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Sabiha Çimen Wins First PhotoBook Award

Hafiz, the Magnum photographer's glimpse into the world of Qur’an school in her native Turkey, scoops the $10,000 prize at this year's Paris Photo.

All images from the series, 'Hafiz: Guardians of the Qur'an' © Sabiha Çimen/Magnum Photos

Hafiz, Sabiha Çimen’s stunning debut photobook published by Red Hook Editions, has been named the winner of the First PhotoBook at the Paris Photo-Aperture PhotoBook Awards.

The prestigious $10,000 prize is perhaps the most hotly anticipated announcement in the world of photobooks, and Çimen was present at Paris Photo today to collect the award, to the applause of many if her Magnum colleagues.

A few signed copies of the book are still available from the Magnum book shop here

"It is quite daring — it looks somewhat classical, and yet it is also very personal and very poetic."

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Hafiz by Sabiha Cimen, published by Red Hook Editions.

“Sabiha Çimen’s Hafiz (named for a term of respect for a Muslim who knows the Koran by heart) offers a rare glimpse into the world of Turkish schools for girls that focus on the study of the Koran,” commented Aperture in a statement announcing its awards to the wider world.

“This playfully inviting book is beautifully bound in a unique pastel-pink case inscribed with a decorative motif that features tiny, lyrical illustrations of young girls in hijabs. The design, which is meant to echo that of a Koran, is a nod to the content at hand. Thoughtful touches like the exposed-spine binding and marbleized endpapers made by Turkish artists lend this book an almost magical quality and complement the moving array of square-format photographs inside. The images are quiet yet graphically arresting, including keenly observed details of birthday parties, girls at play, and dreamy color-saturated portraits of the students.”

Sabiha Çimen Asya plays with pet birds in her friend Hodja's room, at a Qur’an school. From the series, Hafiz: Guardians of the Qur’an. Rize. Turkey. 2018. © Sabiha Çimen | Magnum Photos

In an interview published by Magnum in 2020, Çimen recalled that she and her twin sister
attended a Qur’an school more than 20 years ago, and how when she became a photographer, she knew she wanted return.

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

"I want to give women the chance to speak for themselves and avoid misconceptions."

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“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.”

Sabiha Çimen From the series, "Hafiz: Guardians of the Qur’an". © Sabiha Çimen | Magnum Photos

"Çimen documents this world with fresh eyes and challenges our expectations."

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Miwa Susuda, one of the judges, noted that the overall impact of the book, which includes the photographer’s personal narrative of her experiences of attending a Koran school, is to “make this rarely depicted community feel very contemporary.” She adds: “Çimen documents this world with fresh eyes and challenges our expectations about this community.”

Another juror, Alain Quemin, commented: “It is quite daring — it looks somewhat classical, and yet it is also very personal and very poetic.”

Previous winners of the coveted First PhotoBook have included Nicolò Degiorgis, Mathieu Asselin and Buck Ellison, while past winners of the PhotoBook of the Year have included Oliver Sieber, Dayanita Singh and Magnum photographers Gregory Halpern and Sohrab Hura. This year’s PhotoBook of the Year went to Mohamed Bourouissa for Périphérique, published by Loose Joints, while the Photography Catalogue of the Year was collected by Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography since 1970 by Harvard Art Museums curator Makeda Best.

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