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Meet the inspiring Canon grant winners of 2020

A young female student wearing a hijab walks through the grounds of the Qur'an school in Rize, Turkey.
Nine-year-old Elif, a new student at a Qur'an school in Rize, Turkey, wearing a hijab for the first time. Canon Female Photojournalist Grant recipient Sabiha Çimen will use the €8,000 award to continue her project photographing girls in Turkey studying the religious text. © Sabiha Çimen/Magnum Photos

The recipients of this year's Canon Female Photojournalist Grant and the first ever Canon Video Grant – Short Film Documentary have been selected. The €8,000 award for each Grant will enable two talented image-makers to fund projects over the next year focusing on girls and young women.

Self-taught Istanbul-based documentary photographer Sabiha Çimen is the recipient of the 2020 Canon Female Photojournalist Grant, now in its 20th year, for Hafiz: the Guardians of Qur'an. Her ongoing project documents the lives of young women studying to memorise the Qur'an at schools across Turkey.

French-Swiss photojournalist Michaël Zumstein is the recipient of the inaugural Canon Video Grant – Short Film Documentary for his upcoming film Miss Bangui. The eight-minute video documentary will focus on the organisation of the Miss Central African Republic beauty pageant and give a voice to the participating women in a country riven by violence and civil war.

Both projects will be exhibited at the Visa pour l'Image photojournalism festival in 2021. Here's why the two winners want to tell their stories, and how they plan to go about it.

Documentary photographer Sabiha Çimen, winner of the 2020 Canon Female Photojournalist Grant.
Documentary photographer Sabiha Çimen, recipient of the 2020 Canon Female Photojournalist Grant. Her project, Hafiz: the Guardians of Qur'an, means a great deal to Sabiha because as a child she attended a Qu'ran school in Istanbul with her twin sister.
Two sisters wearing headscarves on their graduation from a Qur'an school in Kars, Turkey.
Sisters Gülnur (left) and Havvanur on their graduation from a Qur'an school in Kars, Turkey. © Sabiha Çimen/Magnum Photos

Sabiha Çimen – Hafiz: the Guardians of Qur'an

Sabiha's winning proposal is to document the Muslim girls who attempt to memorise the whole Qur'an – a total of 30 books and 6,236 verses – in a tradition that has continued for almost 1,500 years. Those who succeed are allowed to use the title 'Hafız' before their names; Hafızas are seen as guardians of the holy word, tasked with keeping it alive for future generations.

Sabiha, who documents Islamic culture, portraiture and still life, wants to highlight not only the intense training the girls are subjected to, but also the lighter side of school life. She has already travelled across five cities in Turkey, visiting Qur'an schools and photographing the female students, aged between eight and 17.

"I've been working on this project for three years, and I still need support to finalise it," she says. "This Canon grant is priceless. It came at just the right time."

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There are thousands of Qur'an schools in Turkey, most of them for girls, and for Sabiha this is a deeply personal project: she and her twin sister attended a Qur'an school in Istanbul, and she has gone back there to photograph today's students. "In Turkey, it's often not possible to visit these unique places," she explains. "But my teacher, who was still there after 15 years, immediately opened the doors for me. I am not photographing and passing by – I lived with the girls, studied with them and we became close friends. It's very personal – it's really my story.

"It depicts Muslim women in a very unusual and nuanced way," she adds. "I want to give women the chance to speak for themselves, to avoid misconceptions and misinterpretations."

The project has already won Sabiha second prize in the long-term projects category at the 2020 World Press Photo Contest. The next stage will involve visiting more schools across Turkey, and will possibly examine the impact of Covid-19. Qur'an schools in Turkey have been closed since February, and students are reciting pages to their teachers over video calls. "I'm planning to shoot online Zoom classes and photograph how people are sustaining this strict education during the pandemic," she says.

Photojournalist and filmmaker Michaël Zumstein, the recipient of the 2020 Canon Video Grant – Short Film Documentary.
Photojournalist and filmmaker Michaël Zumstein is the recipient of the 2020 Canon Video Grant – Short Film Documentary.
Miss Bangui, 23-year-old Charlène Sambo, poses backstage at the Boganda National Museum in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.
Miss Bangui, 23-year-old Charlène Sambo, poses backstage at the Boganda National Museum in Bangui, the capital of the CAR, while waiting for the winner of the Miss Central African Republic beauty pageant to be announced. © Michaël Zumstein/Agence VU

Michaël Zumstein – Miss Bangui

Photojournalist and filmmaker Michaël Zumstein has reported on conflict in Sudan, the Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for both the French and international press, and the Canon Video Grant will enable him to continue his documentary film work.

"This is very important for me, because I'm going to the Central African Republic (CAR), a place that I first visited six years ago," says Michaël.

Canon Female Photojournalist Grant recipients Anush Babajanyan and Laura Morton at the 2019 Visa pour l'Image festival in Perpignan, France.

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There has been an ongoing civil war in the CAR since 2012 and Michaël was used to documenting the experiences of the male soldiers, but he really wanted to go back to capture an alternative point of view. "This grant is a way to continue my work as a filmmaker. I want to tell the story of the women who are fighting – not against other people, but for their freedom."

Michaël wants to document how the beauty pageant works amidst all the chaos, and why the organisers want to put women in the spotlight. During two weeks in November he will follow the contest caravan from village to village to capture a reality that goes beyond the ethnic and religious conflict. "A beauty contest might appear trivial, but it's important to talk about these women," he says. "They are not only taking part in a beauty contest, they are fighting for their place in the CAR."

The Grant includes the loan of Canon video kit including two cine lenses, and Michaël is hoping to shoot on either a Canon EOS C200 or a Canon EOS C300 Mark II, with a Canon CN-E18-80mm T4.4 L IS KAS S lens.

"I'm crazy about both the EOS C200 and the EOS C300 Mark II – they are very easy to work with. For me, a video camera has to be light and it has to be easy to find all the settings with my fingers without looking," he says. "I like the Canon CN-E18-80mm T4.4 L IS KAS S lens because it brings together all the right characteristics for making documentary films: it's lightweight, fast if you want to use the autofocus (servo), and of a remarkable optical quality. It's ideal for fast shooting, and the zoom means you don't have to change lenses."

Michaël has been working in Africa for 20 years and knows the CAR well, so he is less worried about safety than he is about conveying the women in a truthful way. "For me, the logistical problems are quite easy to solve. The challenge is putting these women in the spotlight, while also respecting their worth. There will be no commentary – just the women speaking to each other about their country, their lives, their hopes and their fears."

Avtor Lorna Dockerill


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