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Review: Sweet Nothings, Rural Schoolgirls From the Borderlands of Eastern Anatolia by Vanessa Winship

CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.



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 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.

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“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.

See more of the photographs here.

Sweet Nothings


© 2008 Christopher James Stone


photo-medic on May 13, 2013:

Very interesting.

Christopher James Stone (author) from Whitstable, UK on May 27, 2012:

Thanks ytsenoh. The pictures are worth celebrating.

And thanks too Angela. Maybe I should do more photography reviews?

Angela Brummer from Lincoln, Nebraska on May 27, 2012:

Intriguing pictures and amazing description in the writing!

Cathy from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri on May 27, 2012:

Generous art, indeed. I loved the photographs and the language in this hub. Excellent story telling effect of the value of art in photography. Wonderfully approached and written. Thumbs up and sharing.

mikielikie from Texas on June 12, 2010:

I find your words and pictures captivating. The pictures have a sort of real life grit to them. WONDERFUL!!!

Christopher James Stone (author) from Whitstable, UK on September 08, 2008:

Thanks Cailin.

Cailin Gallagher from New England on September 08, 2008:

Beautifully written and meticulously analyzed. This piece touched me. Thank you for your work.

Christopher James Stone (author) from Whitstable, UK on September 07, 2008:

Glad you like them Amanda. That "Countries of the World" book sounds interesting too.

Amanda Severn from UK on September 07, 2008:

Very haunting images. I have a book called 'Countries of the World' written in 1935, and that has a similar feel to it. The faces are all so solemn and knowing, yet innocent at the same time. A very intriguing hub.

Christopher James Stone (author) from Whitstable, UK on September 06, 2008:

Hi Steve, you know me: I'll have a go at anything, and the style here is meant to reflect the tone of the pictures in some way. Btw, there a link to buy signed copies of the book, which I guarantee with be worth something in the years to come.

Christopher James Stone (author) from Whitstable, UK on September 06, 2008:

Hi Pam, hi marisue, sorry 've been away. Been busy trying to earn money as usual. Glad you like the photographs. I think they are very special, and while Ms Winship is already making a name for herself in the photography trade, I predict that soon more of us will know of her and her very distinctive and powerful work.

marisuewrites from USA on September 06, 2008:

<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.>

Very moving, Cj, very striking...and humbling...and touching; people all over the world...from all places...needing much the same. I never knew so much thought would go into placement and photography, pictures with striking messages...if we take the time to look and contemplate. Thank you for this great "reveal."

pgrundy on September 06, 2008:

Good to see you again CJ. I was impressed by the tone of the piece too--it did sound like something that would be in an academic journal. The photographs are beautiful. What strikes me is how much of each girl's personality comes through these shots, as opposed to posed period pieces of the 19th and early 20th century, in which the subjects often look a bit rigid and tight. Great writing, and thank you for drawing attention to the excellent artist/photographer.

Steve Andrews from Lisbon, Portugal on September 06, 2008:

It's still your style, Chris, but not your usual genre or area of writing. Style was the wrong choice of word. It's an excellent example of CJ Stone reviews writer!

Christopher James Stone (author) from Whitstable, UK on September 06, 2008:

Thank you hot dorkage. What does "hot dorkage" mean, btw?

Is it a change of style Steve? I don't know. I guess it's that it's a review, which maybe demands a certain style. Really it should have been published, but, in this case, I just wanted to promote this particular book and get it out there fairly quckley.

Steve Andrews from Lisbon, Portugal on September 06, 2008:

Well, I am not surprised because they are excellent photos and a very impressive achievement. I was just surprised to find a complete change of style for you!

hot dorkage from Oregon, USA on September 06, 2008:

Great writing CJ!

Christopher James Stone (author) from Whitstable, UK on September 06, 2008:

Steve, I think these photos deserve an audience, and Ness has had a very successful year this year, having won two major prizes and having had two books published. So this is kind of on line for becoming the first in a long line of commentary on what I suspect will become a very famous piece of work.

Steve Andrews from Lisbon, Portugal on September 06, 2008:

I didn't know you wrote stuff like this, Chris! It's very well done as all your work is but certainly a surprise for me! It was reminding me of the sort of stuff they look for in academic studies - analysing the mis-en-scene in films etc and takes me back further to high school where we were asked to comment on what the poet/playwright/author/painter was saying in their work. I sometimes used to just make it up and get good marks for it although I doubted what I had put down was what the artist really was trying to do! It's really interesting how anyone who becomes famous as an artist in any sphere automatically generates vast amounts of commentary and analysis of their work but at the same time if people are not famous hardly anyone expresses any opinion anyway!

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