Obscura Journal Contributor Danielle Ezzo recently interviewed Magnum photographer Sabiha Çimen about her newest work for the Obscura Magnum Commission, Transfiguration: The Double Life of Şeyma. They discuss the collision of contemporary culture and Muslim tradition in Turkey and one woman’s relationship with both.
DE: It’s such a pleasure to get to talk with you about this project. What is Transfiguration: The Double Life of Şeyma all about?
SC: It is about a girl that l met while photographing for my Hafiz project in a Quran school while she was studying. When Şeyma graduated from the Quran school she took her veil off. She covers herself only when she is near her family, and takes off her headscarf while she is with others. This project focuses on her dual life, and as a representative of others who have also taken off their headscarves.
DE: Tell me more about Şeyma. Why did you choose her specifically to follow? And what was the process of collaboration like?
SC: Although uneducated and illiterate during her studies, she had street smarts and a radical way about her. Her resistance was something l easily empathized with in a male dominated culture. For me, her courage and the layers in her personal journey are important to tell others. Exploring her life story makes me feel so lucky and unique somehow. l learned lots of things from her conflicted personality as she changed from a girl to woman. She was illiterate until 17, and has been trying to take control of her life by starting a secular education.
DE: What does the art of resistance mean to you and the subjects you document?
SC: Anthropologist James C. Scott provides a different perspective on hegemony and ‘invisible power’ that has been both influential and controversial in his book “Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts.” He believes these terms have an impact on social and political change. During American Slavery the Blues was a form of ‘Art of Resistance.’
Scott looks at less visible, every-day forms of resistance such as ‘foot-dragging, evasion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander and sabotage.’ Resistance is a subtle form of contesting ‘public transcripts’ by making use of prescribed roles and language to resist the abuse of power – including things like ‘rumor, gossip, disguises, linguistic tricks, metaphors, euphemisms, folktales, ritual gestures, anonymity.’
When Şeyma leaves her parents’ apartment she takes off her scarf and puts on colorful clothes to be somebody that she wants to be, without the power authority telling her how to look and act in public and what to wear. But when she comes back to her home she wears her veil back again. This is her ‘Art of Resistance’ by pretending to be someone that is not her true nature. So her resistance, though more than a century later, and within a totally different culture, has the same shape and sound as the Blues music as creative self- expression under conditions of repression. It’s Şeyma’s Blues.
DE: One theme that I pick up on in this work is the idea of ritual or tradition and the action of subverting it. For example, the young girls practicing karate, the blue wig worn by Şeyma on several occasions, these are actions that give agency over your subjects. What are some other moments that feel especially subversive for you?
SC: My goal is not to subvert the tradition and rituals but to celebrate it; along-side with modern life. They are not in conflict with each other. Leeches remove impurity in the blood and take out the toxins, so for me, this ancient ritual is a good metaphor for changing the circulation of blood globally, but in the traditional way, that’s the art of resistance for me. Taking out the impurity of male dominance from their blood that came as culture and tradition.
DE: Then there are images like number 51, Şeyma in the background and the legs of another woman wearing a short skirt in the foreground. This is the same friction I’m speaking of and is so emblematic of Istanbul as a city; contemporary culture right alongside tradition.
SC: Turkey is a 90 percentage Muslim country but at the same time Turkey is a secular country as well. So Şeyma’s rich character and her double life that she is living in reflects Turkey’s everyday life, and its dazzling spectrum of encounters.
DE: I see this work as both performative (Şeyma imagining her future and playing it out), and documentarian where you are being more of an observer to the world around you. Would you say that’s accurate and is that your preferred way of working?
SC: It is a collaboration between me and them. That’s my preferred way of looking, somehow abstract, somehow direct, but simply like life.
DE: Explain to me what’s happening in images 27. I’m assuming this is what you mentioned earlier about leeches and taking out the impurities?
SC: Ancient tradition Muslim people believes that leeches helps for blood circulation. Also prophet Mohammad’s recommendation leeches sucking the blood takes away all the impurity from the blood. The subject’s name is Mustafa, in his home he placed leeches on his face for his epilepsy and skin problems. Also, just to follow the prophet Muhamad’s tradition, especially on Thursdays because Muslims believe that Thursdays have incredible opportunities to have our sins forgiven. That night is an auspicious night to welcome the best day ever in Islam for Muslim people.
DE: You mention in your artist statement that this is narrative evolution from your previous project about young girls studying the Quran and how their lives transform after graduation. How has it been returning to themes that you’ve worked with for a long time?
SC: These themes are a part of a continual process that grows and changes with the lives of the girls. Besides, l am photographing their lives, l am their best friends, their sister, so it is inevitable to find themes and diverse layers. Also their stories are somehow my story, these are the themes and everyday situations that l am witnessing and growing with. I’m just trying to make it accessible for others. l wanted to open the doors of my world and its secret traditions, childhood memories, my fantasies, women in my life, some power dynamics, and my Istanbul, with a vast variety of images and possibilities.
DE: What was the most challenging aspect of making Transfiguration and what was your greatest success?
SC: In my previous project l spend time only with girls, but this time l wanted to include the male aspect. It was the most challenging part for me to try to understand and empathize with them.
The most successful part is finding these secret traditions and being allowed to photograph them. Somehow it's hidden for most of the others or it’s not allowed to photograph them.
To view the full collection of Sabiha Çimen’s Obscura Magnum Commission:
Sabiha Çimen Instagram:
Magnum Photos - Sabiha Çimen:
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