Sweet Nothings: Schoolgirls from the Borderlands of Eastern Anatolia, Vanessa Winship's photography

Vanessa Winship Sweet Nothings: Schoolgirls from the Borderlands of Eastern Anatolia

Kars - Armenian Border, 2007

Esenkent - Armenian Border, 2007

Doğubeyazıt - Iran / Azerbaijan Border, 2007

Tunceli - Eastern Anatolia, 2007

Doğubeyazıt - Iran / Azerbaijan Border, 2007

Boğatepe - Armenian Border, 2007

Hakkâri - Iraq Border, 2007

Hakkâri - Iraq Border, 2007

Muş - Eastern Anatolia, 2007

Kars - Armenian Border, 2007

Artist's statement

I had been living and working in the region for almost a decade, and in Turkey itself for more than four years. I was drawn by ideas of borders and belonging. 

During my time in Turkey, I had grown familiar with many aspects of life that were alien to my own life in England: the everpresent military in every town and on every hill, the vast open stretches of dusty roads on the high plateaux.
One enduring image that had always struck me wherever I travelled was the schoolgirls in their blue dresses, the same in every town, city, or village. These dresses, with their lace collars and sweet messages embroidered on the bodices, were the symbol of the Turkish state, but the girls who wore them were simply little girls.
In the borderlands of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia, a region euphemistically called the “emergency area” because of a long, low-level guerrilla war, in which many thousands have lost their lives, the dresses were still the same.
The land is harsh and unforgiving. Life is difficult here, and the life for the small girls who inhabit it is as harsh as for anyone. Until very recently, many girls in these remote parts never stepped into a school playground.
Attitudes about sending girls to school were a combination of traditional values, in which girls are expected to stay at home, and a deep suspicion of anything that represented the state. Increasingly conscious of this situation, the Turkish government launched a campaign to get more girls into schools.

Slowly the numbers of girls enrolling rose.
I wanted to make a series of portraits of these girls on the borderlands. Knowing their status, I wanted to give a small space for them to have a small moment of importance in front of a camera.
I decided to use this slower, more formal way of making pictures to create this space. Every frame was made at the same distance to ensure an equality. The symbol of the uniform, the distance in repetition, and the austerity of the landscape would represent one thing, but I also hoped more than anything, in the expressions of the girls’ faces, to draw attention to the idea of these young girls poised at the moment “just before”: the moment where possibility lies, a time where the presentation of self teeters into consciousness.
I asked the group of girls to come forward with their chosen friends or with their sisters. Occasionally, they came forward alone. The girls were a mix of emotions, this small moment of theatre in front of them. They were excited, curious, and a little nervous, all at the same time.
Many things touched me during the making of these images: the gravity in their demeanour, their fragility, their simplicity, their grace, their closeness to one another, but most of all I was struck by their complete lack of posturing.

About the photographer


North Lincolnshire, United Kingdom, 1960



Based in

Folkestone, United Kingdom

About Vanessa Winship

Winship is known for her portrait, landscape and reportage photography.

Her work has been exhibited at festivals and galleries nationally and internationally, including at Les Rencontres d'Arles, France (2008); Side Gallery, Newcastle, United Kingdom (2008–09); and Kunsthal Rotterdam, the Netherlands (2009–10). Her first mid-career exhibition was held at Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid (2014) and toured six museums in Spain.

Winship’s work has also been shown at Fondazione Stelline, Milan (2014–15), and in 2018 she held a major solo show, And Time Folds, alongside the work of Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. In 2021, her photography was exhibited at West Coast Photo, Cumbria, United Kingdom, and at The International Centre of Photography, New York.

Winship’s work is held in collections including the National Portrait Gallery, London; The Do Good Fund, Columbus, United States; the Sir Elton John Photographic Collection, United Kingdom; Fundación MAPFRE, Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris; and Tate Britain, London.

She has twice received prizes at the World Press Photo Contest (1998 and 2008), won Sony World Photography Awards Photographer of the Year (2008), and the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award (2011).

Winship is the author and subject of several monographs: Schwarzes Meer (Black Sea) (mareverlag, 2007); Sweet Nothings (Foto8 and Images En Manoeuvres, 2008), she dances on Jackson (MACK and HCB, 2013); the boxset Seeing the Light of Day (B-Sides Box Sets and EDITIONS EDITIONS, 2020); and Snow (Deadbeat Club, 2022), which interleaves images of rural Ohio with a short story by Jem Poster, Ice.