Review: Sweet Nothings, Rural Schoolgirls From the Borderlands of Eastern Anatolia by Vanessa Winship
It opens with a photograph of two schoolgirls standing in a bare landscape. There’s an old stone wall in the background and a hint of fields and mountains in the distance. The girls are standing to attention, bolt upright, with their arms at their sides: almost, but not quite, holding hands. They appear to be leaning into each other slightly, psychically, if not physically, offering each other support.
One of the girls is taller, slightly ungainly looking, her hair scraped back; the other more petite and strikingly pretty. They are standing on a small slope, the taller one lower down so their heads are almost level. They both have on heavy boots caked in mud and thick woollen tights. It is obviously cold here. One of them has on a plain pullover, the other a patterned cardigan, and their dresses are a little ragged, a little worse for wear, with a discrete hint of darning perhaps. They are both obviously poor. The look on their faces is grave but candid. They are not old enough, yet, to have acquired any pretensions. They are who they are. If they suffer with their poverty it’s because they have always suffered, and they are not wise enough yet to call it suffering, nor learned enough to have begun considering it a grievance. It is the way of their lives, that is all. The way of all the lives around them.
The photograph is stark in its simplicity, in black and white, the light flat and pallid-looking. There is no hint of flattery in the lighting. It is natural light, the light of a plain grey sky, dull and overcast. The two girls stand out in the foreground and make an odd couple. The taller one is more neatly dressed, the smaller one more haphazardly, with the sleeves of her cardigan left dangling over her hands. The taller one has her hair pulled back, while the smaller one’s hair dances out of its constraints in a flyaway manner. Flyaway hair. You wonder what their story is, what has brought these two girls together. Do they dream? Do they chatter? Do they giggle together like little girls the world over? If so, there is no hint of it here. No hint of childhood even. It is as if they are stranded in that unforgiving landscape, drawing close to each other across the wind-blown distances for warmth, for comfort.
They are just here, that’s all, in this place of borders, on the threshold of becoming. What do their faces tell us? Are they sisters? Are they friends? It’s not clear, even, when these photographs were taken. There is an archaic quality about them, as if the camera is a time machine and we’re looking through the lens to another time, another era, maybe a century ago.
The photograph is beautiful in its simplicity. It does not flatter. It does not condemn. It does not make judgements. It simply presents the girls for who they are: two little girls standing gravely in a landscape, in that liminal time before the onset of adolescence. Are they looking forward towards their future, perhaps, wondering what might await them out there? No. They are looking into a camera’s lens, with no idea of what lies on the other side.
The first photograph sets the tone for all the rest.
The framing is the same, virtually in every case. Just small variations in detail: one, two, occasionally three girls standing at exactly the same distance from the camera, all head-on, mostly looking straight at the viewer. The background varies slightly. Sometimes it is the wild mockery of distance, as it is behind the first two girls: an impenetrable distance, cold and impassive. Sometimes it is the blank wall of a school hall, shaded in two colours. Sometimes, again, a school yard, or a school room with pictures, or with a blackboard, with numbers strung out on a string like washing on a line. A few times there are houses in the background, vague and out-of-focus, and once, a garden with a hint of terraces and trees. But the background doesn’t matter. What matters are the subjects, the little girls in their neat dresses, with their lace collars, with the filigree of embroidery on the bodice, with bells and bows and hearts and flowers and the swirls of leaves and stems.
Occasionally there’s a few words in English stitched into the material. “Love Letters” one of them says. “Flowers of Love” says another. What does this mean? What are these messages picked out in a language the children themselves can hardly understand? These are the “sweet nothings” of the title: token phrases in a foreign language of a childhood that hardly exists. A childhood that is foreign to these girls.
And now you begin to see them, these children of the borders, momentarily caught in the camera’s gaze, as they step forward into the theatre of light and time, and declare themselves. There is nothing confrontational in their look. They do not speak of politics or great things. Only small things. Of friendship. Of relationship. Of whispered words and secret thoughts in the quiet intimacy of trust. Of the primacy of character over circumstance. Because what you see are faces. Faces that reveal, that do not hide, the soul. Faces as fluid as dreams. Faces that tell of all the hope of being young, not yet hardened into masks, not yet burdened by the possibility of defeat.
The photographs are all in black and white. Traditionally black and white photography is considered more “real”, more truthful than colour photography. But this is silly, says Winship, because the real world is in colour, not black and white, and her use of the medium is intended to denote the opposite, that this is a construct, and not reality. It is art.
Not that the girls aren’t real. They are very real.
As she says: “The images are in fact very much posed images, they are the most formal kind of images I’ve ever made, in that I put them into the space I had created for them if you like. What happens in the space constructed for them is the thing I don’t control, who and what they are I don’t control. In a way what is the key to these images is the formality of the photographic process and even the formality of their postures, juxtaposed with their tiny details of their expression, their escaping of this formality with their hands, the little leans, their lack of a sense of image.”
So the images are representations, works of art. But it is a generous art. It is an art that allows its subject its primacy of place. Winship has not posed these girls, but left them to pose themselves. She has not flattered them with lighting, nor demanded they conform to a preset notion of what it is to confront poverty or oppression in these, the “emergency” areas of South Eastern Turkey. She has not imposed any politics upon them. Rather, the girls are free to do as they choose, to step forward into the lens’ eye, to meet history, as it were, to make their mark on time.
And there is no small amount of theatre in the act, because this is no small camera she is using. It is a large format camera, the image appearing upside down on a ground glass plate in the back of the camera and captured on a single sheet of 5 x 4 inch film. One of the reasons these photographs look archaic is that the means of taking them is archaic. It is a process and a form which goes back to the nineteenth century. The camera is perched upon a tripod, the operator shrouded in a black cloak for focussing. But, she says: “The image is not actually made with a cloth over your head, that’s just used to focus and compose. Again this is very important from my point of view....my face is always present at the moment of making the image, not hidden behind a cloth.”
This is not discrete photography. There is nothing subtle in the process. In fact, it is an art form which would certainly have been familiar to the girls’ parents, as itinerant cameramen were still plying their trade in regions such as these right up until the seventies at least, families dressing up in their best clothes to stand formally before the camera’s eye, their images captured and processed and framed as pictures on the mantelpiece.
“The archaic aspect is the time element, the formality, the fact that I’m using slow film and therefore slow shutter speeds, the fact it’s single plates, the fact the camera’s mounted on a tripod,” continues Winship, explaining the process. “But I suppose what really makes these images really archaic, perhaps timeless is a better word, is their faces.....”
The process is as follows: she lays out a knotted string to give the length and draws a line. It is on the line that the subject stands, “putting themselves on the line” of a recorded moment. As she says: “The use of the string to measure the distance of my subject is about democratising the space. Each and every girl appears at the same distance within the image, each therefore is given equal importance.”
But it’s more than democracy: it is theatre. The line also delineates the sacred space, the arena, behind which the “moment” takes place, like the line of the stage behind which the action occurs and which marks the difference between actor and audience. And here, in this place, perhaps – this liminal space between being and becoming - the girls are free. Free to be who they want to be. Free to be themselves. Free to act, to act themselves, to act in the imagination, to imagine all kinds of possibilities where the rest of us see only the limitations of self.
And now we see them, this procession of faces, these girls from another world, another time, and we recognise the gallery of selves assembled there, laid out in succession, like a row of portraits in a hall. These girls - quizzical, ceremonious, curious, self-conscious, passive, sly, clever, amused, bold, defiant, neat, funny, surprised, sweet, confused, sisters, friends, cousins, precocious, linking arms, standing straight, alone or together, formal, informal, smiling, not smiling, excited, withdrawn, relaxed, uptight, looking at the camera or momentarily away, measured, immeasurable, warm, inseparable, giggling behind an upraised hand - all utterly and unmistakably themselves.
And though the politics of this region is one of poverty, war and exclusion, one is left with a surprising sense of optimism, of hope. Because what you see here is the primacy of the human character, something that cannot, ultimately, be broken.
Vanessa Winship wins 2008 Sony Award
- Vanessa Winship Wins Sony Photographer of the Year - PhotographyBLOG
PhotographyBLOG brings you the latest and greatest photography news, both film and digital, both global and UK-based.
Vanessa Winship is a photographer with the Vu Agency.
See more of the photographs here.
© 2008 Christopher James Stone