Photographer Serbest Salih was in his early 20s when he fled an Isis offensive in his home country of Syria for a new life in Turkey. In 2017, after working as a humanitarian photographer, he began running Sirkhane Darkroom with Turkish photographer, Emel Ernalbant. The project runs analogue photography workshops for children, often refugees, living in and around Mardin, southestern Turkey. “Analogue photography is a universal language: no matter where a child comes from, they are able to express themselves,” says Salih.
Less than 30km north of the Syrian border, and not far from Iraq, Mardin has seen an influx of refugees fleeing instability and persecution in the region. The refugees are often placed among low-income Turkish communities in the far-flung suburbs of the historic city. Conditions can be harsh, and children find themselves growing up around violence and poverty.
Salih, who is now 28, hopes his photography workshops will provide a safe space for refugee and disadvantaged children to explore, learn and tell their own stories through photography. They also foster communication and tolerance between Mardin’s varied cultures, which include Assyrians, Iraqis, Kurds and Turks.
At the workshops, the children learn how to shoot, develop and print their own photographs. Salih also teaches them about visual image-making and composition techniques, usually over a three-month period. Participants are then given an inexpensive analogue camera to take pictures with on their own.
At first, the children are baffled by the old analogue cameras, according to Salih. But as soon as they see an image slowly appearing on a sheet of photography paper in the darkroom, they’re fascinated. “Many of them really believe at first that it’s a type of magic,” he says.
“Each time I begin working with a new group of children, I encourage them to take their cameras outside and explore their surroundings and imaginations,” says Salih. “The children create stories, play out scenes, and really explore their imaginations within the space of the frame. I see how photography opens up a world of spontaneity, fun and magic. These photographs show the world of the children as they truly see it: punctuated by play and surprise.”
In 2019, Salih took his darkroom on the road, visiting villages along the Turkish-Syrian border. During the coronavirus pandemic, this mobile project became even more of a lifeline for children in remote areas, lacking in resources or cultural opportunities.
A selection of these photos have now been published in a new book, i saw the air fly, published by MACK. The title comes from the poem Celebrating Childhood by Syrian poet Adonis (“Many times / I saw the air fly with two grass feet / and the road dance with feet made of air,” it reads). Like the poem, the book celebrates the child’s-eye view, showing us everyday moments marked not by sadness or grief, but by curiosity, play and love for their friends and family. Signs of war – fighter planes, UNHCR logos – appear in the periphery, a haunting reminder of the wider context of the fleeting, intimate images, which prioritise the emotional lives of the children.
“These aren’t the photographs adults expect to see from children who have grown up surrounded by conflict; they aren’t photographs of trauma or sadness,” says Salih. “Instead, they are a testament to the resilience of the childhood imagination, the healing power of photography, and the enchanting perspective of childhood.”
‘i saw the air fly’ by Sirkhane Darkroom. MACK, £25, out now
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