Nothing succeeds like success, it would seem. Less than a year ago Vanessa Winship’s photographs of schoolgirls in rural Turkey existed merely as unprocessed sheets of film. Now, only months later, they have earned two major awards (World Press and Sony), a publishing deal (Sweet Nothings is published this month), and inclusion in this year’s Les Rencontres d’Arles Festival, curated by Christian Lacroix. “In a strange way the pictures are out in the real world before I’ve had a chance to digest them,” she comments.


©Vanessa Winship

Tunceli – Eastern Anatolia  ©Vanessa Winship


Winship had travelled to Turkey to work on a major project about the Black Sea; but, having completed the commission, she found in the eastern borderlands the subjects of her latest pictures – the rural, usually Kurdish, girls who were being encouraged to attend school for the first time in the region’s history.

Turkey is a massively complex place but the area of Anatolia, the east and the south-east, is essentially the most “left behind” and the most economically deprived region. There are many reasons for that, the most obvious being the conflict between the Kurds and the Turkish state. Looking at that area, especially looking historically, there’s a whole range of ethnic peoples: Armenian, Arabic, Georgian and Kurdish. Now, although it’s predominantly Kurdish, I would be very reluctant to say that all of the children in these images are Kurds; but the majority of them probably are. Of course there are ethnically Turkish girls, and as it’s also a region with a huge Turkish military presence, some of the little girls may be daughters of the administration. But essentially most of them are rural Kurdish girls.”


©Vanessa Winship

Tunceli – Eastern Anatolia  ©Vanessa Winship


“In Turkey, rural girls haven’t gone to school – partly due to the persistence of traditional values, and partly due to a mistrust of the state. But there have been several recent campaigns – by the Turkish state itself, UNICEF, and by one of the big media groups – to get girls into school. It’s an issue that’s ongoing and being addressed.”

Winship’s usual work, the Black Sea project included, might best be described as adhering to the conventions of traditional reportage photography, in which the apparently unobserved capture of transitory, yet loaded, moments serves to guarantee the immediacy and authenticity of the results. But the schoolgirl photographs mark a significant departure for her.

“Essentially I’ve worked for many years using 35mm in a reportage – or street – style, for want of a better description. That is, or it can be, actually very passive in many ways – I’m very good at being invisible, for example. I think when we make an image in this reportage way, it’s almost as if to suggest that the photographer is not there. And I – on a personal level – I can’t do that any more, because I think that in everything we do, we take our baggage with us. It’s one of the strange mistakes of photojournalism, in a way, that it pretends to be objective – it pretends that you’re not there; but of course you are. At many events you are the least important figure in the event unfolding, and in that way you are simply recording. But I think that we affect everything we do: we edit, we censor, we include one thing and not another.”

“The new work, though, is shot on 5×4 specifically because of what it means to work with that type of camera. In a sense I wanted to work in a very different and much more direct way – in a way that takes responsibility for myself and for the viewer. When you make a portrait in the way that these are made, you are literally face to face with the subject – which is a departure from how I’ve worked in the past. It had become absolutely necessary for me to work in a different way; and I have to say that working like this – although it’s more cumbersome – has been completely liberating for me.”



Dogubeyezit – Iran / Azerbaijan border  ©Vanessa Winship

“And what it also means is that everything has to be very slow and very deliberate so that the whole act almost has a little piece of theatre to it. I wanted to make an occasion of making these pictures. So the camera was set up on a tripod and it was a matter of each group of girls, or each girl, coming up and walking into the space. I just made one frame of each of the groups (unless I thought they’d blinked or there was a particular girl I wanted for another frame). It’s literally one frame per group.”

As a working procedure Winship’s approach has resulted in a degree of consistency, uniformity and formality that – certainly at a stylistic level – bears comparison with typological and archival projects. Comparisons with the work of August Sander, for example, seem unavoidable. But she is at pains to deny any aspirations to objectivity in the work, and to declare her own emotional investment in the pictures.



Kars – Armenian border   ©Vanessa Winship

“Yes – they take from Sander, yes – they take from Disfarmer, and yes – they take from Diane Arbus. But they are not remotely objective. They are completely emotionally loaded. Yes, in some ways formally they have a Sander quality; but I think that they are really not that. The way the girls are holding themselves; the way they are holding their hands, their expressions – they became something else. They really took on a life of their own and had an impact on me.”

“For me it was about them, and giving them a face. It was very much their moment.”



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