MADRID.- Mapfre Foundation Cultural Institute presents the first exhibition on the American photographer Fazal Sheikh (New York, 1965) to be held in Spain. It is the largest and most important retrospective of his work to date.
Fazal Sheikh is a documentary photographer who seeks to reflect the harsh situation endured by the Third World’s neediest communities. In his early career, he focused on refugees from different parts of the globe, people who had been forced to flee their homelands ravaged by wars and massacres. With time, though, he expanded his scope and, in recent years, has devoted his attention to the discrimination against dispossessed Indian women condemned to lives of privation.
Sheikh personalises the conflicts and narrates them through the faces of his subjects. He strives to portray them with absolute dignity and serenity, as individuals and not as symbol victims of their plight. He spends time with them, listens to them, requests their cooperation, earns their trust and only then does he approach their portraits. At ease, his subjects look face-on into the camera, against simple backgrounds which cause viewers give them their undivided attention. Thus, the subject’s gaze meets that of the artist and he in turn conveys it to the viewer.
Sheikh is enormously painstaking with his compositions, in which stark blacks and whites render spectacular results of exceptional beauty. His portraits have much of the formal perfection of the emblematic German photographer August Sander (1876-1964) who, having completed an exhaustive oeuvre, succeeded in documenting the human landscape of the Weimar Republic.
The show reveals how Fazal Sheikh’s art has evolved. Over the years, his portraits have been extreme close-ups, in which the face takes up almost the entire frame. There appears to be a greater feeling of trust and security, which enables him to approach the subjects to the point where often he is clearly reflected in their pupils.
Sheikh becomes personally involved with the situations and people he comes to know, and he uses photography to draw the public’s attention to them, either by means of his meticulous publications, his exhibitions or his website, www.fazalsheikh.org. Yet he does not judge; he merely provides testimony. It is up to the viewer to draw conclusions, to make a commitment.
Documentary photography has always relied on words to convey the real situation that it endeavours to communicate in a comprehensible, global manner: the clarity of the message is basic. In Fazal Sheikh’s case, the texts are crucial. In them, he describes the context surrounding the photographs, showing the place, event, historical data and details about the person he is portraying. In 1998 he added another component and began compiling the stories that his subjects told him, so as to directly associate them with their faces. It is indeed this association between word and image that provides the starkest contrast.
The viewer winces at these strikingly beautiful photographs that reflect dignity and composure, but which conceal tragic, violent stories which the artist himself reveals through his texts.
In recent years, the critics have hailed Fazal Sheikh’s photographs which have merited their place in the leading American and European museums and galleries. In 2005 he received two of the most outstanding distinctions a photographer can hope to receive: the MacArthur Fellowship and the Henri Cartier-Bresson International Grand Prix. His oeuvre has been exhibited in such prestigious institutions as the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation (Paris), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moscow), the Fotomuseum (Winterthur), the Nederlands Fotomuseum (Rotterdam), the Tate Modern (London), The Art Institute of Chicago, the International Center of Photography (New York) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), to name only a few.