A photo of a Somali refugee camp at Liboi, Kenya, in 1992.
A view of a Somali refugee camp at Liboi, Kenya, in 1992. Fazal Sheikh/Human Archipelago/Steidl

A book on global migrants and refugees by novelist Teju Cole and photographer Fazal Sheikh explores the agency and humanity of the displaced and dispossessed.

Moving—to escape existential harm, to preserve family, to find a better life, to follow opportunity, or just satiate curiosity—is a quintessentially human act. Migration unites us with our ancestors, and connects us to each other. It’s a theme that novelist/critic Teju Cole and photographer Fazal Sheikh return to often in their individual work.

Now, the two have come together to portray the lives of displaced and dispossessed people and refugees as they navigate marginal spaces in a book project called Human Archipelago.

Cole, a photography critic at the New York Times (and a photographer himself), has long grappled with the pull and push geography exerts on a person’s identity; his two novels, Open City and Every Day Is For The Thief, are most vivid, at least in my mind, in how they explore the relationship people have with the places they’re in—or the ones they have left behind. Sheikh is a photographer and MacArthur “genius grant” winner best known for documenting the lives of marginalized and displaced communities around the world. His work in Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Brazil, Cuba, India, and Israel/Palestine over two decades has yielded several celebrated photo books.

The two started corresponding after Cole listed Sheikh’s The Erasure Trilogy, which chronicled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as one of the best photo books of 2015—“a challenging and meticulous work of witness about a serious historical wrong.”

At the end of 2016, it was becoming increasingly clear that the political dividends of weaponizing migration were paying off: From the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. to Brexit in the U.K., the chorus of global leaders vilifying migrants, refugees, and immigrants to achieve their ends has become louder. Cole and Sheikh sought refuge themselves—in conversations and collaborations with like-minded activists and artists. This project was born out of that sentiment.

Human Archipelago combines Sheikh’s images—of personal objects, mothers and their children staring resolutely at the camera—with Cole’s free-associative text, drawn from an array of philosophical, literary, and media sources. The two elements work in tandem to convey a sensation of shifting geographies, and the resilience of people who traverse them, by compulsion or choice. The artists ask the reader/viewer to interrogate their own place in a world where the right to move freely is enjoyed by only a relative few. The book opens with a series of pointed questions:

Who is a stranger?

Who is kin?

What do we owe each other?

What, in the inferno, is not infernal?

CityLab recently caught up with Cole and Sheikh for a conversation about their work. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Fazal, you have called portraiture “an act of mutual engagement.” Could both of you talk about its importance as a technique to document the lives and experiences of migrants, refugees, the homeless, and other vulnerable communities?

Cole: I happen to know that Fazal’s current project has to do with the despoliation of the land and dispossession of Native American people in the Southwestern U.S. Fazal has been making these trips [to southern Utah] for months now. I was astonished when he told me that he has not yet taken a single portrait and I said, “Are you kidding? What are you waiting for? What’s your problem, dude?”

But that little anecdote tells you everything you need to know about his practice, which is that he’s not just going anywhere and grabbing anything. Everything comes out of a relational attitude. That, for me, is where the power of this work comes from: He is seeing these people and at the same time, they’re seeing him. And through that exchange, we, the viewer, participate in that seeing. He’s not just looking at these people; he’s seeing them.

Sheikh: It’s a mode that is in sync with my personality. It seems to me the most effective stance is to strip oneself back and allow a kind of space within which a subject of a photograph can confront me as a photographer, and you as a viewer. It’s a very simple approach, which is interested in the idea of openness and empowerment.

In this volume, there are some moments in which the resonance of a gaze is enough to to transport the viewer to another space, or to rethink maybe what the lives of these people may be. And then you’ll move through a sweep of the book where it’s Teju’s thoughts or ruminations, let’s say, about Black Lives Matter. I think those passages also are kinds of portraits or gestures to people that he’s thinking about. I hope that there is this handing off from one of us to the other in our gestures to those individuals, and to those communities. I also hope it’s transporting the reader/viewer into a space that is more contemplative.

Shamso, Zahara, and Alima, Somali refugee camp, Liboi Kenya, 1994. (Fazal Sheikh/Human Archipelago/Steidl)

Talk about the individuals you have photographed or referenced in the book.

Cole: In this book, there are parts that get philosophical but it’s also sort of wide ranging in the ways in which it’s very specific—about very specific people. I touch on everyone from Martin Luther King, to a series of African American people who are not allowed to function in public space, to Ahed Tamimi, a young Palestinian woman who’s been imprisoned for insisting on her freedom.

Sheikh: I think we understand these issues more profoundly when they’re brought to us through the specificity of one person’s gaze or one person's testimony—not a generalized sense of exile, but … one person who has a voice, a history, a testimony, a dream.

Cole: If we talk about migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, for example, it’s one thing to say, “Oh, hundreds of people have died in the desert.” But if I write a letter to Claudia, who’s from Guatemala, and I imagine the pain of the people who loved Claudia, and the testimony of the [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agent who shot her in the head? That’s a real person.

Do you have a favorite excerpt or anecdote?

Sheikh: The ones I force Teju to read, or I read aloud for him, is the one about Lassana Bathily, [a Malian immigrant] in Paris [who saved people from a gunman in 2015]. It’s a very beautiful and fraught. These are specific stories that are brought to us through the media. We sort of attend to them very briefly and then they’re gone. And then Teju completely upends all of that by recalling those stories and then insisting on a kind of generosity that wasn’t really genuinely offered before.

Cole:  Obviously, the [book’s subject] has a huge tremendous sort of uncontainable scope. One thing we know for sure is that with climate change and political pressure, there’s going to be a lot of migration. There’s a lot now, and there’s going to be a lot more. But [tackling that] with something restorative and tender—something small, but precise—was very much our priority. This book is not going to solve anything; what it might do is create a little bit of space.

The meditative aspect of the book is also important. When we’re facing such astonishing things, as we are right now, a lot of the response can be noisy. We are shell-shocked right now, and yet our most deeply human self wants to be contemplative and sit with something quieter.

Migration is often seen as something to be feared or pitied. But  migration is also an act of agency and an expression of resilience. How do you highlight that in the book?

Sheikh: Early on, it was essential for me to somehow counterbalance the way in which I was seeing those communities represented in the media. I was trying to broaden the vocabulary when we think about refugee communities or the pain of exile. And I also wanted to represent those communities beyond the exile itself.

I’m working now with the Native American communities in the American Southwest that have endured environmental racism of the most extreme proportions for generations. They sent their youngest to fight in America’s wars and those that didn’t travel abroad were convinced to go into the uranium mines under conditions that were completely hazardous to their lives. They’ve endured that with a real dignity and resilience that I find just extraordinary. I think the pictures are about that. I think the text is about that.

Cole: For me, it comes down to thinking about how we’re equal to them. Or rather, they’re equal to us, but we refuse to see it. But once you start asking the right question, radical things start to happen.

If I look at my own life: In June, I’m going to go to Germany briefly. I have friends in Berlin; I can spend money; I have my documents. After, I’ll come back to the U.S., and in August, I’ll probably go to Nigeria and do some work there. I’ll see family members. I’ll come back to the U.S. and teach here. I’ll do my work. I’ll give a couple of talks, for which I’ll be paid. This is my life. As far as movement goes, I’m pretty satisfied with it.

What would it look like if everybody had this sort of access? Why should I have that access because I have a U.S. passport? Because I have status in society? I think everybody should be able to go where they want to go. I come back to this country not only because I have some kind of some sense of loyalty in my head, but it’s because I can make a decent living here. I can live in a safe environment. My labor is appreciated and respected. People I love live here in more-or-less a situation of safety. And if those things were not the case, then I would be looking to get out of here.

Sheikh: It’s incredibly difficult for us to remain cognizant of the fact that we have that privilege to move, to leave, when something becomes uncomfortable—and to imagine what it must be for somebody who doesn’t have that kind of opportunity or that agency.

Cole: In my mind, there’s nothing controversial about somebody saying, “The situation here is untenable,” for any reason whatsoever. It could be violence, economic, psychological. It could be about sexuality. It could be about creativity. It doesn’t matter to me. You know, white people get up all the time to say, “I need to be inspired in my painting, I’m going to move to Italy. I want to leave London and go to Spain. I’m going to go to India to be inspired for my music. Oh, I’m going to go to Mexico to go do some photography, because I find Minnesota boring.” OK, fine. But every one of us 7 billion should have those rights as well. These borders are all artificial.

Anu, Jai Hind squatter settlement, Delhi, India, 2008. (Fazal Sheikh/Human Archipelago/Steidl)

Flipping through the book—through some of the aerial photos and text—gave me a visceral sense of movement. It was almost like glimpses of someone’s journey.

Cole: One of the essential aspect of Fazal’s work has always been to move from the microcosm of the macrocosm.

He has had projects that move from portraiture, to what you might call house-level streetscape—photographs of structures, of people's houses, of the streets, of the trees, or whatever—and then photographs from the air of the landscape. There is this versatility in the way he has built these visual arguments over the years. There’s the face. And then, there’s the house. And then, there’s the land—the land writ large.

As artists—and yes, in a way, activists—we’re always looking for ways to help people feel what we’re working on in all registers.

Sheikh: There’s something about the cumulative nature of moving through the book as a kind of journey or passage, wherein you experience an image, you experience a text, and you somehow hold that within you, and then you move forward and confront a new image and text.  

I loved the opportunity to allow a kind of emotional subtext of the image to be transported to some other level by Teju’s text. There’s a kind of generosity in letting two people think through a kind of a puzzle together: How do the writing and photos complement each other? How do we create something that is in a new form—that is not restrained by the way in which we would function as single of artists writers?

Cole: There is the primary gesture of intertextuality, which is that of words and images talking to each other. But there were two further forms of intertextuality that I don’t want to leave out. His index of the images is one of the most important parts of the books because it gives you the story of why a particular image is next to a particular text. So that’s number one. Second, my own text, as you’d notice, was also full of quotations. I’ve put in many, many things that are chunks of other people’s writings and each one of those sources is acknowledged in my index.

Sheikh: It opens up another level of epiphany or surprise.

Cole: It becomes a kind of a choir. It’s this sort of density … you can pick up the book again and find something else again inside it.

Bhajan Ashram at dawn, Vrindavan, India, 2005. (Fazal Sheikh/Human Archipelago/Steidl)

What are your thoughts on this argument proponents of limiting migration often bring up—that we need to be “drawing the line”? It’s a interesting metaphor because it is often not really a metaphor. There are literal lines being draw around—in cities and nations. And if not literal, then legal or militaristic.

Cole: If we’re in a prison camp and there was a limited amount of food and that wasn’t enough to buy everybody something to eat: If in that situation, we shared what we had, we would all be a little bit underfed. But it would still be the right thing to do—to share it. That’s not the situation right now. Right now, the situation is that there’s enough to go around in the world; some of us are hoarding, and because of this vast numbers of the world’s population are suffering.

When people concede that their nightmare is like, “Oh, but if we open the door, tomorrow we’re going to have 25 million Mexicans in San Diego,” or whatever—get over yourselves. They like their country. People want to be in their own homes. Make it possible for them to be in their homes. They’re not all trying to move to Toronto, Canada, or to Cambridge, Massachusetts. They just want to be where their home is, where they’re comfortable with the culture,  where their people are—more often than not.

As diaspora artists—photographers and writers—how do you navigate your own position in the West when you create works like these?

Cole: My work is not in the position of explaining “the other” to the presumed center. It’s actually about testifying from a very subject place—subjective and subject—and knowing that that testimony will be recognized by people who share my subject status, and who share my subjective position as well.

Sheikh: Much of my earlier work was about the legacy left to me by my father’s family. Teju’s Every Day Is For The Thief deals with the return home. [At the same time,] I think so much of Teju’s writing clearly transcends his history, even as it is filtered through his history. I feel that myself. I sort of feel like we have the right to speak beyond the supposed platform that may or not be put there for us.

Cole: I may speak out of being a black American who was raised in Africa, but that cannot be the limitation of my speech. The U.S.-Mexico border is my business. I am here—what the United States is doing in the Middle East is my business.

How is that my business? Well, because I’m a human being who’s observing, who is present for these things, and present in some of these places. There’s a duty to testify to what one sees in those places. So it’s not that differences [between us] somehow then cease to exist, but that differences can never really tell the whole story. There’s something beneath all that that is truly held in common.

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