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Rene Women Interviews 0010: Sabiha Cimen

First, I wanted to say thank you for speaking to us. Your work is powerful and beautiful and we’re grateful that we can have time to learn more about your creative mind and process.

Stef Sheldon: You didn’t study photography. How did you come to it as a career?  

Sabiha Cimen: I studied International trade and finance at Istanbul Bilgi University, and a masters  at Cultural Studies program again at the same university. l had very hard time at  studying finance. Always interested with history of Art, Painting, Photography,  Poetry, Literature, its somehow sad and long story, l couldn’t study what l wanted  for some reasons. In 2016 l bought myself a second hand Hasselblad camera,  watched some videos how to use that camera -technically- how to load film etc,  that time period my husband helped me also, opened my mind with his experience  and knowledge. Technique is something that you can learn by practice, the rest  and the most important -for me- was to transform some emotions to the film. In  2017 l visited and started the photograph the Quran school in Istanbul that l  studied when was 11 years old with my twin sister which is always stayed with me  as an experience. It was so magical to see the results, including mistakes.  

While l was doing the project l had some images that l applied for some grants and  only after getting some awards and grants from internationally acclaimed facilities,  only then l started to think photography as a career. In 2020 l am nominated to  Magnum Photo agency’s Paris office. Now l am an associate photographer at  Magnum.  

SS: Your photos and assignments feel quite intimate. And they’re often in intimate  situations– a holiday dinner with family for a story about loss, for example.  How do you work with your subjects to capture such intimacy?  

SC: Empty and emotion is two key elements for me that l try to contain in my  photography. 

Yes l was assigned by New York Times magazine for an annual special Covid  publication, l went to Baltimore and met with twins that they were just lost their  mothers because of Covid, it was their first thanksgiving dinner without their  Mother. I felt like that twins were us, me and my twin sister. I remembered our first  days of mourning of loosing or mother. I was there for a limited time, but l do  remember l played with them in the garden for some hours. Everything is in  moderation- Somehow too much empathy can be not so helpful too. 

Also when l assigned to photograph Turkish Hamams/baths again for the New York  Times, l tried to capture what l remember from my time and experience in Hamam,  the manners, hamam culture etc. Oranges and tangerines smell mixed with heavy  steam hanging on the air.  

I like to add something from my own soul to my photography. I like to give people  some gesture, some specific object or let’s say some piece of information to read  me that way. l don’t do it on purpose, and l don’t plan that in advance, for me good  things comes with time and play. Sometimes I reveal some details from my life or 

belong to my subject. I always connect and clash the situations -consciously or  unconsciously- don’t know. 

My photography practice very personal and psychological. I choose my subjects  from my close circle, what l know best. For some people these places may seem  safer and risk-less but in fact it can be super hard and uninspiring to deal with. No  one can go in to another ones mind set. So in a way trough my photographs l  allow people to say something and open some secret doors to that only l have the  access. 

Quran schools also it was a place that l have already know, and studied 26 years  ago and l spend a lot of time with my subjects. They trust me implicitly. Still most  of them in my life. For me being one of them allowed me to get closer and create  an intimacy. My image making consist of formal portraits or spontaneous  snapshots.  

SS: Your work often gives voices to those who we don’t often get to hear from.  Why do you think that’s important? What impact do you believe it can have in  our world? 

SC: This project is brutally autobiographic, so personal. But at the same time super  sensitive and has a lot of layers of meanings. Through the girls photographs I want  to give them chance to speak for themselves and avoid misconceptions and  misinterpretations for these sections of society that are underrepresented. 

Even in Turkey l don’t think that Muslim woman represented in a respectful way. In  the TV series Muslim woman were rarely seen, only as a mother or grandmother  figures, like not existed at all. And last two years some productions started to have  veiled characters but unfortunately with a very poor sociological observations or  they do it on purpose. They are playing veiled woman like lunatic, crazy, or evil.  They never portrayed as the desired ones or one of the main respected -neutral 


Regarding to my project l got many emails, criticism especially came from Turkey,  of my being an orientalist, following with super unfortunate and weak arguments  which are not surprising for me- not sure how can l be the subject and the object  of the orientalism so for me it was like a proof that l was in a right way 

Also many people from variety of regions said the project changed their aspect in a  very positive way too.  

I wanted to explore female adolescence in a way the does not commodify the  female body. I especially wanted to show them as I would like to be depicted and  represented myself: in a nuanced way, not categorizing, not one dimensional, and  not static. I want to change the misconceptions and misinterpretations about these  social strata. For me, this project shows girls as they shape their own image and  appearance without male dominance or societal pressure.

SS: Your book, Hafiz, is beautiful. Could you tell us a bit about the process of  creating such a book? Did you know it would become a book when you  began the project? What surprised you about the work? What did it feel like  to get a copy of it in your hands finally? And what do you hope the girls from  the Quaranic schools will think about it? 

SC: l really liked the process of making images, creating a meaning- a narrative- that  had a certain impact on my life and a book. it was like making a vertical layered  cake, something so punchy, so tempting, and somehow a hard (process) as well.  That was hard to listen many voices within me, talking to me non stop, making a  book was a way to calm or silence that voices. From the beginning my aim was to  make a photo book. it’s a perfect, respectful way to finalize a project or close a  chapter in your mind and hearth. 

For the book I had very certain ideas on my mind -even l am not a designer wanted to collaborate with local humble Islamic artists specialized on hand made  religious books.  

 l wanted to work with local talents for my cover and end paper instead of working  with someone who doesn’t know anything about Islamic culture or religious books,  calligraphy, marbling paper ( ebru) etc… l always wanted to have a book looks like  religious book, like Quran cover, but l wanted to take the heaviness of that  religiousness and carry it to more contemporary form like open spine book and the  gate folds as a nice little surprises.  

Also it was so funny to received criticism emails from some extremists from my  country that l did a cover looks like religious book, for them it was my being  disrespectful; basically blamed that l was trying to change Quran. Quran didn’t  come by God with its adobe design, it’s all man made. Product of imagination and  taste… So l extended the idea and wanted to have the creative control on my first  book, the local artists ‘Put Sanat’ crew in Istanbul helped me to develop my ideas.  I sent the books to the girls and some school managers, some of them cried,  because they knew that it was my tribute to those woman who are sustaining the  tradition of prophet Mohammad after years by memorizing the holy Quran. I made  some copies of Turkish version of the book affordable price for the local people,  also only can found in FotoAnalogue in Karakoy. 

SS: What future projects sound interesting to you?  

SC: I just don’t like to talk something l haven’t emerged-developed yet. I was studying  in Edinburgh in 2010, and l still remember this; one of my friend once said me ‘ l  decided to be a Spanish teacher.’ l said oh really l didn’t know that you know  Spanish, he said ‘of course first l need to learn the language to teach’ that stayed  with me. 

SS: We share stories about what makes a home special or cozy for the women  we interview– could you tell us a bit about your home? What makes it  special? What is your favorite room and why?  

SC:I live in a flat 100+ more years old Greek building in Cihangir in European side of  Istanbul. I like the structure of the building, has a history and memory that who  ever enters home they say wow! I think this wow effect is not to the way l  decorated, its an instant emotion to the intrinsic & historical value they feel- l  believe-maybe the positive vibes of the peoples soul who lived here before us. 

l investigated and learned that an Armenian priest was living in my flat years years  ago, and he was exiled. For some reasons he was not allowed to go step out to  street. I always dream to find some of his notes or belongings under the old oak  wooden floors. I don’t like to get too attached to structures, objects, even peoples.  Because it hurts me after. But for this house already l have too much emotional  attachment, and l kind of not like this. 

Me and my husband renovated the flat it took our months to bring back the real  soul of the building. I really like the very high wooden ceilings of my place. The  floors were covered linoleum by the former tenants years and years, when we  peeled pout the plastic we fond under that it was an amazingly valuable long  pieces of deteriorated, orange color oak floor. Handy man did great job, sand it,  filled the damaged holes and polished, it was so good to gain it back. l discovered  also an amazing tile under the linoleum in the kitchen, we cleaned them with strong  materials. There was a fireplace filled with cement under the sink, that was so hard  to lose it, but we did our best to gain the true soul of the flat. I have nice whool  Anatolian carpets from grand bazaar (l can give the address) wood floors and  white walls. Simple and just enough. 

 An amazing location, small and so special flat l have. Makes me feel like l am  home! Some months of the year I can just stay home without going out for weeks,  just enjoy, read, write, cook and plan.  

I think the kitchen is really so close to my heart, small and uniq round walls, l made  the handy man scrap the wall and show the beautiful old uniq bricks. It looks like a  small church. I spend hours there.  

Also the small back little room feeling is so soft, so peaceful, and silent. Evert day  after 2 pm amazing light and shadow of blue light comes trough a round blue  plexus that we put there, my blue sun! 

I like almost all the rooms equally. I have also an amazing landlord that always  very supportive. l bet he has the biggest dog in Istanbul that l ever see.


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