The Cause: the photographer teaching refugee children to put joy in the picture
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When the children in Serbest Salih’s photography workshops first see an analogue camera, they often assume it’s a relic. “They think it’s a very old camera from, like, 20 years ago,” he laughs. “They think it will only make black-and-white photos.”
Within weeks, however, the students are taking pictures that surprise and delight their teacher – and change their relationships with those around them. For Salih, who co-founded Sirkhane Darkroom three years ago with the aim of helping build friendships between Syrian and Iraqi refugees and their new neighbours in the Turkish province of Mardin, this is the ultimate goal – that they “feel part of this community… [that] they are no longer refugees”.
Nestled along the Syrian border in south-eastern Turkey, Mardin is famed for its stunning old city. Tourists flock to the hilltop district to see its intricately carved stonework, buy filigree silver and drink tea from the rooftop cafés with views that stretch out across the plains of northern Syria. But away from the crowds, the district of Istasyon is home to a mix of low-income Turkish families and refugees. Here, Salih hosts his photography workshops, which he runs from a colourful container office kitted out with a darkroom.
Gentle and smiling, with a pierced ear, the 27-year-old Syrian studied photography at the university in Aleppo. He used his first camera, a Nikon D90, to take portraits of dispossessed people living in camps as the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad slowly morphed into a devastating civil war.
Salih and his family fled the Kurdish town of Kobane, in northern Syria, when it came under siege from Isis jihadists in 2014. During his early years in Turkey, he endured prejudice, but after a spell working for NGOs, he and a Turkish friend, Emel Ernalbant, decided to establish their own project to teach photography to children, with the aim of helping smooth out tensions between local families and refugees. “There was bad communication,” he says. “If I wanted to make the situation better… I realised I should start with children.”
With initial support from the German charity Welthungerhilfe, the pair began running photography courses in 2017. Since then, close to 400 children have taken part, with workshops held in small groups of different ages and nationalities, usually twice a week over a period of three months. After the children have practised first with a filmless camera, he then sends them away with a camera each – usually a chunky Fujifilm Clear Shot M. The decision to use film is deliberate, encouraging the children to be selective with their shots and to connect more deeply with their subjects. “You can feel the photography in analogue,” Salih says.
The pictures they return with are constantly surprising. “When people hear the word ‘refugee’, they think the children will shoot sad things, about war,” says Salih. “But the results aren’t like that. It’s very joyful.” The children capture private moments at home, playful encounters with friends or take quirky selfies. Being small, the children often astonish Salih with their unusual perspective. “Children use their imagination to create and catch moments that even a professional photographer couldn’t do,” he says.
Salih recently completed a fundraising campaign to buy a second-hand caravan that will enable him to take his workshops on tour to reach children who cannot make it to Istasyon. Now he is seeking to raise $8,000 to buy enough materials – including cameras and film – to keep the workshop and the caravan running until next summer.
Salih recalls two families, one Syrian and one Turkish, who lived in the same apartment block but had strained relations until their children joined a Sirkhane Darkroom course together. After the workshop, he says, the neighbours became close friends. “I felt like I really did something,” he says. Making art together helped forge a friendship, and a change.
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