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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review The Moon Is Behind Us By Fazal Sheikh & Terry Tempest Williams Reviewed by Brian Arnold "Early in the pandemic I connected with two photographers in the UK. One was an eager young critic and artist, energized to make an important contribution to discussions on contemporary photography. The other more patient, a middle-aged man who formerly worked as a photographer for the United Nations in Cambodia, now trying to forge a new career as an academic and a publisher..."

The Moon Is Behind Us. By Fazal Sheikh 
& Terry Tempest Williams.
The Moon Is Behind Us
By Fazal Sheikh & Terry Tempest Williams

Steidl, Gottingen, Germany, 2021. 192 pp., 45 illustrations, 5½x7¾".

"The world rarely makes sense. This letter may not make sense to you, but I am following where your images lead me, Fazal. I trust you as the people you photograph trust you. It’s all about the relationship. In this way, there is always the surprise, not knowing where we are going, but the pleasure of trusting where we will be taken — even if the journey is internal." 

—Terry Tempest Williams

Early in the pandemic I connected with two photographers in the UK. One was an eager young critic and artist, energized to make an important contribution to discussions on contemporary photography. The other more patient, a middle-aged man who formerly worked as a photographer for the United Nations in Cambodia, now trying to forge a new career as an academic and a publisher. I’ve never met these two people, at least in person, but over the last 18 months we developed important personal and professional connections that have become essential for helping me shape each day. I know so many of us share in these kinds of connections in such unprecedented and unnerving times, and while these relationships are essential, few of them have the poetic depth and resonance shared in the pandemic connection and correspondence between Fazal Sheikh and Terry Tempest Williams, now collected in a new book published by Steidl, The Moon is Behind Us.

A student of Emmet Gowin, both a Fulbright and a Guggenheim Fellow, and a MacArthur recipient, Fazal Sheikh has repeatedly developed photographic projects and narratives that reveal profound bravery and compassion, in places and circumstances as complex as they are desperate, like those he found in Afghanistan, India, Somalia, and Cuba. Terry Tempest Williams is a writer and environmental conservationist who has devoted her career to understanding the history, geology, people, and crises that have shaped the American West. An incredibly prolific writer, she’s worked with an array of interesting photographers — such as Robert Adams, David Benjamin Sherry, Dorothy Kerper Monnelly, Emmet Gowin, and John Telford. Terry is based in Utah, and Fazal in Zurich, but the two were in the early stages of a collaborative project with the leaders of the Diné Bikéyah, a Native American tribe based out of Bluff, Utah, when the pandemic struck. Locked in their respective homes, the two nevertheless found a way to develop a collaboration — communicating as friends, confidantes, and artists.

Their pandemic correspondence started like it did with so many of us, as a way to divert the isolation and crippling anxiety. Fazal sent Terry a collection of prints made over the last 30 years of his career, highlighting his seminal projects like The Victor Weeps, Ramadan Moon, Moksha, A Camel for the Son, and A Sense of Common Ground. In response to this gift, Terry developed a daily meditation, a writing project in which she wrote 30 letters to Fazal over 30 consecutive days, each one a response to one of the photographs he shared with her. The Moon is Behind Us presents the correspondence, their pictures and letters printed side by side.

The end result mixes the melancholy and fear we all felt during the early days of the pandemic, but also becomes a much larger and deeply personal meditation on the purpose of art, the value of friendship, and how we all try to cope with and respond to the injustices of the world. Each of Terry’s letters are structured similarly, starting with a free association with an individual picture as she tries to find its meaning and connection to her own life. She uses these associations to grabble with family history and personal traumas, the remarkable political turmoil that was burning across the United States at the time of their correspondence, and to reflect on the ongoing humanitarian and environmental crises that afflict our world. After her initial response to the picture, Terry often reads Fazal’s notes handwritten on the back of the print and uses this information to connect with the original context and intent of the photograph. For the reader her approach to the pictures is quite insightful, providing a unique opportunity to witness a profound, creative mind trying to make meaning from such original and richly visualized photographs.

While engaging Fazal’s pictures, Terry often asks challenging questions of art, humanity, and how we can best make meaning from our suffering. She appears desperate to understand the sort of solace we find in art while dealing with such profound, relentless suffering and injustice:

"I have some questions. Did you feel discomfort in photographing them, Fazal? Did you think twice or three times or four? Did I feel discomfort in writing about my mother, my grandmother, my two brothers’ heartbreaking deaths? Or is all our artmaking, no matter the focus, the artist’s mirroring of the self — our fears, our projections, our hypnotic walk toward beauty to transform our anger into sacred rage — as a way to survive our grief?"

At times Terry seems to be asking, pleading really, for Fazal to tell her why we have to endure so much suffering and grief in a lifetime. She does humbly acknowledge that these kinds of questions have plagued humanity since time eternal, but also recognizes that sometimes such beautiful pictures of our pain can calm our troubled hearts. The shared emotional urgency of her writing combined with the remarkable beauty of Fazal’s photographs results in some lovely, poetic observations. And shaping these questions in an intimate format, in letters sent personally addressed to Fazal (in the introduction, we learn that originally Terry was hesitant with his interest in publishing their correspondence), brings an essential timbre for understanding this book, as her questions about Fazal’s pictures and the nature of art are presented with a genuine vulnerability, one that can only be shared with family and close friends. As a reader, this makes the book feel like a gift. I decided to read The Moon Is Behind Us just like it was written, one entry a day, as an attempt to share the experience the creators had. Doing so reminded me of some values I understand as essential as an artist — that the best art comes from urgency and compassion, derived from a daily engagement with and a deep curiosity for life.

In critical and historical discussions about photobooks, Fazal Sheikh feels greatly under-acknowledged. His first book, A Sense of Common Ground (published by Scalo in 1996, when he was just 31), demonstrated incredible photographic maturity. Since then, he has released over a dozen books, ranging from dense, richly illustrated monographs like Moksha or Erasure, to more simply conceived artist books like A Camel for the Son or Ramadan Moon. Most recently he has developed two collaborative books with writers as important and different as Teju Cole and Terry Tempest Williams. His books are always made with the highest commitment to design and production, and show tremendous insight, poetry, and dedication.

The Moon is Behind Us is as much a delight to hold as it is to read — a small format, hardcover book and made with a high-quality coated paper, Sheikh’s pictures are small on the pages, but with the quality characteristic of Steidl publications. Most of the page spreads are given to Williams whose simple, engaging prose is easy to hold close to the heart, as unabashedly she explains her life in the pandemic and Trump era through the photographs given to her. For those familiar with Sheikh’s work the photographs are a self-curated retrospective, but rest assured Williams will present his works as though new to you, seeing things you didn’t know could be found in his pictures.

I hope if/when normalcy returns, Fazal Sheikh and Terry Tempest Williams will be able to complete their collaboration with the Diné Bikéyah, because with this intimate background and exchange, the result will surely be transformative. Williams suggests something important about all this when she quotes writer Zadie Smith, “Time is how you spend your love.”

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer and writer based in Ithaca, NY, where he works as an Indonesian language translator for the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University. He has published two books on photography, Alternate Processes in Photography: Technique, History, and Creative Potential (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Identity Crisis: Reflections on Public and Private and Life in Contemporary Javanese Photography (Afterhours Books/Johnson Museum of Art, 2017). Brian has two more books due for release in 2021, A History of Photography in Indonesia: Essays on Photography from the Colonial Era to the Digital Age (Afterhours Books) and From Out of Darkness (Catfish Books).