Sheikh’s presentation of Abdul Malik © Fazal Sheikh

In the case of Abdul Malik (Fig. 9), the paper print of the pho­to­graph­ic por­trait is anchored to the naked earth with stones to pre­vent it from fly­ing off. If con­sid­ered in con­junc­tion with the pho­tographs of bur­ial grounds inter­spersed with the vic­tim por­traits, this and the oth­er images of lost per­sons set against the earth can be inter­pret­ed as death por­traits, recall­ing the pres­ence of the per­son in absence. Through his pic­tures of the pho­to­graph­ic por­trait, Sheikh is able to inscribe biogra­phies of suf­fer­ing and hero­ic mar­tyr­dom direct­ly in his visu­al storytelling.

In this con­text, it is impor­tant to note that the por­trait nev­er exists in iso­la­tion in Sheikh’s work. In no case is it a sin­gle image. Embed­ded in a series, it forms numer­ous rela­tion­ships with oth­er por­traits. In the inter­re­la­tion­al bonds thus con­struct­ed, even non‑portraits (such as land­scape and gravesite pho­tographs) can be rein­ter­pret­ed as por­trait pic­tures. Nei­ther is the por­trait-based inter­con­nect­ed­ness lim­it­ed to the con­fines of the pho­to­book as a nar­ra­tive unit of sto­ry­telling. Sheikh often cir­cu­lates and recir­cu­lates his por­traits from one pho­to project to the next. The migra­tion of the peo­ple por­trayed is reflect­ed in the migra­tion of por­trait images through­out his œuvre.

Fur­ther­more, the life cycle of por­trai­ture is expressed in Sheikh’s repeat vis­it­ing and re-pho­tograph­ing of peo­ple. Aim­ing for long-term life doc­u­men­ta­tion, he want­ed to find out what became of the refugees he had pho­tographed. Accord­ing­ly, in A Camel for the Son, por­traits from the ear­li­er work A Sense of Com­mon Ground were repub­lished in a new arrange­ment: with a slight­ly dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive order, new por­traits of the peo­ple por­trayed were pre­sent­ed along­side the old. Par­tic­u­lar­ly with the most recent group of por­trait revis­its, Sheikh was able to demon­strate how babies and chil­dren had grown into ado­les­cents in refugee camps, spend­ing most of their pre­cious life­time there. The por­tray­als did not always deter­mine how the new­er por­traits were cast; some­times, in the reverse of this, the course of life was deci­sive for the life imag­ing in the por­traits. This is illus­trat­ed well in Sheikh’s pho­to­book Ramadan Moon, in which the light-and-shad­ow play in the por­trait images of Soma­li refugee Seynab Azir Wardeere is an illu­mi­na­tive reflec­tion of the phas­es of the moon as a nat­ur­al cycle of life. Final­ly, the more recent pho­to­book Por­traits can be seen as a meta‑portrait, in that it was com­piled from por­traits orig­i­nat­ing in all of his var­i­ous pho­to (book) projects. Far from being an image-rich refugee-themed cof­fee table book, it con­tains the entire­ty of the tex­tu­al infor­ma­tion nec­es­sary for read­ing the images in accor­dance with their orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion con­text, but with­in a new enti­ty. By assem­bling and con­nect­ing indi­vid­ual por­trait images into a new order, it estab­lish­es cohe­sion and togeth­er­ness in its cycling and recy­cling. As Cada­va (2011, 11) has point­ed out, the togeth­er­ness thus cre­at­ed “here means otherness—it is what moves the image away from itself, what pre­vents it from exist­ing ‘on its own,’ what ensures it will be trans­formed and altered in rela­tion to the oth­er por­trait.” In the end, this togeth­er­ness of com­piled por­traits con­sti­tutes glob­al human­i­tar­i­an por­trai­ture of dis­placed, expelled, and exclud­ed peo­ple around the world.

4. Photodocumentaries as refiguration zones: The derefugisation of refugee portraiture

In the pho­to­books dis­cussed above, the life imag­ing of refugees and exiles fol­lows a sociopo­lit­i­cal agen­da of human­i­tar­i­an pho­to­jour­nal­ism and photodoc­u­men­tarism. With­in this frame­work, it ven­tures into iss I ues of human­i­ty, human­ness, and human rights. The life con­di­tion of dis­place­ment in tur­bu­lent times of migra­tion casts into relief the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of the right to live and what it means to be human. The refugee, deprived of civ­il and civic rights, exclud­ed from any form of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion, intro­duces, accord­ing to Han­nah Arendt, a break­down in our con­tem­po­rary under­stand­ing of human rights. In her book The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism, she con­nects the decline of the nation-state with the end of the rights of man. Bind­ing human rights to cit­i­zen rights, she argues that “the para­dox involved in the loss of human rights is that such loss coin­cides with the instant when a per­son becomes a human being in general—without a pro­fes­sion, with­out an opin­ion, with­out a deed by which to iden­ti­fy and spec­i­fy” the self (1958, 297). From today’s per­spec­tive of transna­tion­al­iza­tion, it can be stat­ed that “[t]he cri­sis with­in human rights aris­es from the fact that, with the appear­ance of the refugee, the pre­sum­ably sacred and inalien­able rights of man are shown to be entire­ly alien­able, to lack any pro­tec­tion or real­i­ty at the very moment in which they can no longer be under­stood as rights belong­ing to cit­i­zens of a state, or to mem­bers of a par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty” (Cada­va, 2011, 8). In all-too-human­ness, the “bare life” of the refugee, the loss of human rights takes flesh­ly form.

The Sheikh photodoc­u­men­taries con­sid­ered here cap­ture this bare­ness of life while care­ful­ly doc­u­ment­ing the par­tic­u­lar caus­es, effects, and larg­er con­se­quences of mass migra­tion and refugeeism in clear­ly defined loca­tions and tight­ly con­fined com­mu­ni­ties. They por­tray dis­placed, dis­pos­sessed, mar­gin­alised, silenced, and vic­tim­ized peo­ple who, devoiced and with­out a face, lack means of self-artic­u­la­tion and self-rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Por­trai­ture is employed as a method, imag­ing genre, and visu­al­iza­tion strat­e­gy to ren­der the face­less seen, to give the silenced a voice with which to tell their sto­ries, to allow the effaced to reface. The pho­to­book lends itself to this. It serves as an apt medi­um for the process of por­trai­ture in that it pro­vides ample pos­si­bil­i­ties for nar­ra­tion and sto­ry­telling via both image sequenc­ing and pho­to-text links. It per­mits both cre­at­ing per­son­al accounts of indi­vid­u­als and gen­er­at­ing local micro‑histories of refugee com­mu­ni­ties, such as that of the Afghan exile com­mu­ni­ty in North­ern Pak­istan in The Vic­tor Weeps.

The por­trait image as a fig­u­ra­tion of the par­tic­u­lar plays a vital role in the pho­to­books ana­lyzed here for coun­ter­act­ing the uni­ver­sal­iz­ing and anonymiz­ing effect of refugee rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It entails par­tic­u­lar­iza­tion of the por­tray­al of human dis­place­ment on the lev­el of the pho­to­book nar­ra­tive, as well as of the por­trait of human beings on the lev­el of the indi­vid­ual image. The por­trait as an image of the par­tic­u­lar turns anony­mous refugee fig­ures into indi­vid­u­al­ized sub­jects and per­sons. Sheikh’s por­tray­al strat­e­gy is intend­ed to tran­scend the refugee sta­tus and role image of the pho­tographed sub­ject and dive into the com­plex­i­ty of this individual’s per­son­al life sto­ry. The recon­struc­tion of the per­sona is achieved through intense con­ver­sa­tion and co-cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tion with the refugees, with­out neglect for their social envi­ron­ment. As Sheikh’s pho­to work involv­ing the Afghan refugee vil­lage in north­ern Pak­istan attests, even por­trait pho­tog­ra­phy can become a com­mu­nal event of life-record­ing. First-per­son accounts and doc­u­ments select­ed by the sub­jects them­selves; the nam­ing, local­iz­ing, and sit­u­at­ing of each per­son pho­tographed via the image cap­tion; and the par­tic­i­pa­to­ry prac­tice of auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal descrip­tions of por­traits sup­port this per­son­al­iz­ing sub­ject-cen­tred approach. Only in the for­mat of the pho­to­book as both a medi­um of visu­al sto­ry­telling and an archive for doc­u­men­ta­tion can the com­plex­i­ty of per­son­al­ized lives be unfold­ed. In the words of Sheikh, it is “the indi­vid­ual and his tes­ti­mo­ny that allows us to access broad­er themes—through the spe­cif­ic to gain entry to the uni­ver­sal. […] I try to encour­age the medi­um to pierce the alien­ation in a return to the basics of human­i­ty” (qtd. in Light 2010, 4).

In Sheikh’s pho­tog­ra­phy, the prac­tice of refugee por­trai­ture oper­ates on the basis of rela­tion­al por­trai­ture, as defined by pho­tog­ra­phy the­o­rist Daniel Palmer in his study Pho­tog­ra­phy and Col­lab­o­ra­tion (2017, 109 ff.). With this prac­tice, pho­tog­ra­phy is employed as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion instru­ment and a social means of estab­lish­ing cross-cul­tur­al encoun­ters and inter­per­son­al, among them inter‑community, rela­tions, there­by empow­er­ing the sub­jects to par­tic­i­pate in the pho­to­graph­ic act and co-cre­ate the final result. It is the medium’s poten­tial for col­lab­o­ra­tive knowl­edge-gen­er­a­tion that affords a qual­i­ta­tive shift from mere con­tact zones of pho­to cre­ation to refig­u­ra­tion zones of pho­to­graph­ic doc­u­men­ta­tion. In Sheikh’s photodoc­u­men­tary work, the tra­di­tion­al “infor­mal con­tract between the pho­tog­ra­ph­er and the pho­tographed” that tends “towards the pre­sen­ta­tion of an objec­ti­fied ‘oth­er’” (Palmer 2017, 109) is replaced by a “civ­il con­tract” of pho­tog­ra­phy char­ac­ter­ized by rec­i­p­ro­cal human encoun­ters and rela­tions. A civ­il (re)contract(ing) of pho­tog­ra­phy, as advo­cat­ed by Ariel­la Azoulay (2008), enables anyone—even a migrant, refugee, or state­less person—to pur­sue polit­i­cal agency and resis­tance through pho­tog­ra­phy, whether by address­ing oth­ers through pho­tog­ra­phy or by being addressed by pho­tographs. A new cit­i­zen­ry in migrant and refugee pho­tog­ra­phy, if ground­ed in rela­tion­al por­trai­ture, can aid in dimin­ish­ing, if not com­plete­ly avoid­ing, the oth­er­ing of the pho­tographed. After all, it con­tributes to a con­struc­tion of rela­tion­al vari­ants of the “oth­er por­trait” in which the derefu­giza­tion of refugee por­trai­ture becomes gras­pable and com­pre­hen­si­ble. For moments of intense human encoun­ters, the bod­ies, faces, and images in migra­tion are put on hold. Through the con­tract­ed still­ness of pho­tog­ra­phy, the fleet­ing­ness of human migrancy is drawn into the media pres­ence of social life imaging.

Works Cited

Agam­ben, Gior­go. Homo Sac­er. Sov­er­eign Pow­er and Bare Life. Stan­ford: Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1998. Print.

Arendt, Han­nah. The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism. New York: Meri­di­en 1958. Print.

Azoulay, Ariel­la. The Civ­il Con­tract of Pho­tog­ra­phy. New York: Zone Books, 2008. Print.

Boehm, Got­tfried. Bild­nis und Indi­vidu­um. Über den Ursprung der Porträt­malerei in der ital­ienis­chen Renais­sance. Köln: Pres­tel, 1985. Print.

Cada­va, Eduar­do. “Trees, Hands, Stars, and Veils: The Por­trait in Ruins.” Intro­duc­tion to Fazal Sheikh. Por­traits. Göt­tin­gen: Stei­dl 2011. 5-43. Print.

Jobey, Liz. “Fazal Sheikh: A Sense of Com­mon Ground.” Fazal Sheikh. Exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logue MAPFRE Foun­da­tion. Madrid, 2009. 15-31. Avail­able online under https://​www​.fazal​sheikh​.org/​f​i​l​e​a​d​m​i​n​/​u​s​e​r​_​u​p​l​o​a​d​/​F​a​z​a​l​-​S​h​e​i​k​h​/​E​s​s​a​y​s​/​l​i​z​_​j​o​b​e​y​.​pdf.

Mavrou­di, Eliz­a­beth, and Car­o­line Nagel. Glob­al Migra­tion. Pat­ters, Process­es, and Pol­i­tics. Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2017. Print.

Le Masuri­er, Megan. “What is Slow Jour­nal­ism?” Jour­nal­ism Prac­tice, 9.2 (2015): 138-152.

Light, Ken. “Fazal Sheikh. Por­trait of a Refugee.” Wit­ness in Our Time: Work­ing Lives of Doc­u­men­tary Pho­tog­ra­phers. Ed. Ken Light. Wash­ing­ton D.C.: Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion Press, 2010. 153-162. Print.

Nan­cy, Jean Luc. L’Autre Por­trait. Paris: Édi­tions Galilée, 2014. Print.

Padley, Gem­ma. “Slow Pho­to­jour­nal­ism: The Rise of Long-term Assign­ments.” BBC News 21 Decem­ber 2015. Avail­able online under https://​www​.bbc​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​i​n​-​p​i​c​t​u​r​e​s​-​3​5​0​3​9​054. Accessed 6 Sep­tem­ber 2018.

Römhild, Regi­na. “Jen­seits eth­nis­ch­er Gren­zen. Für eine post­mi­grantis­che Kul­tur- und Gesellschafts­forschung.“ Nach der Migra­tion. Post­mi­grantis­che Per­spek­tiv­en jen­seits der Par­al­lelge­sellschaft. Eds. In: Yildiz, Erol, and Marc Hill. tran­script: Biele­feld, 2015. 37-48.

Sheikh, Fazal. The Vic­tor Weeps. Afghanistan, Zurich: Sca­lo, 1998. Print.

Sheikh, Fazal. A Sense of Com­mon Ground. Zurich: Sca­lo, 1996. Print.

Sikking, Iris. “A Thing Called Slow Jour­nal­ism.” issuu 22 May 2010. Web. https://​issuu​.com/​b​i​n​t​p​h​o​t​o​b​o​o​k​s​/​d​o​c​s​/​s​l​o​w​j​o​u​r​n​a​l​ism.

Papaster­giadis, Nikos. The Tur­bu­lence of Migra­tion. Glob­al­iza­tion, Deter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion and Hybrid­i­ty. Lon­don: Poli­ty, 2000. Print.


  1. The tech­ni­cal term “slow pho­to­jour­nal­ism” was intro­duced around 2015 with ref­er­ence to long-term assign­ments of pho­to­jour­nal­ists (see Padley, 2015).

  2. The main goal is “to look fur­ther than the imme­di­ate (hard) news. This makes it nec­es­sary to stay longer in a cer­tain area, even though the world’s press may already have left. As a result, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er not only con­tin­ues to be an observ­er but also becomes a par­tic­i­pant in dai­ly life” (Sikking, 2010).

  3. He estab­lished it along­side his wife, Lélia Deluiz Wan­ick, in 1994.

  4. One spe­cial fea­ture of this series, which is fund­ed by Switzerland’s Volka­rt Foun­da­tion, is that all of the pho­to­books are made avail­able free of charge on Sheikh’s Web site. See https://​www​.fazal​sheikh​.org/​f​a​z​a​l​-​s​h​e​i​k​h​/​i​n​t​e​r​n​a​t​i​o​n​a​l​-​h​u​m​a​n​-​r​i​g​h​t​s​-​s​e​r​i​e​s​.​h​tml (accessed on 4 Sep­tem­ber 2018).

  5. Although from per­spec­tives such as that of human rights law, there is a need to dis­tin­guish among migrants, refugees, and dis­placed per­sons (for­mal def­i­n­i­tion­al issues are addressed at http://​www​.unhcr​.org/​n​e​w​s​/​l​a​t​e​s​t​/​2​0​1​6​/​7​/​5​5​d​f​0​e​5​5​6​/​u​n​h​c​r​-​v​i​e​w​p​o​i​n​t​-​r​e​f​u​g​e​e​-​m​i​g​r​a​n​t​-​r​i​g​h​t​.​h​tml and‑and‑human‑sciences/themes/international‑migration/glossary/displaced‑person-displacement/), the real­i­ty of chang­ing life cir­cum­stances is tes­ta­ment to wide­spread fluc­tu­a­tions and tran­si­tions between the defined cat­e­gories in real life. The con­cept of “migrant por­trai­ture” is intro­duced here as an open and col­lec­tive frame to include all the var­i­ous groups of dis­placed peo­ple who are in con­di­tions of migrant­hood. In that sense, it calls into ques­tion the divi­sion between ”migrant” and “cit­i­zen” as Gre­go­ry Feld­man has (2015).

  6. Along­side pho­to­books, Sheikh’s work on issues of migra­tion has com­prised a series of pho­tographs of migrant work­ers in Brazil’s Grande Sertão and one of immi­grants cross­ing the bor­der between Mex­i­co and the Unit­ed States.

  7. He lat­er report­ed: “As soon as we land­ed on the sandy spit at Loki­chog­gio, the jour­nal­ists began work­ing. Their sto­ries had to be com­piled in hours as they were leav­ing in the after­noon on the return trip to Nairo­bi. As I watched them work through­out the day, I noticed they were drawn to the areas that the spokesman had sug­gest­ed would pro­vide the best footage” (Sheikh 1996, 2f.). He recalled “feel­ing a sense of unease, an inabil­i­ty to fol­low along and take the expect­ed pho­tographs. As the days passed, the pre­con­cep­tions that had been foist­ed on me in the ini­tial brief­ing and the shock of the first encounter began to fade away, allow­ing a broad­er sense of the refugees and their sit­u­a­tion to emerge. It was at this point that I began to ask the com­mu­ni­ty elders and the refugees to col­lab­o­rate with me in mak­ing the images” (qtd. in Jobey 2009, 15).

  8. The unac­com­pa­nied minors from south­ern Sudan were boys between eight and 18 years old who had been abduct­ed from their homes and tak­en to Ethiopia, where they then were trained to fight in the Sudanese People’s Lib­er­a­tion Army (SPLA) against the Islam­ic regime of north­ern Sudan. After the Ethiopi­an gov­ern­ment fell, these boys had to return to Sudan, where the SPLA was lat­er defeat­ed. Then, they fled across the bor­der to Kenya on foot.

  9. In some cas­es, the infor­ma­tion in the cap­tions includes the sym­bol­ic or holy mean­ings of the fore­names.