Sabiha Çimen’s first solo show opens at iconic art house

The Kunsthal Rotterdam is showing Hafiz until May 7.

A plane flies low over students riding a train at a funfair over the weekend.

Sabiha Çimen’s acclaimed photography series, Hafiz, winner of the First PhotoBook at the Paris Photo-Aperture PhotoBook Awards, has now been turned into an exhibition.

This first ever solo show for Çimen opened on January 14 at the Kunsthal Rotterdam, an iconic building designed by Rem Koolhaas. It runs until May 7.

Sabiha Çimen's 'Hafiz' at Kunsthal Rotterdam. Installation pictures by Marco De Swart.

"The project gave me a chance to see myself as I was then."


“This story is a rarely seen glimpse into this world, normally hidden and forbidden to most others,” says Çimen, explaining the motivations behind work. “I wanted to portray the lives of these young girls during their intensive years of Qur’an education.”

It is also a personal story, as Çimen and her twin sister attended a similar Qur’an school more than 20 years ago. When she later became a photographer, Çimen says she felt compelled to return.

“My project is about these young women, about me and my twin, the memory of the Qur’an, and an investigation and portrayal of the hidden power within them acting out with small forms of resistance to find their individuality. A kind of an autobiography to me.”

Students skip in the yard of a Qur’an school. Istanbul, Turkey, 2019.

The self-taught photographer largely focuses on Islamic culture, portraiture and still life, joining Magnum as a nominee in 2020, moving to associate membership last year. She has a degree in International Trade and Finance, and a masters in Cultural Studies, the thesis for which included a photo essay titled, ‘Turkey as a simulated country.’ The thesis was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2019, by which time Çimen was already two years into Hafız: Guardians of the Qu’ran, eventually spending five years on the project, traveling to five cities to produce nearly a hundred portraits shot on medium format film.

The work brought her to the attention of the international photography community. In 2018 she participated in the Joop Swart Masterclass run by World Press Photo, and two years later she won 2nd prize in the contest’s Stories category with the same work – albeit in more developed form. The same year – in 2020 – she was a W. Eugene Smith Fund recipient and was given a Canon Female Photojournalist Grant.

Eight-year-old Büsra’s first year as the youngest member of the Qur'an school. Istanbul, Turkey, 2018.

“Through their photographs I want to give women the chance to speak for themselves and avoid misconceptions and misinterpretations for these sections of society that are underrepresented — particularly so in Western media. I wanted to shed a bit of light and insight into the young girls’ hearts and minds, these girls who carry heavy responsibilities as guardians of the Qur’an.

“My project follows the daily lives of students at a number of these schools and shows not only their journey to become hafızes (‘memorizers’), but also how they simultaneously retain the dreams and adventurous nature of young women their age. It also explores their rule-breaking practices and the fun of school life when they are not studying. The project gave me a chance to see myself as I was then.”

Students playing with a color smoke bomb during a picnic event. Istanbul, Turkey, July 12, 2018. All images from Hafiz © Sabiha Çimen/Magnum Photos.

A number of signed, limited edition prints from Hafiz are available in the Magnum Shop, alongside two posters and some of the last remaining copies of the award-winning book. Visit the Shop for full details.

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