Becoming Grounded by Fazal Sheikh's "Common Ground"

By Ann Moore

The powerful assortment of photographs in the art exhibit, Common Ground by Fazal Sheikh, has a heavy theme for the viewer to reflect on. This exhibit is currently at the Denver Art Museum in downtown Denver and will be on display until November 12, 2017. All visitors get to see this exhibit with the cost of the daily entrance fee. There are 170 photos in this exhibit taken between 1989 and 2013. As I walked into the exhibit there was a sadness that overcame me as the faces of impoverished people stared down at me. (Common Ground: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh, 1989-2013.)

Fazal Sheikh, born in New York in 1965, is known for documenting people from impoverished and marginalized parts of the world through portrait photography. After graduating from Princeton University, Sheikh decided to travel to places all over the world to look at people who lived in refugee camp communities. Some of the places he traveled for this project specifically was Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania. Sheikh has won many awards and is featured in museums all over the world. As his own website states, “Sheikh conceived of a series of projects that would engage an international audience and further their understanding of complex human rights issues around the world,” (Fazal Sheikh). He depicts poverty and people living in shocking conditions. He is a true warrior for human rights, as he documents human living conditions across the globe. (Fazal Sheikh)

Sheikh is not known for a specific image, but rather his work as a whole. People seem to be more interested with his series compared to individual photos. He has a unique style that many artists do not have. Sheikh shoots his images all in black and white to create a deeper response from the viewers when looking upon his images. Black and white is typically used to represent a timelessness effect making the subject more predominant to the viewer. There is no color to distract the eye. His main subjects in his photographs are people and places that are not originally outstanding. But the way he is able to capture and depict the moment makes the image breathtaking. As another reviewer of Sheikh’s states, “The solemnity of Mr. Sheikh's sitters--many looking directly into the camera, others down or away--reflects the time (hours, days, weeks) he has devoted to learning some part of their story. Whatever ugly or horrible scenes witnessed by these women, men and children, most of whom are named, are safely outside the frame when he clicks the shutter” (Woodward). Most of his images are close up portraits, but Sheikh has a variety of styles. The images can be uncomfortable to people because they can appear to be too close for comfort to the subject. Which creates a unique use of space. This adds to theme since this is not a comfortable topic. One image that shows this is Abshro Aden, depicting a Women’s Leader from a Somali Refugee Camp located in Kenya. This image was originally in the 2000 series, A Camel for the Son. His style is similar in style and theme to Dorothea Lange. Lange is most known for her photographs taken during The Great Depression focusing on the heartbreak of people shown through photography. (25 of the most iconic photographs.)

Photography is a way for an artist to capture a specific moment in time and make an insignificant moment seem significant. Over the years this art medium has begun to take shape. Photography can make viewers see an image from the exact perspective the artist did. It can transport us through time and to other places around the world. This is why Sheikh decided to use this medium. Other mediums such as drawings or paintings wouldn’t give the viewers the same sort of view though Sheikh’s eyes. Photography takes people out of their normal element and gives them a glace into other parts of the world. Instead of hearing about how refugees in camps are living, we can see the hardship with our own eyes. We can feel the pain of the people shown what appears to be a different word. Although these photos are taken from places that are known among people, it seems to be much further from the reality our culture is used to. This can increase the shock factor to viewers because life is so different to them compared to the people revealed in the photographs.

As I walked through the exhibit, my heart couldn’t help but feel heavy as the black and white photos stared back at me. I was overwhelmed by all the photos. Overpowering the viewer with the large amount of images may have been Sheikh’s intention. The more images there are, the more the onlookers are to gather a common theme among the series. There was a large amount of photos in a small environment. At first I thought that all the photos were staged from other communities around the world, but as I continued through the exhibit I realized I was mistaken. Typically portrait photographers capture beauty though posing and digital editing. Sheikh decided to challenge this norm. He took portraits of people in unconventional areas which resembled beauty. The air in the exhibit felt heavy. Everyone walking though was silent out of reverence for the people in the photos. As much as I wanted to turn around and leave I felt it was my duty as a human being to continue on to see what kind of suffering they had to live through. The despair in the eyes of fathers, mothers, children, and elderly was absolutely indescribable. I have not ever seen such an example of raw human emotion depicted in this particular way. I thought this was fascinating that the artist made the viewers get the sense of wanting to turn away from the images. As a society, we do not like to look at people in despair. It is hard to think what others go through in different locations around the world. It is easier for us to turn a blind eye away from these people suffering and continue on in our own lives. Sheikh is forcing the public to contemplate something out of our element.

I believe everyone should have the chance to go see this exhibit before it leaves the Denver Art Museum on the 12th of this month. It is very powerful and will make you think differently about the meaning of hardship. It is a show that has images a person would shy away from. Sheikh tries to lure the viewers in and have them temporarily escape across the world. Come prepared to have your heart sink with heavy feelings but have your mind come to new thoughts.

Works Cited

“Common Ground: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh, 1989-2013.” Denver Art Museum,

“Fazal Sheikh.” Home, Fazal Sheikh, 27 July 2017,

Woodward, Richard B. "'Homelands and Histories: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh' Review: Capturing Global Humanity; Fazal Sheikh Documents the World's Trouble Spots, Making Dignified Portraits of the People Who Live in them." Wall Street Journal (Online), May 09, 2017, ProQuest Central,

“25 of the most iconic photographs.” CNN, Cable News Network, 27 Sept. 2016,