Razan Elbaba recently made a statement about attitudes toward religion in the United States, but she didn’t need to say a word.
The 17-year-old from Vienna, Virginia, photographed friends and relatives wearing head scarves that are customary in the Muslim faith. She added newspaper clippings, bits of cloth and “googly” eyes to tell more of the story.
The striking artwork, which Razan called “Covered,” won the top prize in this year’s Scholastic Art & Writing competition. She was one of 16 students in the nation — out of 320,000 who entered — to win a Golden Portfolio. She will receive a $10,000 prize at a celebration in June at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Razan didn’t think she would win, but she said art teacher Susan Silva believed the Oakton High School senior’s talent would impress the judges.
“Ms. Silva always told me that I have something special about me, but I never had the confidence to think that I would be the one” to get a Golden Portfolio, Razan says. “It was very unexpected.”
Razan explains that she started to stutter when she was 3, not long after she learned to talk. She says her severe stutter has made it hard for her to do things that are easy for other kids, “like answer the phone or order a pizza.”
“Things that were so simple for other people were really hard tasks for me,” Razan says. “So I was always trying to find ways to express myself” without having to speak.
When she started high school, Razan says, she “set myself a goal to find a way to do that.” That’s when she discovered photography.
“I found a way to say what I want to say using a camera, not my mouth,” Razan says.
Silva helped her a lot. “She gave us random stuff and said, ‘Make art.’ ”
Razan had an idea to take photos of women and girls wearing the hijab, a head scarf she has worn for five years as part of her religious practice. People in the United States often stare at girls and women who wear a hijab, Razan says. Being stared at can make those women and girls feel “like alien beings that don’t belong,” she says.
To help people understand those feelings, Razan began gluing “googly” eyes to some of the photographs. In other photos, she covered the scarf in newspaper articles.
“I’ve also always been passionate about social justice,” Razan told Scholastic after winning the Golden Portfolio. “I felt like it was my job to break the stereotypes and significantly express the true goal of Muslim women, which is to spark positive change in this world.”
Razan has taken photography classes with Silva all four years of high school. The two have become close. Razan calls Silva “my second mom, my best friend and sometimes even my older sister.”
Razan says she plans to use her $10,000 prize to help pay for college, where she is headed in the fall. She hopes to study art.
“I hope my work will make people be optimistic and make them not judge others,” Razan says. She wants people to look at her photographs and realize: “We’re all human. We all have a heart and a soul. We are all wanted on this Earth.”