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,

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.

2 Pieces by Marilee L.

The Mask I Wear

The mask I wear right now at 46 and in the facility is the Joker or Weisenheimer mask. When I’m feeling down I act like a clown.

When I want to run and hide, my laughter it will subside.

When people want to poke, I will turn around and make a joke.

When I was young, my grandma used to like to have fun. Her laughter was contagious when I was feeling down, and less vivacious when I would hide behind my tears; her laughter was music to my ears.

The mask I wear is how I survive; I like to think I am alive.



I was so excited to hear that the Writing to Be Free program was going to hold workshops here in the facility. I’m a convicted felon and an adult mother whose family is torn apart from my drug use, bad behaviors and negative outlook on life. Just in the 1st class it has helped me to learn to write and open up about my feelings and that learn that I am not alone. I cried my eyes out, but for happiness this time. Thank you so much for bringing this workshop and these ladies & teachers into my life. I appreciate the experience.