When Melina Papageorgiou began photographing women wearing burkinis in 2015, the resounding response from her peers was: “Burkini? What’s that?”
One year later, the women’s bathing garment ― a lightweight two-piece that provides full body coverage for Muslim women seeking modest dress conducive to swimming or playing sports ― became a polarizing subject of political debate.
The burkini dominated news headlines in August of 2016. Following an ISIS-affiliated attack that took 84 French lives on Bastille Day, 15 French cities instituted a “burkini ban,” claiming the suit “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.”
In her series, “Burkini,” Berlin-based photographer Papageorgiou strips the swimsuit of its controversy, framing the article of clothing instead as a visually appealing object categorized by sun-soaked colors and abstract, billowing patterns. Papageorgiou leaves most charged political associations related to the burkini behind, focusing instead on its normalcy ― they’re just bathing suits, after all.
Many critics across the world regard the burkini ban itself as a strategy of oppression, one founded in fear and ignorance, denying women of faith the right to make their own decisions regarding their clothing, their bodies, and their religion. In an interview with The Guardian, Aheda Zanetti, who created the burkini, expressed her sadness at the controversy surrounding it.
“I think they have misunderstood a garment that is so positive,” Zanetti said. “It symbolizes leisure and happiness and fun and fitness and health and now they are demanding women get off the beach and back into their kitchens? This has given women freedom, and they want to take that freedom away? I don’t think any man should worry about how women are dressing — no one is forcing us, it’s a woman’s choice. What you see is our choice.”
Countering the allegations from people like Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services in Cannes, France, who described the burkini as “ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements,” Papageorgiou presents the summery garments as simply what they are ― stylish and convenient items of clothing.
“To me, it is important to leave some of these questions open,” Papageorgiou explained to The Huffington Post, “to leave a space for perceiving things, to not automatically judge and point at things and take a defined stance.”
The series “Burkini” focuses not just on the swimsuits themselves, but the environment in which Papageorgiou encountered them ― the sun-bleached beaches of Abu Dhabi. The artist, whose parents currently live in the United Arab Emirates capital, was fascinated by the city’s mix of natural and manufactured offerings, as well as the strong grip bathing culture had over its inhabitants.
“I was intrigued by the atmosphere there,” Papageorgiou expressed. “There is a constant buzz, a peculiar soundscape, made up of traffic noises and construction sites, that persists all the time, not even stopping at night. This creates a sense of artificiality, at least to me, that clashes with the strong presence of nature, given by the heat and the glaring sunshine.”
Papageorgiou, well aware of the political implications of her subject matter, shifts from this familiar perspective. Instead, the artist uses her status as an outsider to capture the burkini as an optically enchanting configuration of fabric, just one particularly appealing aspect of Abu Dhabi culture.
The hypnotic images, whether depicting a woman in her burkini or a string of palm trees, feel like summer. In the intensity of the heat, bias drips away like so many beads of sweat, the resulting images simply focusing on the strange and banal beauty of various spaces and things.
“It was very important for me to take the images really close,” she explained in an interview with Broadly, “because one thing I wanted understood was that so ... well, the burkini is, in a way, just a fabric. A car is just a car. It was important to photograph them really close ― visually really close ― just to observe it as it is.”
Through her photos, Papageorgiou refuses to give in to the binary thinking that often takes hold, finally allowing the swimsuits to have their own day off at the beach.
Papageorgiou’s photographs are slated to appear in a photo book and exhibition in 2017.