Migrant Portraiture and Life Imaging in Fazal Sheikh’s Photodocumentaries


  • Birgit Mersmann University of Duisburg-Essen




This article explores the role of migrant photo portraiture for life imaging by providing a close reading of two photobooks by contemporary photographer Fazal Sheikh – A Sense of Common Ground (1996) and The Victor Weeps. Afghanistan (1998). Visual storytelling is a core feature of this social and humanitarian photographer’s work, through which two main questions are addressed: how are real-life migration experiences as survival stories and personal biographies inscribed in the portraits of refugees and migrants? Which form(at)s of portraits are chosen, and which practices of portrayal are employed for the purpose of documenting migrant lives? Based on Jean-Luc Nancy’s portrait theory and Giorgio Agamben’s notion of ‘bare life’, the author introduces a process-analytical category of the ‘migrant/refugee portrait’ in order to grasp the complex (de-)figuration processes connected with the sociopolitical issues of human displacement. In Sheikh’s long-term portrayal of migrant/refugee communities and his concept of relational portraiture, she recognizes an effective documentary photo practice for de-othering and demigrantizing the portrait of the migrant as a  stereotypical representation of the ‘other’.

Author Biography

Birgit Mersmann, University of Duisburg-Essen

Mersmann, Birgit is a full professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of Duisburg-Essen. She is an art historian, literary scholar and image theorist with a profoundly transcultural research and teaching profile. With Burcu Dogramci, she co-founded the research group “Art Production and Art Theory in Times of Global Migration” in 2013 (https://www.ag-kunst-migration.de/). She participated in the research group “Entangled Histories of Art and Migration. Forms, Visibilities, Agents” (2018-2022), funded by the DFG (German Research Foundation). She is the co-editor of the first international edition of the Handbook of Art and Global Migration. Theories, Practices and Challenges (ed. with B. Dogramaci, Berlin/Boston 2019). Her interdisciplinary research spans the fields of image and media theory, contemporary photography, modern and contemporary Western and Far Eastern art, art and migration, global art and art history, museum studies, transcultural and translational studies, and the interrelationships between the written word and the image. Her recent monographs and edited books include Okzidentalismen. Projektionen und Reflexionen des Westens in Kunst, Ästhetik und Kultur (ed. with Hauke Ohls, Bielefeld 2022); Über die Grenzen des Bildes. Kulturelle Differenz und transkulturelle Dynamik im globalen Feld der Kunst (Bielefeld 2021); Bildagenten. Historische und zeitgenössische Bildpraxen in globalen Kulturen (ed. with Christiane Kruse, Paderborn 2021); The Humanities between Global Integration and Cultural Diversity (ed. with Hans G. Kippenberg, Berlin/Boston 2016); Schriftikonik. Bildphänomene der Schrift in kultur- und medienkomparativer Perspektive (München 2015).


Agamben, Giorgo. Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Print.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Meridien 1958. Print.

Azoulay, Ariella. The Civil Contract of Photography. New York: Zone Books, 2008. Print.

Boehm, Gottfried. Bildnis und Individuum. Über den Ursprung der Porträtmalerei in der italienischen Renaissance. Köln: Prestel, 1985. Print.

Cadava, Eduardo. “Trees, Hands, Stars, and Veils: The Portrait in Ruins.” Introduction to Fazal Sheikh. Portraits. Göttingen: Steidl 2011. 5-43. Print.

Jobey, Liz. “Fazal Sheikh: A Sense of Common Ground.” Fazal Sheikh. Exhibition catalogue MAPFRE Foundation. Madrid, 2009. 15-31. Available online under https://www.fazalsheikh.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Fazal-Sheikh/Essays/liz_jobey.pdf.

Mavroudi, Elizabeth, and Caroline Nagel. Global Migration. Patters, Processes, and Politics. London: Routledge, 2017. Print.

Le Masurier, Megan. “What is Slow Journalism?” Journalism Practice, 9.2 (2015): 138-152.

Light, Ken. “Fazal Sheikh. Portrait of a Refugee.” Witness in Our Time: Working Lives of Documentary Photographers. Ed. Ken Light. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2010. 153-162. Print.

Nancy, Jean Luc. L’Autre Portrait. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 2014. Print.

Padley, Gemma. “Slow Photojournalism: The Rise of Long-term Assignments.” BBC News 21 December 2015. Available online under https://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-35039054. Accessed 6 September 2018.

Römhild, Regina. “Jenseits ethnischer Grenzen. Für eine postmigrantische Kultur- und Gesellschaftsforschung.“ Nach der Migration. Postmigrantische Perspektiven jenseits der Parallelgesellschaft. Eds. In: Yildiz, Erol, and Marc Hill. transcript: Bielefeld, 2015. 37-48.

Sheikh, Fazal. The Victor Weeps. Afghanistan, Zurich: Scalo, 1998. Print.

Sheikh, Fazal. A Sense of Common Ground. Zurich: Scalo, 1996. Print.

Sikking, Iris. “A Thing Called Slow Journalism.” issuu 22 May 2010. Web. https://issuu.com/bintphotobooks/docs/slowjournalism.

Papastergiadis, Nikos. The Turbulence of Migration. Globalization, Deterritorialization and Hybridity. London: Polity, 2000. Print.




How to Cite

Mersmann, B. (2022). Migrant Portraiture and Life Imaging in Fazal Sheikh’s Photodocumentaries. Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies, 13(2), 47–78. https://doi.org/10.17742/IMAGE.TP.13.2.3