Photographer Serbest Salih was in his twenties when he fled an Isis offensive in his home country, Syria, for a new life in Turkey. In 2017, after working as a humanitarian photographer, he started directing Sirkhane Darkroom with Turkish photographer Emel Ernalbant. The project organizes analog photography workshops for children, often refugees, living in and around Mardin in south-eastern Turkey. “Analog photography is a universal language: no matter where a child comes from, he is able to express himself,” says Salih.
Less than 30 km north of the Syrian border, and not far from Iraq, Mardin has seen an influx of refugees fleeing instability and persecution in the region. Refugees are often placed in low-income Turkish communities in the remote suburbs of the historic city. Conditions can be harsh and children grow up in violence and poverty.
Salih, 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 promote communication and tolerance among the varied cultures of Mardin, which include Assyrians, Iraqis, Kurds and Turks.
During the workshops, children learn to take, develop and print their own photographs. Salih also teaches them the techniques of creating and composing visual images, usually over a period of three months. Participants are then given an inexpensive analog camera to take pictures on their own.
At first, kids are baffled by the old analog cameras, according to Salih. But as soon as they see an image slowly appear on a sheet of photographic paper in the darkroom, they are mesmerized. “A lot of them really believe at first that this is some type of magic,” he says.
“Whenever I start working with a new group of children, I encourage them to take out their cameras and explore their surroundings and their imaginations,” says Salih. “Children create stories, act out scenes and really explore their imaginations within the space of the frame. I see how photography opens up a world of spontaneity, pleasure and magic. These photographs show the world of children as they really 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 has been published in a new book, I saw the air fly, published by MACK. The title comes from the poem Celebrate childhood by the Syrian poet Adonis (“Several times / I saw the air fly with two feet of grass / and the road dance with feet made of air”, we read). Like the poem, the book celebrates the sight of a child, 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 jets, UNHCR logos – appear on the periphery, a haunting reminder of the larger context of fleeting and intimate images, which prioritize the emotional lives of children.
“These are not the photographs that adults expect to see of children who have grown up surrounded by conflict; these are not photographs of trauma or sadness, ”says Salih. “Instead, they are a testament to the resilience of childhood imagination, the healing power of photography, and the enchanting perspective of childhood.”
‘I saw the air fly‘by Sirkhane Darkroom. MACK, £ 25, now available