“Is this magic?” Ceylan asked Serbest Salih, her teacher, the first time she entered the darkroom. Ceylan and her family are originally from Qamishli, Syria, and she now lives in Turkey. She entered the world of photography through Sirkhane DARKROOM, a traveling photography school based in Turkey, kilometers from the Syrian border. Many of the students there are refugees, displaced by conflict.
“Can I try it too?” Ceylan asked Salih that first day in the darkroom, enchanted. Of course, she did try it. In one of her photographs, she captures another kid at play in the snow, a group of people bundled up behind him as the snowflakes continue to fall.
Students at Sirkhane DARKROOM hail from Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and beyond. Some of them are not able to attend school regularly. Under Salih’s tutelage, they learn to shoot, develop, and print 35mm film photographs, following in the footsteps of early street photography pioneers like Henri Cartier-Bresson. The students experiment with everything from pinhole cameras to instant film.
Many of them choose to document the lives of their friends, relatives, and neighbors. Some have photographed birthday parties, and others have photographed their parents as they go about their daily activities. For many students, the most exciting moment is developing the film and seeing the results emerge on the paper.
In recent years, Salih and his team have run a mobile caravan/darkroom, which allows them to travel to villages and neighborhoods to teach more children from underserved communities. In the aftermath of conflict and uncertainty, photography gives them a way to express themselves freely, while they learn essential life skills and forge connections with one another. Some of the children’s friendships have inspired their parents to become friends, even across cultural barriers.
The students at Sirkhane DARKROOM are the authors of the extraordinary book i saw the air fly, published by MACK and available now. Life as a refugee can be harsh, and there are occasional signs of trauma, seen, for example, in an army helicopter arching across the sky, but the photographs provide a lesson in the power of play and the meaning of joy. Salih sees the book as an ode to happiness.
In black and white, the students have captured circus players with plates dangling mid-air, their siblings leaping through the air, shadows dancing across the ground. Then there’s the photograph Ceylan made: the huddle of people in the snow. Beside a glorious snowman, his arms outstretched in joy, is a small polar bear, made of snow but so lifelike we half expect him to start walking out of the frame. Looking through the pictures they’ve created, I can’t help but ask the same question Ceylan did: Is this magic?
Sirkhane DARKROOM needs your support to continue to uplift and empower children through photography. “We are always in need of photography materials like compact cameras, 35mm film, and so on to continue the project,” Salih tells us. Please consider making a donation and becoming part of their journey here. Follow along on Instagram at @sirkhanedarkroom, on Facebook at @flyingsirkhanedarkroom, and on Twitter at @sirkhandarkroom. You can follow Serbest Salih at @serbestsalih_.