Through Syrian photographer Serbest Salih's photo project, refugee children captured moments of whimsy during their daily lives in Turkey's Mardin.
One of the most important books published this year, I Saw the Air Fly, features photographs captured by young Syrian refugees living in Southeastern Turkey, just a few kilometers from the Syrian border. Serbest Salih, a photographer and a Syrian refugee himself, wanted to bring together young refugees and locals to show them how to use analog cameras and print their photographs as a tool for self-expression. He runs Sirkhane Darkroom, a mobile darkroom that journeys from village to village teaching children how to shoot, develop, and print their own photographs. Through his most recent project, he was able to develop and publish more than 100 black and white photographs captured by the children refugees residing in Turkey's Mardin, where approximately 100,000 Syrians have settled down, CNN reports.
"They are very powerful photos by children because they show us their lives in different ways using a simple camera," Salih said in an interview with the news outlet. "They do all of this process by themselves inside the darkroom. For them, in the beginning, it's like magic when the images show up [on the paper]." In one photo, Sultan, aged 14, captures two children arching their bodies into twin wheels. In another, 10-year-old Alin photographs two girls sitting on their heels, a hula hoop framing their faces.
The photos disrupt the stereotypical understanding of life as a refugee. Infused with a sense of play and whimsy, these photographs are a means for displaced Syrians to heal from their experiences—they are not just a way for outsiders to fetishize and document trauma. As described by the publishers of the book on their official website, "The city of Mardin and the vast Mesopotamian plain beyond become a backdrop to the miraculous dreams, games, and discoveries which play out within the space of the frame."
Salih, the photographer behind the project, first began studying photography at Aleppo University in 2012. This is two years before he was forced to flee his hometown to Turkey, where he could not speak the local language. Therefore, he turned to photography in order to express himself. The art form's ability to bring people together lies at the crux of Sirkhane Darkroom. The mobile darkroom is a part of Sirkhane, a local non-profit that runs a local circus school, arts festival, and music school for children affected by war. Salih's project became particularly important during the pandemic, as accessing education became even more difficult.
"We saw people from different backgrounds—refugees and local people—who were speaking similar languages, [such as] Kurdish, Turkish or Arabic, but they never communicated," the photographer shared. "We had the idea to use analog photography as therapy, and to let them express themselves and bring all these different communities [together] through photography." Through his workshops, he teaches children the basics of image composition and technique, and how to use analog and digital cameras. Salih stated, "The great part of the workshop is to see children on the first day and the last day—you can see the difference. On the first day, they don't have a lot of self-confidence. Analog photography is a great tool for them because it's not like digital photography, where if they don't have confidence, they can delete it. When we see the amazing results of the photos, they start believing in themselves." You can purchase your copy of I Saw the Air Fly here, and you can follow Sirkhane Darkroom on Instagram.