The big picture: Sabiha Çimen’s picnicking schoolgirls

The big picture: Sabiha Çimen’s picnicking schoolgirls
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The three teenagers in Sabiha Çimen’s photograph are students at one of the many girls’ religious boarding schools throughout Turkey. Çimen attended one, along with her twin sister. Now 34, she has spent the past few years documenting the lives of girls growing up just as they did, in a project titled Hafiz: Guardians of the Qur’an. Çimen sees the pictures as an “investigation and portrayal of the hidden power within [the girls] acting out with small forms of resistance to find their individuality – and as a kind of autobiography to me”.

Çimen divides her time these days between New York and Istanbul. Her work, which has won her numerous awards and recently seen her nominated for membership of the fabled Magnum agency, finds numerous ways to invest the young women, in their uniform black chadors, with visual surprise. The girls here are on a weekend picnic in a break from studies memorising passages of the Qur’an. Holding hands, running up the hillside, there seems to be a “climb every mountain” freedom to their afternoon. The low-flying plane promises departure, apparently billowing their headscarves in its slipstream, suggesting, Çimen hopes, not only the dutiful observance of the girls, “but also how they simultaneously retain the dreams and adventurous nature of young women their age”.

Women in hijab have long been a staple of documentary photography, sometimes as a shorthand for a sense of otherness – the black veil stubbornly antithetical to the camera’s language of light and shade. Çimen sees herself on a mission to add more layers to that depiction, casting light on her own memory of family and friends. “I especially wanted to show the girls as I would like to be depicted and represented myself: in a nuanced way, not categorising, not one-dimensional, and not static.”

A new fine print collection of Sabiha Çimen’s work is available via the Magnum shop, magnumphotos.com



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