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Young refugees on the Syrian border were given cameras. This is what they saw

<i>Courtesy of MACK</i><br/>In a portrait by 10-year-old Alin
Courtesy of MACK
In a portrait by 10-year-old Alin

Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

With millions of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq fleeing their homes over the last decade, images of despair — of people huddled on boats, of bodies washed ashore — also migrated across newspaper front pages and down news feeds.

But in Mardin, Turkey, a city close to the Syrian border where an estimated 100,000 refugees have settled, the Sirkhane Darkroom program is giving children and teens the chance to document their experiences using pictures of their own.

The project was founded in the area in 2017 and, two years later, began traveling along the border delivering mobile photography workshops. Serbest Salih, who runs the program, brings together young refugees and locals to teach them how to use analog cameras and print their photographs as a tool for self-expression.

It is a critical outlet for kids who have grown up amid conflict, he said over video call — particularly during the pandemic, which has made it even harder for them to access education.

“They are very powerful photos by children because they show us their lives in different ways… using a simple camera,” Salih added. “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).”

The black-and-white images, more than 100 of which have now been published in the poetic book “I Saw the Air Fly,” demonstrate how photography can be a means for people to heal, not just a way for outsiders to document their trauma. A lightness and sense of play carry through the images as each young artist examines their surroundings from behind the lens.

Sultan, aged 14, took a photo of two kids arcing their bodies into twin wheels; another shows a girl with her long hair splayed out to form heart shapes. In a portrait by 10-year-old Alin, two girls sit on their heels, a hula hoop framing their faces. Elsewhere, Rojin, also 14, captured several arms raised up to whirl plates on spindly poles against a cloudy sky.

A medium for connection

Hailing from the Syrian city of Kobane, Salih began studying photography at Aleppo University in 2012 before being forced to flee from the Islamic State two years later. When he moved to Turkey, he couldn’t speak the local language, so image-making became an even more important way of expressing himself.

Photography’s ability to connect people was central to Salih’s mission when he co-founded Sirkhane Darkroom, which is part of Sirkhane, a local non-profit that runs a local circus school, arts festival and music school for children affected by war.

“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,” Salih said. “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.”

In the workshops, Salih shows students analog and digital cameras, teaches them the basics of image composition and technique, and gives them point-and-shoot film cameras to take around for a couple of weeks. Then, Salih teaches them how to develop and print their film, before helping them identify their best images.

Though it’s challenging to keep the project afloat, with obstacles ranging from fundraising to acquiring darkroom materials, Salih hopes the effort makes a difference in his students’ lives.

“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,” he said. “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.”

I Saw the Air Fly,” published by Mack, is available now. Scroll through the gallery above to see more photos from the project.

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