from the series A Sense of Common Ground / Ajoh Achot and Achol Manyen, Sudanese Refugee Camp, Lokichoggio, Kenya, 1992, printed 2016
Fazal Sheikh, American, born 1965
Image: 24 7/16 × 18 15/16 in. (62.1 × 48.1 cm) Sheet: 35 15/16 × 26 1/8 in. (91.3 × 66.3 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Jane P. Watkins
Habits of Mind
- UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Homelands and Histories: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Photographer Fazal Sheikh has captured the lives of marginalized and displaced communities around the world for more than twenty years. Sheikh was born in New York in 1965. His father was Kenyan and his mother American. Sheikh’s exploration of his personal and familial history often informs his approach to engaging with communities in order to tell their stories.
Ajoh Achot and Anchol Manyen depicts two Sudanese refugees at a refugee camp in Lokichogio, Kenya. They both look directly into the camera, transfixing the viewer. The facial expression of the figure on the left is plaintive, while the expression of the figure on the right is attentive as she stands with her hand pressed gently upon her chest.
The town Lokichogio is located in the Northwest region of Kenya and lies less than 20 miles from Sudan. Because of its proximity to the Kenya-Sudan border, it became a refuge for many Sudanese emigrants who were forced to flee their homeland as a result of conflicts that arose from the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-1995). In the summer of 1992, approximately 25,000 Sudanese emigrants sought refuge in Kenya. Achot and Manyen would have been just two of thousands of refugees that made the arduous journey from Sudan to Kenya. The ensuing refugee crisis brought many of international photojournalists into Kenya to document refugee camps for various media outlets. Sheikh recalls the feeling of his encounter with these photojournalists: "I remembered watching them working and feeling a sense of unease, an inability to follow along and make the expected photographs." The “expected photographs” Sheikh refers to are the sensationalized and often exploitative representations of refugee communities in mainstream media that treat these civilians as hapless victims deserving of pity.
Sheikh, however, humanizes his subjects in his sensitively rendered portraits. He spends extended periods of time with the communities he photographs to build a strong rapport and familiarity with his subjects. Behind each portrait, the artist has established a relationship and consensus with all the individuals involved. His collaborative photographic practice is rooted in a profound empathy that reveals a rare intimacy between subject and photographer. By collaborating with his subjects, Sheikh recognizes their agency and provides space for moments of self-possession that they are often denied in mass-media depictions.
Ajoh Achot and Anchol Manyen is taken from the series A Sense of Common Ground, a body of work that Sheikh produced from 1991-1994 which documents Sudanese, Ethiopian, and Somali refugees at camps in Kenya and Mozambican camps in Malawi. During his travels, he considered photography as a tool that enabled him to relate to others and sought a pared down style that captured the individuality of his sitters. This method of working and the resulting style would become the foundation of Sheikh’s later work with marginalized communities around the world.
In his later work, beginning with the series, The Victor Weeps, Sheikh includes personal testimonies from his sitters in which they speak of their lives. He saw a need for “text to elaborate on the message of a photograph.” However, this photograph was taken before the introduction of personal testimonies in Sheikh's work and does not include narratives from the subjects. But despite the absence of an accompanying testimony, Sheikh's sincere portrayal dutifully announces Achot and Manyen’s presence. The direct, black-and-white portrait of the pair in natural lighting reduces the distraction of extraneous detail in the photograph and invites a careful contemplation of their personhood. They are not defined by the tragic circumstances in which they find themselves; they are more than the dispossession and geographical displacement that has altered their lives. Achot and Manyen stand dignified and distinct before Sheikh’s camera in an affirmation of their humanity.
What is the significance of naming the subjects in the photograph as opposed to referring to them as ‘Sudanese refugees’?
How would you describe this photograph to someone who is not here?
Can you distinguish any details in the background?
The photograph focuses on the foreground and the background is left blurred. Do you think this was deliberate? Why would the artist choose to do this?
What angle did the artist take to make this photograph? How does that choice impact the photograph?
How would you describe the lighting? Is this natural or artificial light?
What do you think of the color tones of black and white? How would this image be different in color?
Describe these two women. Look at their clothes, their features, and their mood. Do their clothes tell you anything about the location that this photo was taken? What does their facial expression imply about their state of mind? What does the hand gesture convey?
In what country or continent do you think the photograph was taken? Why?
The title of this photograph is “Ajoh Achot and Anchol Manyen and it depicts two Sudanese refugees at a refugee camp in Lokichogio, Kenya. What is the importance of naming these two women? Why do you think the photographer chose to do so?
The women both look directly into the camera. What effect does this have on you as the viewer?
How is this photograph different from a documentary photo that we would see in a newspaper?
This artist humanizes his subjects by spending extended periods of time with the communities he photographs to build a strong rapport and familiarity with his subjects. How is this process visible in this photograph?
The photo reveals a rare intimacy between subject and photographer. By collaborating with his subjects, Sheikh recognizes their agency and provides space for moments of self-possession that they are often denied in mass-media depictions. Do you think there is room in the mass media to photograph subjects in this way? What is the difference between art and journalism?
Ajoh Achot and Anchol Manyen is taken from the series A Sense of Common Ground, a body of work that Sheikh produced from 1991-1994 which documents Sudanese, Ethiopian, and Somali refugees at camps in Kenya and Mozambican camps in Malawi. What do you think of the title of the series? What does the ‘common ground’ refer to?
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.