‘Something magical happens’: the cameras helping refugee children to heal

We talk to the person behind an extraordinary project in Turkey, where children, most of them refugees, have been given old analogue cameras and taught the art of photography

Serbest Salih studied photography at college in Aleppo, before fleeing Syria with his family in 2014 as Islamic State fighters advanced on his home town of Kobani. He is now one of an estimated 100,000 refugees living in the historic city of Mardin in south-eastern Turkey, just a few miles from the Syrian border. Having initially found work as a photographer for a German NGO, Salih’s life changed dramatically in 2017 when, while wandering with a friend through the city, he discovered a sprawling refugee community living in a group of abandoned government buildings in the working-class Kurdish district of Istayson.

“It was a place where Turkish Kurds and Syrian Kurds lived as neighbours, but did not communicate,” he says, “They were strangers who spoke the same language. It was at that moment that I thought to use analogue photography as a means to integrate the different communities.”

Image by Ibrahim, 13
  • Image by Ibrahim, 13, from Qamishli, Syria. All photographs from i saw the air fly by Sirkhane Darkroom (Mack, 2021), courtesy the artist and Mack.

Working with Sirkhane, a community organisation, and with initial funding from a German aid organisation, Welthungerhilfe, he began hosting photography workshops using donated cheap analogue cameras. “Digital is easier and quicker,” he tells me, “but the analogue process teaches children to look more carefully and also to be patient, because they have to take a picture without seeing the result instantly. For them, there is something therapeutic and healing about the whole process.”

Salih now runs the Sirkhane Darkroom in Mardin (a project initiated by Turkish photographer Emel Ernalbant) and, since 2019, has travelled to neighbouring towns and villages with the Sirkhane Caravan, a mobile version of the same. Children from the age of seven come to his workshops to learn the traditional skills of shooting on film and processing the results in a darkroom. “Sometimes they burst out laughing and say: ‘These are cameras from my parents’ time.’” he tells me. “But, when they start using them, something magical happens. They start to show the world they live in through their own eyes.”

Image by Sultan, 14, from Nusaybin, Turkey.
  • Image by Sultan, 14, from Nusaybin, Turkey.

The results, as a new book, i saw the air fly, shows, are often surprising. Rather than reflect the traumas of their displacement, the pictures tend towards the innocent and joyous: family portraits, blurred shots of their friends at play, children jumping, hiding, posing with their friends or tending their animals. Throughout, there are more intricately formal compositions that catch the eye: a cluster of hilltop buildings, the irregular geometry of electricity wires crisscrossing the sky.

That many of the images are grainy and monochrome only adds to their resonance: a flock of birds scattered across a grey, overcast sky; a child’s shadow falling across a scrappy yard; a row of raised hands balancing spinning plates on slender sticks. All human life is here as it is lived by children in a makeshift refugee community in Turkey.

Image by Ayshe, 9, from Mardin, Turkey.
  • Image by Ayshe, 9, from Mardin, Turkey.

The book has parallels with Wendy Ewald’s Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories by Children of the Appalachians, also published by Mack, in which she taught practical photography to kids from a poor rural community with often startling results. Like that project, i saw the air fly is a testament to the undimmed imagination of the very young, however impoverished their circumstances, but also to Salih’s faith in the transformative power of analogue photography. “When I see a photograph that surprises me, which happens constantly,” he says, “I feel proud because I have always had a big faith in what photography can do.”

As the children progress though the workshops, he tells me, they are given specific subjects to photograph. These can range from the everyday (the garden, the home) to the more socially aware – child labour, child marriage and, tentatively, gender issues. “Often, when we begin, the girls don’t think they can be as good as the boys,” he says. “Sadly, that is what the adult world has taught them, but soon they are shooting pictures about their lives and experiences. The camera gives them the confidence to do that.”

Image by Rojin, 14, from Mardin, Turkey.
  • Image by Rojin, 14, from Mardin, Turkey.

On the Sirkhane website, videos and photographs attest to the sense of wonder the children experience in the darkroom as the images they have shot finally appear. How, though, do the local adults feel about the project? “At first, many of them send their children to us just to get them out of the house. Then, when they see the results, they too are often surprised by what their children have achieved.”

Salih’s plans to “expand the caravan workshops so we can go to the most affected places” have been put on hold since the pandemic began and he has had to teach online. “It has been difficult,” he says, “because most of the children do not have smartphones or internet access. We have managed to get some support, but, at the moment, it is not sustainable. We are relying more than ever on fundraising and donations of money and secondhand materials, not just cameras, but also things like darkroom chemicals, which cannot be sent from outside Turkey. It is very difficult.”

Image by Ahmed, 10, from Alhaske, Syria.
  • Image by Ahmed, 10, from Alhaske, Syria.

The publication of i saw the air fly is a singular achievement. It is also, in many ways, a humble book – all the images have been selected by the children themselves, their often low-key charm attesting to the essentially democratic nature of the medium, and its ability to surprise. “People think that if you give a refugee child a camera, the results will be sad,” says Salih, “but instead most of these photographs are all about joy. They are small moments of private happiness.”

This article was amended on 30 September 2021 to clarify that the Sirkhane Darkroom project was initiated by Emel Ernalbant.

All proceeds from the sale of i saw the air fly will go to the Her Yerde Sanat-Sirkhane charity, whose aim is to provide ‘a safe, friendly and embracing environment’ for children caught up in conflicts


Sean O’Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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