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,

Mama's Secret

By Devorah Uriel

Mama’s pacing and yelling a lot of words but all I hear is the danger in her voice.  Padgey and Butch look almost grown up, except that they’re calm.  Padgey hold’s Trina by the hand because she’s likely to wander off.  I’m 7 and old enough to follow along without anyone paying much attention. 

The courtroom looks like a big old church.  Seems like it’s mostly made of rocks. It smells like laundry left in the washer too long. There aren’t hardly any windows but there’s plenty of lights so it’s bright enough. The smooth floors and the ceiling so far away make lots of space for voices to bounce around in.  We go into a big room with rows and rows of pews. There is a separate area where the judge stays-like a priest.  I wonder if he’ll be a nice man. 

We take our seats in the back pew. Padgey goes in first because she’s the oldest. Trina and Butchy in the middle, then me. I’m next to mama who sits on the aisle. The judge isn’t here yet. We just sit.  Nobody talks.  There are lots of other families sitting in the pews. They talk in whispers, smoothing skirts and straightening ties. The girls in front of me have bows in their hair. Stupid bows.   

A door opens and some people come in through a side door into the priest space. One of them must be the judge because he takes a seat at the big desk that’s up high. He has silver hair and black-rimmed glasses. He pulls a little chain on the lamp and is looking at papers. Something about the way his mouth is, like a straight hard line-makes me look away.

Mama said daddy will be here today and that the judge is gonna try and take us kids away from her. I haven’t seen Daddy since me and Butchy ran away to California on the train. That trip sure did cause a lot of trouble. Mama said we are to be real good, not talk to Daddy and tell the judge how much we love her. The hardest one of those will be not to talk to Daddy. Mama smiles at us with that tight smile that says “remember what I told you.” We all nod without smiling back. 

I hear the big doors open and I twist in my seat to see. I know it’s him though. I just know. He looks so handsome. He shaved and put on a nice clean blue shirt with buttons.  His blue eyes sparkle when he winks at me. I want to run and jump in his arms so bad- but I know better.  Still, when he smiles at me I smile back. I’m real careful not to look at Mama after that. I hope Daddy hasn’t had his Bud today. Daddy’s nickname is Bud after his favorite beer. Daddy likes beer even more than I like ice cream.

“SmithvsThomas”, please come forward.  She says it loud but she still sounds like a little bird. The lady stands at the railing with her clipboard and looks right at us.  Her black dress seems too big for her and I wonder if she’s really a grown up. She motions for Mama and daddy to come up there-to the priest place.  Daddy gets there first and Mama is clearly mad about that.  Mama rushes forward brushing off her skirt as she walks.  She looks beautiful with her dark hair piled on top of her head. The woman with the clipboard is reading something to Mama and daddy but I can’t hear anything.

I bump my shoulder into Butch. “Do you think they’ll take us away?” 

“Naw. I kinda wish they would though.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“I’m ready to be on my own.” I don’t say anything. I think about what that would be like for Butch to be gone. Mama and Butch fight—a lot.  He’s getting pretty big and strong.  Sometimes he fights back. Sometimes he’s mean to me. I don’t want him to go though. He messes my hair and I laugh. 

“Want to see if we can get closer and hear?” Before I can answer he drops to the floor and slides under the pew in front of us, just missing the girls with the bows. 

Padgey whispers between clenched teeth-“get back here!”  But he’s gone. I think about it for a second and then I’m after him faster that lickety can split. 

Several rows up I peek above the pews and wave at Padgey and Trina. Trina giggles. I duck behind the pew and pop up again mouthing peek-a-boo. Trina laughs and squeals loudly. Even Padgey smiles. I look around. Mama and Daddy are talking to the judge now. I can’t see Butch anywhere. Oh there he is! He’s right in the front row lying down like he’s taking a nap! He waves at me. I smile. He wants to get in trouble. Mama says trouble is his hobby. I stay where I am. It’s easy to hear Mama now, she’s practically screaming.

“He took her out of state! How is that good parenting?” 

“Lower your voice Mrs. Thomas.”

“Don’t call me by that filthy name.” 

“Lower your voice Mrs. Smith or I will find you in contempt of court!”

“He’s an asshole!”

Now Daddy’s yelling too. Daddy doesn’t often yell but mama has a way with him. 

Mama is not exactly right. Daddy didn’t take us out of state. Butchy and me hopped a train all by ourselves. Daddy actually brought us back. Eventually.

“Psst! Over here!” Butchy is calling me to come over. He’s standing up on the pew and his hands are together fist-to-fist. He holds one fist close to his left eye and slowly looks around the room like he’s a pirate looking for land. When he spots me through his telescope he jumps as if surprised and nearly falls off the pew.  A loud laugh explodes from me and my knees give in.  I’m afraid I might pee my pants so I cross my legs and squeeze tight.  Mama, daddy and the judge all look at me and then at Butch. Butch jumps over the back of the pew and starts running down the length of the next row, still with hands in search position. Laughing, I follow him at a full run. 

Mama yells for us to stop it and sit down. Her voice bounces around the room and it sounds like there are 3 of her. Trina gets away from Padgey and runs after me. She trips and falls. She sure has good lungs. I look at Padgey. She just shakes her head and walks right out of the courtroom so I run to Trina and give her a hug. Mama runs after Butch and daddy runs after me. I don’t know why but since everyone is running I decide to run some more too. Nowhere in particular, just around the courtroom.

A loud pounding brings us all to a stop. The judge is standing with a wooden hammer in his hand.  He’s red in the face and shaking his head.

“Order! Order!” he shouts.

Butch yells, “I’ll order French Fries!” Trina and I fall to the floor laughing.  Mom catches Butch by the back of the shirt and falls onto the floor on top of him.  She sits across him and her nice skirt is all scrunched up around her hips showing her garters and a long rip in her stockings. She hits Butch real hard, over and over. Butch covers his face with his arms. Daddy runs over and pulls her off. Then mama hits daddy. Pow! Daddy’s nose starts to bleed. The blood looks purple on his shirt and I remembered that red and blue make purple.

A policeman runs over and takes both of Mama’s arms and holds them behind her back.  Another policeman takes daddy. I’m not laughing anymore. I run to Mama but someone grabs me. I hear Mama’s policeman say to the other one “she’s fuckin’ crazy”. Mama is still yelling at Daddy so she doesn’t hear the policeman. Good thing for him.

Mama’s crazy.  Mama’s crazy.  I hope I didn’t say that out loud. I twist around to see who’s got me. It’s the lady with the clipboard.  The little bird.  She smiles at me and I smile back.  She lets me go.  I like birds.  I wonder who else knows mama’s crazy.  Not Padgey and Butch.  Daddy never said anything.  Does Mama know? I’m probably the only person who knows.  Me and the policemen.

We know Mama’s secret.

Like Thousands of Others, My Father Brought Back Souvenirs from the War

By Esther Ann Griswold

Here is a photo, black and white:

My father, 40 years old,

Standing in mud up to his shins

At an army camp

in Paupau, New Guinea.

It is the war. 

He is smiling at the camera.


Seventy years later,

The slim, hand-carved walking stick

He brought back from the war

Is my daily companion.


Thirty-six inches tall, made from

Dark walnut wood,

White lime rubbed into incised

Designs, with two small human figures

Standing back to back, guarding

The user of the stick.


A man from New Guinea, name unknown,

Traded this splendid creation

To my father, for….what?

American coins? Two tins of spam?

Perhaps bullet casings, plus

An unused army cap.


I know what happened

To my father: the medals, the struggles,

Successes and illness.

But what became of the carver?


Was he sent to the mines, or

Killed in a raid

By a neighboring tribe?

Or did he learn the language of

The colonizers and sit in an office,

Enjoying some small slice of power.


Examining the photo of my father,

I imagine the artisan standing

Just beyond the camera’s lens,

Wishing these strangers would leave.


And what of the carver’s children?

Do they have PhDs?  Are they are world travelers?

How I yearn to tell them

Of the long arc of their father’s

Elegant work, which reaches

Through time and space

To support an old woman

On the other side of the world.

Whatever Happened to the Rickles Sisters

By Esther Ann Griswold

We were five, plus our military

Jewish father and plump Baptist mother,


living in a Dutch Reformed area,

chased and teased by older neighbor boys,


so we made fun of the Rickles girls, 

who lived on the corner, because they strutted


around their front yard to Souza music,

twirling and tossing batons, while their


father travelled, selling encyclopedias.

Also, their mother made vegetable soup


that smelled loathsome. They in turn

laughed at their next-door neighbors --


Mr. Olds only worked as a gas station attendant,

and their three children were skinny


and always seemed hungry. My brother

and I spent endless hours with kids


our age playing prisoners of war

or gulag camps in the Olds’ dark


two-story house, even though Mrs. Olds’

never closed the bathroom door when using


the toilet. There was a tether-ball on a pole

in their back yard, and we held ferocious tournaments


that went on for weeks.  Sometimes

we would move in a herd down the block,


bringing out grim Mrs. Vanderwall, who

threatened to call the police as we walked


on her grass, and if we were lucky,

Mr. Plomp, a postman, had left his


car unlocked, and we would rifle through

the mail that littered his back seat,

searching for postcards that said love, and

scrutinizing catalogues of people in underwear.


Once, Sharon Vaughn, who lived on the

other corner, asked us in to look at her father’s


scrapbooks of pornography, but we never

liked her because she rode horses


and thought our games were silly.

Our family had an upright piano painted white


with ivy decals glued on the front,

and my older sister’s boyfriend Jerry


played Bach’s two-part inventions

on it too fast, showing off for her.


Three of us took piano lessons from

Joyce Orr, who had a studio with her bedroom


in the back, and sometimes a man would stand

in the doorway, and Miss Orr would speak sharply


if we looked at him.  The middle sister

took tap dance lessons, and our brother’s only


lessons were how to be manly through the

Highlander Boys, but he played the piano by ear.


Now the parents are gone, our brother killed himself

with cyanide, and the middle sister


died from cancer.  Now we are three,

and we assiduously study


the rules of endgame, the main ones

which are, no matter what,


to be defiant, brave and cheerful, and

never look back at your own life,


although it is alright to wonder

whatever happened to the Rickles sisters.

Nana's Kitchen

By Anoymous

Nana’s kitchen was over-clean, hygienic. It had none of the cozy warmth you imagine when you say “grandma’s kitchen.” All fluorescent light and linoleum and plastic countertops. And yet, the sterile impersonality of that place isn’t what I remember. I remember cakes and cookies and casseroles. She was not an extraordinary cook, but I loved her food anyway. She was a product of the fifties, and she relied on processed, canned, Nabisco. But there was an honest desire to please people and show them hospitality. I miss that place and that woman.


By Mason Teixeira

We are homesick and we are already home.

Soul searching is unnecessary when you let yourself realize you still have one.

Sentiments processed easily,

With seasonal reminders:

With core in the bedrock,

Blossoms will return.

Calamity can exist with a comeback.

Allow death to happen in hard times and catastrophe,

Gambling with the inevitable prolongs suffering.

Wrapped up tight,

Letting go is comfortable with this knowledge:

I found ease and safety,

In those arms,

In the house of the wolves.


By Jethro Black

Half male, half female

Half gift, half curse

Half loved, half hated

Half desired, half abandoned

Half angel, half demon

Half animal, half machine

Half hugged, half beaten

Half screaming, half silenced

Half drowning, half infecting

Half breathing, half suffocating

Half healed, half scarred for life

Half living, half dying

Half running, half hiding

Half given, half taken

Half gaining, half losing

Half eaten, half thrown away

Half expressive, half hidden

Half accepted, half ignored

Half broken, half fixed

Half flawed, half perfect

Half me, half nobody

Half sane, half crazed

Half hateful, half gentle

Half friendly, half isolated

Half alone, half surrounded

Half being myself, half locked out of the world

Half sleeping, half awake

Half chasing the daylight, half chasing the night

Half full, half empty

Half whole, half incomplete

Half used, half wasted

Half valuable, half worthless

Half free, half chained

Half here, half nowhere

Half living in a home, half dying in a prison

Half singing a song, half ending a harmony

Half of this, half of that

Half of everything, half of nothing

Do you get what I mean, I’m a half-breed…

I Am Made Up of My Grandmother's Gardens

By Joanne Kuemmerlin

I have eaten of my grandmother’s gardens;

Cucumbers grown by a chain link fence,

Plums slowly plumped from missiles to fruit,

Homegrown tomatoes carefully preserved,

butter fried fruit with cinnamon sugar.


I have slept in my grandmother’s gardens;

Pansies and snowdrops embroidered on pillowslips,

Daisies and starflowers in cutwork and lace,

Bright colored bouquets profuse across quilt tops.


I have learned from my grandmother’s gardens;

Roses and iris - for public view,

Hollyhocks and four o’clocks for play and surprise,

Peonies and honeysuckle for private space.


I have become my grandmother’s gardens;

A springtime hyacinth showing newly found colors,

A summertime sunflower waving showy and bold,

An autumn willow… weeping, weeping…

          dropping aging leaves

like gilded tears.


By Telsa G.

All these paths seem the same shadows, cracked pavement, walls full of shame. Felt as if I was better off being selfish ole me. At the end of my tunnel was chrome, pockets full of greed, smiling at it all but inside I was lost and in need. Everything I touched I destroyed, streets made me, I was never employed, I was the boss of it all, no money I ignored, days turned to weeks, time flew by. How could it not when I always stayed high, I had a rep, something to do every morning. I can’t give up, they look up to me. Gotta stay zoned in, now I’m going in, no war stories were the same. It may look good, gutter and gold, by mu soul was broken, heart caked up with mold, numb to it all even with my face plastered on the news. I laughed so hard as my crew looked at me for what to do. Long story short, I was working at life. Then I gave mine up to see what I had possibly dug up inside. I should be gone, as many of us should. But I discovered this man, one who is the Almighty, letting him live inside me. The next chapters are full of temptation. Some I dodged, some I gave into, but have no fear. This man never leaves or forsakes. It is only us who tries to delete and replace knees bruised from my cries, the ones I thought were unheard. But right there was my Lord Jesus Christ offering comforting words. It may seem absurd, but it’s not what I’ve seen but what I’ve heard…the promise of peace. And one more thing: it’s not just promised to me.

Stand Tall: An Anaphora Poem

By Stephanie W.

I will stand tall because…

   I am not a quitter

   I have a strong will

   and a soft heart.


I will stand tall because…

   I have what it takes

   to be the best mother,

   daughter, and wife

   that I can be.


I will stand tall because…

   nothing will get in

   my way and nobody

   can judge me for

   only what they can see.


I will stand tall because…

   I am who I am and

   I’ll always be me from

   the end to the start.


I will always stand tall because

   I’m made not to fall.

My Life Has Made Me Strong

By Shalanda A.

My life has made me strong

Struggles all day long

People tell me I’m doing it all wrong

Blissful ignorance was my favorite song

while I hit that bong

and played a game of beer pong.

Finally like someone hitting a gong

I realized all along

that I was being a ding dong—

and now I am learning to be strong!

And how to be right where before I was all wrong!


By S.A.M.

You’re a shining beauty and your inner beauty was simply lovely…beyond merely pretty. Her gorgeous long dark hair flows in the night breeze. As lilies brush against her shoulders, butterflies drift around us. The moon shone over her head protecting her from harm. Her face was vibrantly alive. The arch of her eyebrows was an expression of suspicion and disdain. She does it so perfectly, but this night a milder eyebrow action. Mere cool curiosity. Her gaze as her dark almond eyes danced when she looked into the stars. You always see the sparkling which focuses the gold of her irises like beams of light. So luminous, with a dangerous curl to die for. Her glamorous thick eyelashes hinted of secrets and mysteries. A fine high bridged nose uplifts by her cheekbones as she blushes, so truly defined with compassion. The luxury of her sweet kisses always had me trembling wanting more and more. Her sensuous lips so fully defined—as sexy as can be. Her silky honeyed tone arising with tenderness, a tenderness angel. When she smiles so naturally it is so breathtaking, truly mesmerizing and achingly Pure Beauty.

You will be beautiful forevermore in my eyes.