Face facts: A seemingly simple image, like “Simran,” can convey the complexities of life for some young girls in India.
completed in 2005, is the older of the two series. It centers on the
lives of widows who converge on the holy city of Vrindavan. The
extensive wall texts provided by Sheikh explain that traditionally
widows are treated with suspicion and avoided. “In reality they are
outcasts, either young women struggling to bring up their children
without support, or older women, unwanted by their families and often
thrown out of their homes.” Stigmatized by society, they devote their
life to prayer and wait for death hoping to attain moksha, freedom from
the cycle of rebirth, the reward for quelling all human desires.
portraits are haunting. The widows’ heavily weathered faces gaze into
infinity. Brief stories of these lives provide glimpses of
understanding. For example, Kalyani Ghosh’s husband committed suicide
when she was 23. Her mother-in-law blamed her for the death and took
custody of Kalyani’s three sons. In the 45 years she has been in
Vrindavan, none of her sons has visited. Her clear eyes and stern
expression seem ready to meet death but steeled to endure more
Some of the women are
photographed with their faces turned away, or hidden within flowing
white garments. To Western eyes it is easy to read these figures as
ghosts caught between this world and the next.
the portraits are images of Vrindavan. Slow decay is everywhere, from
the battered buildings to the murky puddles. Where actual fog does not
exist, slow shutter speeds introduce a quavering haze. Tree limbs wave
into nothingness. Boats sit tied to the shore. Empty passageways
Sheikh pays special attention to
the animal inhabitants of the city. According to Hindu belief these
poor creatures are caught in the same cycle of reincarnation as humans.
In another context two monkeys huddled together in the road might
appear comical, but here they seem nearly as tragic as the widows.
the second group of photos, Ladli, focuses on much younger subjects, we
see the same unsettling expressions on their faces. Sheikh describes a
society where a female child is “a burden—she will have to be
protected, she will not be able to carry on the family name, and she
will cost the family a great deal in the future, when a dowry will have
to be offered to secure her a husband.” The selective abortion of girls
is widespread enough to be changing population ratios. Some who are
brought to term are still abandoned, dropped off at “orphanages,” or
simply thrown into Dumpsters. Too often the unwanted children get led
down paths of begging and prostitution.
concentrates almost entirely on portraits for this series. The
compositions are simple. Faces fall dead center in the frame and the
backgrounds fade into haze behind them. The lack of distractions allows
total concentration on each unique individual. These aren’t tragic
symbols, just ordinary children. One unforgettable image is of a girl
named Soni wearing a simple polka-dot frock. Her hair looks like wild
growth and her skin is dusty but her steady gaze is a challenge. She
survives by selling roses with her sister. Nearby another image shows a
gruesome scar on Soni’s shin—she was hit by a car that just sped on. An
image like this cries out for justice while inspiring respect for the
girl, not pity.
As in Moksha, some of the
girls are turned completely away from the camera. This allows those
like 16-year-old Poli (some of the names were changed) to tell their
stories without stigma. She was kidnapped by a friend of the family and
sold to an old man. Poli managed to escape and return to her family.
The portrait of 14-year-old Sonali shows only her folded hands at rest
upon her knees. Her family rejected her after a brutal rape. She lives
in a shelter now.
Fazal Sheikh worked with
many activist organizations to bring these heartbreaking stories to
light. He hopes to advance their common cause, overcoming the
persistent attitudes that cause suffering for so many women. The images
are part of a poster campaign in India and complete online versions of
the two series are made available at www.fazalsheikh.org.
Daughters: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh continues through March 30.
SUArt Galleries, located in the Shaffer Art Building, are open Tuesdays
through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Thursdays until 8 p.m. For more
information, visit www.suart.syr.edu or call 443-4097. ❏