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Portraits of refugees reflect the life behind the face

Denver Art Museum exhibit highlights the plight of displaced people around the world


On Aug. 10, Denver Art Museum’s Curator of Photography, Eric Paddock, noted that the United Nations estimated that 65.6 million people around the world are displaced.

And then he introduced photographer Fazal Skeikh, whose new exhibit, “Common Ground,” contains portraits he recorded between 1989 and 2013 at a number of locations where displaced or marginalized communities lived—sometimes for a generation or more.

DAM Director Christoph Heinrich said it’s the mission of every museum to offer insight on “people not in your neighborhood.”

Sheikh, who now lives in Zurich, was born in New York City and graduated from Princeton with a B.A. in 1987. Since then, he has worked to document lives through photography. He visited African relatives in Kenya and started shooting displaced people while collecting first-hand accounts of experiences.

“In a way, I was exploring my own heritage—my father was born in Kenya,” Sheikh said.

The exhibit includes images from five different locations where people of all ages were living lives disrupted by war. Boxes near photographs contain recorded information from some subjects.

He spoke of how it is “to live a life as a refugee—reach across gender, religious boundaries…”

For 25 years, he has explored human rights stories.

“Much more than just a face—there is a life behind it,” said DAM Director Heinrich. “His ability to capture an individual’s spirit, traditions, beliefs, culture and reality in one photograph is awe-inspiring.” (His explorations have been honored by both Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships.)

An overview of a Kenyan camp from a water tower reveals “a complexity of human landscape,” Sheikh said. The population of that one camp equaled that of Denver when he photographed it. Rows of small tents fade into the distance.

A portrait of two women, recorded as “War Widows, Dakie Galma Sora and Dira Wako Guyo” prompted Sheikh to talk about them a bit—they had walked 600 miles in a search for a new home at an Ethiopian refugee camp at Walda, Kenya.

Other portraits portray elderly women and men, anxious young mothers, beautiful but sober children. Many are refugees from a civil war in Somalia, he said, “facing a new perspective in Kenya.”

He spent several weeks in each camp and has created exhibits and impressive books that collect the photographs, such as “The Victor Weeps,” about Afghanistan.

A series on a wall includes women who bring children to a feeding station twice a day—one set up for the most malnourished little ones. One woman had to leave a second child behind and her eyes reflect ongoing pain… When Sheikh returned eight years later, many of the same children were still there — “they had survived.”

Another vignette recorded Indian women in Vrindavan, India, a religious community for widows, who are turned out of their homes the day after a husband dies. Some chant eight hours a day. “The town is kind of a stage set of religiosity,” Sheikh observed.

With our news filled daily with accounts of refugees fleeing war and persecution, one readily agrees with Paddock’s opening comment: “This is really the moment to show this exhibition.”


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