SErbest Salih studied photography at Aleppo University, before fleeing Syria with his family in 2014 as Islamic State fighters advanced on his hometown of Kobani. He is now one of some 100,000 refugees living in the historic town of Mardin in south-eastern Turkey, a few kilometers from the Syrian border. After first finding work as a photographer for a German NGO, Salih’s life changed dramatically in 2017 when, as he was walking with a friend through town, he discovered a sprawling community of refugees. living in a cluster of abandoned government buildings in the Kurdish working-class neighborhood. from Istayson.
âIt was a place where Turkish Kurds and Syrian Kurds lived as neighbors, but did not communicate,â he said, âThey were foreigners who spoke the same language. It was then that I thought of using film photography as a means of integrating the different communities.
Work with Sirkhane, a community organization, and with initial funding from a German aid organization, Welthungerhilfe, he began to conduct photography workshops using donated inexpensive analog cameras. âDigital is easier and faster,â he tells me, âbut the analog 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 and, since 2019, has traveled to nearby towns and villages with the Sirkhane Caravan, a mobile version of it. Children from the age of seven come to his workshops to learn the traditional techniques of filming on film and the processing of results in a darkroom. âSometimes they burst out laughing and say, ‘These are cameras from my parents’ time.’ “, he told me. âBut, when they start using them, something magical happens. They start to show the world they live in through their own eyes.
The results, like a new book, I saw the air fly, shows, are often surprising. Rather than reflecting the trauma of their displacement, the images tend towards the innocent and the joyful: family portraits, blurry shots of their friends playing, of children jumping, hiding, posing with their friends or with each other. caring for their animals. Throughout, there are more intricate formal compositions that catch the eye: a cluster of hilltop buildings, the irregular geometry of electric wires crisscrossing the sky.
The fact that many images are grainy and monochrome only adds to their resonance: a flock of birds scattered across a gray, overcast sky; the shadow of a child falling on a dilapidated courtyard; a row of raised hands balancing turntables on thin sticks. All human life is here as it is experienced by the children of a makeshift refugee community in Turkey.
The book has parallels with that of Wendy Ewald Portraits and dreams: photographs and stories of children from the Appalachianss, also published by Mack, in which she taught practical photography to children in a poor rural community with often surprising results. Like this project, I saw the air fly is a testament to the untouched imaginations of the very young, whatever their circumstances, but also to Salih’s faith in the transformative power of analog photography. âWhen I see a photo that surprises me, which happens all the time,â he says, âI’m proud because I’ve always had great faith in what photography can do. “
As the children progress through the workshops, he tells me, they are given specific subjects to photograph. These can range from everyday (garden, home) to the more socially conscious – child labor, child marriage and, tentatively, gender issues. âA lot of times when we start out, the girls think they can’t be as good as the boys,â he says. âUnfortunately, that’s what the adult world has taught them, but soon they are taking pictures of their lives and experiences. The camera gives them the confidence to do so.
On the Sirkhane website, videos and photographs testify to the wonder children feel in the darkroom as the images they have shot finally appear. But what do local adults think of the project? âAt the beginning, many of them send their children to us just to get them out of the house. Then, when they see the results, they are also often surprised by what their children have accomplished.
Salih’s plans to “expand the caravan workshops so we can go to the most affected places” have been on hold since the start of the pandemic and he has had to teach online. âIt was difficult,â he says, âbecause most of the children don’t have smartphones or internet access. We have managed to get some support, but at the moment it is not sustainable. We rely more than ever on fundraising and donating money and used equipment, not just cameras, but also things like darkroom chemicals, which cannot be sent from there. outside of Turkey. It’s very difficult.”
The release of I saw the air fly is a singular achievement. It is also, in many ways, a humble book – all the images were chosen by the children themselves, their often low-key charm attesting to the essentially democratic nature of the medium, and its ability to surprise. âPeople think if you give a camera to a refugee child, the results will be sad,â says Salih, âbut instead most of these photographs are about joy. These are small moments of intimate happiness.