Biography

Born in 1965 in New York City, Fazal Sheikh is an artist who uses photographs to document people living in displaced and marginalized communities around the world.

His principle medium is the portrait, although his work also encompasses personal narratives, found photographs, sound, and his own written texts. His overall aim is to contribute to a wider understanding of these groups, to respect them as individuals and to counter the ignorance and prejudice that often attaches to them.

The recipient of many international prizes, Fazal Sheikh’s work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, including Tate Modern, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, Paris.

Sheikh’s ten books include The Victor Weeps, Moksha, and Ether, many of which have been made available online free of charge.

“I am not able to predict what will be a strong photograph.
The most compelling images have come from remaining receptive to
what the place has to offer.”

Biography

Born in 1965 in New York City, Fazal Sheikh is an artist who uses photographs to document people living in displaced and marginalized communities around the world.

His principle medium is the portrait, although his work also encompasses personal narratives, found photographs, sound, and his own written texts. His overall aim is to contribute to a wider understanding of these groups, to respect them as individuals and to counter the ignorance and prejudice that often attaches to them.

The recipient of many international prizes, Fazal Sheikh’s work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, including Tate Modern, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, Paris.

Sheikh’s ten books include The Victor Weeps, Moksha, and Ether, many of which have been made available online free of charge.

Fazal Sheikh

Desert Bloom

Fazal Sheikh travelled to Israel and the West Bank five times during his residency in 2010 and 2011. Since then he has returned several times, as his exploration of Israeli and Palestinian life continues to expand and deepen. He has created three distinct but related bodies of work, collected in The Erasure Trilogy, each of which examines questions of memory and loss and the deeply human patterns of suppression and the struggle to remember.
The Desert Bloom series, which Sheikh has committed to This Place and from which the works in this exhibition are taken, examines the way the desert has been altered by decades of militarisation, afforestation, mining, construction, destruction and demolition, including that of both present Bedouin homesteads and former Bedouin villages, whose people have been displaced and their settlements gradually erased. Sheikh interplays his photographs with a series of texts, creating a dialogue between word and image.

Fazal Sheikh in conversation with Shela Sheikh

SS: I’d like to begin by asking you about your initial invitation to join the This Place project. When did you first become involved? And was it an easy decision to join the project?
FS: I was invited by Frédéric Brenner to join the project in the summer of 2010, and my first trip was in November of that year. But it wasn’t until the second or third trip that I felt I had found something that could resonate in an effective manner both with the project and the trajectory of my own work, and that I therefore formally agreed to participate. I wanted to be sure that I could honour the invitation by creating something empowering and thought provoking. Rather than reproduce the kinds of images that I’d made elsewhere, I wanted to really learn about the place – a complex, dense and confounding set of circumstances with a history and politics that, like most people, I had read a great deal about just in the course of my everyday life. But the moment I arrived and spent a couple of days there I found that all that prior knowledge meant very little and that I was best off starting from scratch and allowing what was there to wash over me.

In fact, I realised years ago that doing away with my preconceptions and letting the immediate sense of place inform what I do creates a certain sense of insecurity or vulnerability, but that these emotions are in fact a strength, since they allow a receptivity to the cues that are present. It was important for me to be open to all perspectives and to be able to reach across various divides, and it was clear from the start that I would be working in Israel and the Occupied Territories. I think the willingness of Frédéric to allow me these freedoms was pivotal in my decision to join the project.

“ It was important for me to be open to all perspectives and to be able to reach across various divides, and it was clear from the start that I would be working in Israel and the Occupied Territories.”

SS: Did you work closely with others?
FS: I met with various human rights and activist groups that were often very helpful: B’Tselem, the Negev Coexistence Forum, ActiveStills, Breaking the Silence, Zochrot. But for the most part I preferred to find my own way, trusting my instincts and the trajectory of my own enquiry. I had never before even worked with an assistant, but in the end I had two: Talia Rosin and Ahmad Sub Laban, both of whom were instrumental in helping me to understand the place and in providing me the resources to enable my thoughts to coalesce. I’m more comfortable speaking of them as collaborators, since their commitment and generosity was an essential component of my working process.

I am also grateful to the photographer and professor Miki Kratsman, who not only assisted me in investigating the topics that interested me, but who also helped facilitate the work of many of the other photographers.

SS: Desert Bloom, the work that you’ve made for This Place, is on the one hand a discrete body of work, but on the other hand forms the middle element of what you’ve named The Erasure Trilogy, which includes two additional projects – Memory Trace and Independence / Nakbaand which, across the three elements, explores notions of erasure, ruin, memory and rupture, amongst other things. While Desert Bloom is the second element, it in fact seems necessary to pass via the other two in order to fully appreciate its significance.

FS: Yes, in my mind they are so interconnected, and Desert Bloom provides a link between the first and the third volumes quite clearly. Across the three projects, one experience opened on to the next, as is the case in much of my work.

In a sense – even if this isn’t necessarily explicit when one views the Desert Bloom images – all three projects began with the events of 1948, which was for me the logical place to start. I began by interviewing people who had been combatants on both sides of the divide – Arabs and Israelis – and who, before the start of the state, had lived together as neighbours. And I realised the extraordinary rupture of what the turmoil around the time of 1947/48 had created – a fissure within the society that is still palpable today. In all the time I’ve been there, this is what resonates with me the most: the idea of a scar just beneath the surface. Rather than levelling accusations at either side, my wish has been to try and address the wound. Because this is such a taboo subject within the collective psyche, I want to mourn that loss and consider what that rupture has meant. A profound moment for me was early on, when I realised that it had become unlawful to commemorate Nakba Day. I was driving through Sheikh Jarrah with my assistant Talia on Independence Day, and there were thousands of young people gathered together right there to start the parade. Why had they chosen to gather in this contested spot? It seemed to me somewhat an act of provocation: this idea that for every new year there’s the birth of something new and optimistic; whereas on the Palestinian side it’s yet another year without some sort of resolution.

This is something I explore in Independence / Nakba, which is comprised of a series of diptychs and is based on this very idea of the wearing of time: I wanted to articulate the expanse of time between ’48 and today (or at least 2013), so I photographed one person from each community to represent each year from the age of 1 to 65. (Importantly, on the Israeli side I included people whose families had emigrated prior to the establishment of the State of Israel – people who also had a right to be there, a history there.) What interested me was the sense that the viewer can only attend fully to one of the portraits in the diptych at any given moment; but still, the other segment remains, creating a looming and synchronous sense of the space. Both sitters harbour this expanse of time within them, this sense of history looming within and beyond the façade.

“In all the time I’ve been there, this is what resonates with me the most: the idea of a scar just beneath the surface. ”

SS: So it’s about mourning the fact that this event, or wound, has been repressed; in short, it’s about mourning a certain kind of mourning, a working through process that hasn’t been allowed to take place. With the commemoration of Independence Day there’s a gesture towards a future, whereas with the denial of the Nakba there’s not only a blockade on the future but also on remembrance and the past. So there’s this kind of frozen moment of abeyance that the Palestinians are forced to inhabit.

FS: Yes, absolutely. For me a fundamental starting point was in allowing for a commemoration, for a remembrance – or acknowledgement even – of something that was so profoundly tumultuous for the region.

I started to think about this taboo subject of what the rupture of ’48 and the start of the State of Israel – ‘A land without people for a people without a land’ – meant when in fact hundreds of villages had been evacuated, or ‘depopulated’, to use a more objective term, in the creation of this ideal. Memory Trace is about trying to honor what happened, trying to acknowledge a passage through history that seems, for some reason beyond my understanding, a taboo subject. For me there was no provocation in that. I wasn’t talking about the notion of the return or, very forcefully, the politics of what that meant, but rather I found myself acting as a kind of conduit, finding and visiting the places – hundreds of sites of turmoil, combat, and even massacre – that had been depopulated, and then moving from those places across the border into the Occupied Territories to find the people who had actually lived there but hadn’t seen that place in 65 or 66 years. There was an upsetting realization that I could just go so freely from one place to the other, where many of these families had never been and couldn’t go. The elders would tell me about their memory of their former home, sometimes they would tell me what to look for or what to do, they would recount what had happened during the day of their flight from the village. These people are 80, 90, 100; the eldest woman I met was 103 years old at the time. And of course these people, the last of that generation, are not only passing away in quick succession, but the sites themselves are being subsumed within the land – erased, converted, re-contextualised.

The presentation of history is in many cases altered, which is something I continue to explore in the Desert Bloom series. It is there in a latent fashion, but if one doesn’t consider the space carefully it’s hard to know what it is exactly you’re looking at when you visit those sites, as is exactly the case when one views the aerial images. Many of the sites are within the National Park Service or the JNF ( Jewish National Fund) forests, which one sees in the aerial images, and are either completely obscured, which is the intent, or attributed to archaeological remnants of an earlier era; but they are rarely acknowledged as former Palestinian villages.

“There was an upsetting realisation that I could just go so freely from one place to the other, where many of these families had never been and couldn’t go. ”

SS: So one sees how the Memory Trace project naturally leads to Desert Bloom.
FS: Yes, that sense of being able to understand the dynamics that were swirling around ’48 and the villages, and the people living in exile, opened up a mode of enquiry that I could then follow in a contemporary sense in the Negev. My experience of the spaces that had been either willfully erased – dismantled, destroyed and the stones taken away – or subsumed beneath forests, was astonishing: this idea that, years on, I could visit the site of a village and find that it is today an extraordinary forest, and unless you look with a critical eye it is virtually impossible to find the remnants of the past. And this makes one question what secrets the land holds within (as is also the case with the faces of sitters in the portraits of the other two volumes, as evoked perhaps by the creviced wrinkles in their faces or the quality of the gaze). But then you start to realise that beyond this mystery – something that is also inherent to the very nature of photography itself – there was actually quite a concerted effort to re-contextualise what’s there.

One of the most influential books for me was Sacred Landscape by Meron Benvenisti, who was previously the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, and quite prominent in the Jewish-Israeli community. He writes thoughtfully and openly about his childhood and how his father, in 1949, was a cartographer vested with the responsibility of drawing a new, Hebrew map for Israel, a ‘renewed title deed’ to in effect Judaise the landscape. I was really struck by this, also by the openness of Benvenisti not to say ‘I don’t have a right to be there, to be here’ – he was born and raised there; he does have a right to be there – but to honour something that for some reason is forbidden to speak about. And right about that time I was given a set of maps. I don’t know if they were drawn by Benvenisti’s father, but they would have been from the same time – they had taken British Mandate-era maps and at the moment when they were Hebraising the names, they had actually stamped in Hebrew within parentheses below the villages on the map, in purple, those that had been ‘erased’, destroyed.

SS: So they’d actually left traces of that gesture of erasing traces?
FS: Yes, what you see are the notations that acknowledge what transpired in the last couple of years. And of course there was the Naming Committee, which sought out Biblical sites that could justify a renaming with a Jewish or Hebrew essence. So because the map is perceived as a clear, objective, fact-based resource or rooting, you realise how fragile your footing is even today: where are you standing, what does it really mean, how have archaeologists considered the space, how have they maybe manipulated the space? And with that also of course was this idea of what the afforestation had meant, what the Jewish National Fund – the international organisation founded in 1901 that’s responsible for this afforestation and, according to its website, for ‘building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people’ – had meant, what it means today.

SS: How did you come to these particular areas in the South?
FS: I had an invitation one day to visit the unrecognised village of Al-Arakib, on the outskirts of Beersheba, the largest city in the Negev, to meet with this quite extraordinary woman, Haia Noach, who runs the Negev Coexistence Forum. It was the summer of 2011, just after the village proper had been rased to the ground by the state, and there were huge protests in Israel around this. When I arrived it was July and in the midst of sweltering heat, but the villagers still maintained a set of protest tents – simple, fragile structures that were erected on the site of what had been homes. But they also had tents closer within the compound of the cemetery which had not been rased – there is a degree of respect within Judaism which forbids the desecration of other sites, and in that cemetery were graves that were 100 years old, from a time far earlier than the founding of the State of Israel. Sitting in a tent that day, I looked out across the expanse of what had been homes two months prior, homes which I had never seen. I visited once again shortly thereafter, at a time when the JNF was already starting to dig the troughs for the planting of the Ambassador Forest, which is part of a plan to create a circle of forestation as a ‘green belt’ around Beersheba. But many of the areas of afforestation are contested regions that were previously home to Bedouin communities; instead, the Bedouin are being encouraged and/ or forced to move into seven townships that have been organised for them. And of course many of the Bedouin were resisting these consolidation efforts. They remain largely unrecognised by the state and in the vast majority of cases are given no access to the proper infrastructure, but they still insist upon the right to remain on their land. Often the extensive appeals within the courts eventually meet their end and the Israeli Land Authority comes and demolishes the site.

SS: So essentially everything you’ve been seeing from ’48 onwards, as registered in the Memory Trace project, you’re seeing still happening, but within the space of even a few months.
FS: Well yes, curiously I was now looking at what I realise was to some degree an extension of the same policy that was used in 1948. Granted, in ’48 many of the structures were built with stones, so were not so easy to completely demolish. The Bedouin homes, by comparison, are fragile structures. Sitting there in that tent, looking across the expanse of what had been the village and seeing these troughs, this scarification rendered on the land, I suddenly had the idea that it was important to see that from the perspective of a distance, from above, in order to understand the context of what I was looking at on the ground.

SS: So in essence, returning to that notion of openness, that also affected the formal approach: here a particular situation prompted the necessity to embrace a new form – aerial photography – that you might not have otherwise seen the value of, for your own work at least.
FS: I had no idea if it would be a useful experiment, but on one of my first trips, I flew above the Jerusalem corridor, looking at places that I had photographed on the ground for Memory Trace and which had previously been Palestinian villages that were planted atop after the creation of the state. I wanted a comparison for the areas in the Negev, where I was witnessing new afforestation, and to imagine how time might alter the character of the terrain; how it would look across the expanse of time.

For the villages that had been planted over decades ago, from the air it was now almost impossible to identify those sites under the forest, to know what had been there previously. In turning my attention fully to the Negev, I flew above the land in a small Cesna with the door removed for increased ease of visibility, offering me a perspective from which to see things – traces of things – that I could not see on the ground. I thought about the Bedouin having lived here for hundreds of years and the question of what their life looks like from above. How do they sustain themselves in this inhospitable terrain? By viewing from above, I could also see that their fragile dwellings are in some way in harmony with the dictates of the desert and the unforgiving nature of the land. Above Al-Arakib I could see the cemetery completely encircled by the troughs containing the seedlings of what would soon be the Ambassador Forest. I imagined myself visiting the site again in twenty-five years, seeing only the forest, and realising that if I did not have this current view, I would not understand anything about this segment of history and what the land holds within. This for me was a kind of revelation, and I resolved to explore the ways in which Ben-Gurion’s invocation, to ‘make the desert bloom’, has transformed the Negev in the intervening years. I soon learned to read the signifiers from above and it was this process that taught me about the stewardship of the land, how it has been acquired, about the JNF sites, the closed military zones, the moshavim (Israeli farming settlements), the industrialisation of the landscape, and even about the smaller villages that now teeter on the brink of demolition and eventual consolidation into the townships.

“In turning my attention fully to the Negev, I flew above the land in a small Cesna with the door removed for increased ease of visibility, offering me a perspective from which to see things – traces of things – that I could not see on the ground.”

SS: That idea of interpretation, or legibility, seems a key issue.
FS: The interesting thing is how the photograph can be used as a kind of archaeology. It’s a pause along a continuum; it holds within it everything that you need to access, but one also needs a trained eye to unravel what it is you are looking at. The work is an elegy to something that is passing, being transformed. Each of the locations captured in the Desert Bloom images is locatable on a Google Earth timeline. Detailed within the captions are the coordinates of the space; that was important to me so that the viewer could go to that exact site on Google Earth, which is public, and view for themselves what the last decade has done to that space. And then if you look, for instance, at one of my images from Al-Arakib (p. 114), it’s an aerial view of just the planted troughs of the forest in preparation for the rains, but in point of fact when you go back the ten years on the Google Earth timeline, you see that on that same spot there were four houses, those of the Abu Jabber family. So I’ve mapped and traced what happened to the space on which the family once lived, marking its presence along the continuum and how that spot on earth has changed over time with the slow but sure encroachment of the afforestation onto it, followed by the demolition and complete eradication of the houses. So all of the photographs I made are traces not only of the moment that I photographed them, but also of the traces which lie just below the surface, from some other time, sometimes going back as far as prehistory, to Nabataean-era or Byzantine-era inventories; or to the remains of recent demolitions in Bedouin villages, including in fact the Bedouin still living within the landscape, under threat of eviction. In this sense, they are traces of what is already fading – bearing witness not only to a certain presence, but also to the tide of transformation.

SS: But this gesture of mapping and tracing in fact has its precedents in the history of aerial photography.
FS: Much of the way in which the land in Israel has been acquired or surveyed since the beginning of the twentieth century has depended on the use of aerial photography: for instance, in 1917 there was a Bavarian aerial survey of the country; and in 1945 British aerial teams conducted a survey of the Negev, curiously the day after the liberation of Auschwitz. The Haganah archive houses a collection of the images that were made by the Jewish community during the British Mandate era which document what was on the ground from the air as a means by which to then understand access routes and vantage points on various villages.

SS: So from the very beginning aerial photography was used in the service of control and domination? And therefore, in a sense, you could be said to be using the technique against itself, or at least against its history.
FS: Yes, indeed. You realise the militaristic, powerful attitude towards confronting the land from above; you realise just the strength of the state, or the intrusive nature of what that image making can be. And, of course, one also begins to understand the sense of power that this perspective may entail, and how important it is to orient oneself in relation to that power structure.

SS: I’d like to ask about the viewer’s experience vis-à-vis context: viewing the Desert Bloom work in an exhibition space, obviously one has to have a certain amount of contextual narrative in order to begin to access the images. It seems simplistic, perhaps, to ask what the relationship is between image and text, but there is one and it’s vital if these images are going to mean anything beyond simply being ciphers that open up unknown questions for most people. So there has to be some form of narrative around the image, as a point of access for the viewer.
FS: Essentially, the image is a kind of invitation, and one hopes that the formal aesthetic qualities can encourage the viewer to want to know more about what they are viewing. In this case it’s difficult: each space must have a clear description of what it is one’s looking at, a clear reading of the image as well as some things that one doesn’t even see within the image, because those things are always moments of contestation in Palestine. But at the same time, an important part of engaging with the work is to experience the physical sense of it, the experience of moving within and through the space, trying to figure out what the image contains. The viewer is sometimes also in a vast expanse without any rooting, without certainty. On that level, I rather like that opening, which I would also say is a quality that exists in portraiture.

SS:Nevertheless, as you’ve outlined, one can and does eventually learn to read the landscape. And, as you say, one begins to see how different people have precisely sensed or read the dictates of the land around them in very distinct ways. In the case of the Bedouin, this reading of the land is very responsive and harmonious.
FS: Exactly, and the notion of Desert Bloom was more in terms of transforming the desert, placing a value judgement upon that which is desert versus that which is a forested area, for example, or farmland. But it doesn’t really acknowledge the long-term impact of what it means to build oxidation pools and divert aquifers, to try and sustain a forest over time in a desert area, and what that does to raising the salinity of the planted area. Can the desert base actually, over time, support a forest, and what aquifers are depleted to make that happen? So it’s interesting to see how that was symptomatic, I think, of the mindset in terms of one’s approach to nature.

SS: It also has much to say about colonialism. Obviously there’s colonialism of land and people, but there’s also an imposition of culture. And if you think of culture coming from the idea of cultivation, not only of the minds of people but also of the land itself, you see how what is being enforced here is a certain view of how a land and a people ought to become cultivated.
FS: Well that’s a big part of the way in which the state has insisted upon moving the Bedouin into these townships. Of course when you see the Bedouin villages from the air they’re often quite unkempt and scattered; but again, it’s just a matter of differing values and judgement. It’s curious to see how once the villages have been wiped out, the desert just reclaims the space. What will become of the spaces where oxidation pools now exist and there is a real, profound, and unalterable impact on the environment? The idea of the footprint on the land is vital: on the one hand, the argument would be that the Bedouin are not inhabiting the same space month in, month out, and that they move, they traverse the land. But why do they traverse the land? They shift to different spaces so that they can live without destroying the land, in harmony with the space that will sustain them over time. But then that is the means by which you deny them the right to be there.

“It’s curious to see how once the villages have been wiped out, the desert just reclaims the space.”

SS: Yes, exactly. Their not leaving their traces in the land is their virtue, but actually that’s precisely their undoing.
FS: That’s quite correct. In fact for the Bedouin communities, the strongest groups historically were those that moved and returned to the land throughout the year, as opposed to those that settled. So then, what are the lasting traces? Where is it that we look for proof of the Bedouin’s rights to the land? And don’t forget that this also depends very much upon who is making the enquiry, and what the motives are for the assertion. Under closer scrutiny, the things that you find are the cemeteries, sometimes there are old ruins from when a house was built in stone, which was not that frequent, and then there are the cisterns and wells; but other than that, there’s not much. Indeed, their lack of insistence for dominating the land is the very thing that allows them to be dispossessed.

SS: Throughout your work there’s a strong element of activism, insofar as much of the work functions in a testimonial mode that seeks to engage in complex human rights issues. But this particular project also provokes the question about the image itself – and indeed the act of learning to decipher it – as a tool for research, scientific and otherwise, as a kind of mode of enquiry beyond what we might commonly think of as simply the aesthetic. Could you say more about that?
FS: I am hopeful that the work that I have committed to the This Place project will raise discussions and also be useful as a tool for those who wish to scrutinise the land and its alteration over time. From the outset, I resolved that I would only be able to accept this generous invitation to work in the region if I could contribute to a conversation around the substantive issues in the contemporary society. Now that I’ve hit upon the tone of the work, it’s vital to me that it functions on several levels, and that it is disseminated widely within a variety of contexts. I’ve had the good fortune to work with two authors: Eyal Weizman, whose book Hollow Land was extremely influential for me and who reads the land and the history of image making, or the acquisition of the land, in a rigorous fashion that centres upon some of the legal issues surrounding the current situation in Al-Arakib; and Eduardo Cadava, whose writing explores the connections between the images in the three projects and how that sort of resonance creates a certain emotive mood and acts as a catalyst for saying something more considered about the political situation. We share the desire to have the images serve to provoke further enquiry, and envision a series of lectures and conversations, as well as a mapping project that will use the images as a foundation upon which to expand the conversation, as such taking the work well beyond the white cube of the museum and allowing it to be shared as a resource for others, especially the community, to utilise.

“Now that I’ve hit upon the tone of the work, it’s vital to me that it functions on several levels, and that it is disseminated widely within a variety of contexts.”