The Sirkhane Darkroom is part of a traveling school of sorts called Sirkhane, whose aim is to teach the arts to refugees from the Syrian Civil War on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border. Their students are mostly Syrian and Iraqi child refugees and Turkish locals who, due to the war, have little to no opportunity for an education of any kind, let alone an arts education.
I was introduced to Sirkhane Darkroom just other day, when I received a rather interesting message request on Instagram. It was from a man I’d never heard from before, asking me to check out an account. I don’t usually respond to message requests from complete strangers, but for whatever reason, I clicked through. What I ended up finding was one of the most remarkable photographic projects I had seen in a long, long time.
I swiped up and down the page and was greeted by incredible images of life as a Syrian refugee. But these weren’t images of destruction and suffering as would be common on most international news sites; they were images of friendship, family, and solidarity set against the backdrop of surviving a massive global and personal tragedy. Most importantly, these images were made by those who are most vulnerable – children.
Needless to say, I was moved. I wanted to find out more about the project. I set about contacting the project on Instagram, which then led to a chain of emails, which eventually became a full interview with their director Serbest Salih, himself a Syrian refugee. We’re absolutely honored to present their story here on Casual Photophile, along with the images taken by the kids themselves. Enjoy.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and our readers. Give us a quick introduction to yourself and how you came to the Sirkhane Darkroom.
My name is Serbest Salih. I’m a photographer and the director of Sirkhane Darkroom, a mobile analog photography workshop for underprivileged and vulnerable children. In 2014, I finished my degree in photography at Aleppo University, then I started working with humanitarian NGO’s (Non Governmental Organizations) as a photographer and field worker.
At the end of 2014, a war started in the city of Kobani, where I was living at the time. Because of our situation, I came to Turkey. In Turkey, I started working with many humanitarian organizations. I started work with a German humanitarian organization called Welthungerhilfe located in the southeast part of Mardin, Turkey. While working there, I heard about the Art Anywhere Association at Sirkhane, who I started volunteering with.
How did the project get started, and how did it get to where it is today?
We started the Sirkhane Darkroom project in 2017, in the Istasyin district of Mardin. After a while, we realized we didn’t want to be limited to the district because there were still a lot of children in need elsewhere. So at the end of 2019, I made a new program for the darkroom, a mobile analog photography workshop. With a mobile workshop, Sirkhane and I can reach all children in need, even those outside Mardin. Every three months, I go to a new location where underprivileged and vulnerable children are living and use photography and art as a language to discover and express themselves and their talents.
The most immediately striking thing about this project is the use of film photography as outreach for the youth of the Syrian and Iraqi refugee community. What inspired you to use film photography for this purpose?
If you want to teach children photography and want her/him to be a photographer, you should start from the beginning, which for us is analog photography. Analog photography is very different because you have only a limited amount of film. You have to take the photos carefully; before you take a photo you have to feel the entire photographic process and, most importantly, use your imagination.
From browsing your Instagram, the kids seem to be involved in every part of the film process. What benefits can you see from this?
In Sirkhane’s Art Anywhere program, we use art as a pedagogical method, which enables children to know themselves better. It shows them new ways of thinking, creativity and playfulness while expanding their perspective on life and their surroundings. In the darkroom, I teach children all of the analog photography basics. I show them all different types of cameras (pinhole cameras, 35mm cameras, lomography-style cameras, and even digital). I show them the rules of photographic composition and how to select subjects, frame, and how to take the photo itself. Finally, I show them how to develop film and print, and afterwards I even show them how to make their own pinhole camera. After they learn the entire process, I let them shoot, develop, and print their photos by themselves, and I can just sit back and watch.
The students’ images are beautiful, both in their execution and in their message. What have these images (and the act of making them) come to mean to you, the community, and to the students?
For us it means a lot. The images represent the power of these children. Mostly, people think that when you give the camera to children they will just take a normal, bland photo, but it’s not the case. Children see the world in a different way and see life at a different level. They are more willing to share their life at home, their private lives, as they feel it. That’s why I often say that children see the world through their hearts and capture it with their eyes.
How has learning film photography affected the lives of these students overall?
They are quite interested in analog photography because for them it is a way to express themselves. I remember once there was a first-time student who attended the workshop and put photo paper into the chemical tub for the first time. Then when the photo showed up he started saying, “Bismillah!” – he thought it was magic!
The children also use photography and arts to express themselves and to help deal with the effects from the war. Ceylan, one of our students from Syria, is an example. She is originally from Qamishlo, Syria but due to the war fled here to Mardin. For years she could not make friendships, and she found it hard to simply enjoy being a child because she didn’t have many friends and mostly stayed inside the house.
The first time she came to Sirkhane she got involved in printing inside the darkroom. She saw us put the papers in the tubs, saw the photos show up, and asked me, “Is this magic? How did you do it? Can I also try it?” And through the program, she started to make friends, little by little. Other children started to ask her to take their photos and for her help developing film together. After attending our workshop, she gained a lot of self confidence through film photography.
It’s also inspiring seeing children using their imagination whenever we go out shooting and coming up with brilliant results. This makes the children’s parents support them, which is important especially for girls. The culture still doesn’t generally allow girls to get out of the house freely, but after seeing the results and how talented they are, the parents start to support them and let them still take photos – they even become the family photographer. It often happens that whenever a father, brother or sister needs a photo for school registration, etc, they often end up going to the children who were in the workshop.
Are there any challenges that the Sirkhane Darkroom faced or are currently facing? If so, how can we help?
As you know, we have a mobile workshop, so every three months we travel from one location to another. We face problems in supporting the project because when you go to a new place, there are new children. Because of that, we are constantly in need of darkroom materials/photography equipment, like chemicals, film, and cameras.
In order to keep this project going, I opened a funding campaign through Mightycause, which is the easiest way for us to get support. We also appreciate direct support with darkroom/photography equipment like compact cameras, black and white film, cards, chemicals etc. These materials can be used or secondhand, as long as they work.
Is there anything else you’d like to let our readers know?
I want the readers and audience to know that Sirkhane is there for every child in need. If you want to be part of Sirkhane and are located in the area, please volunteer! It is always welcomed.