Sirkhane Darkroom works with children across Syria, Turkey and Iraq to learn skills in photography
The travelling eight-week programme teaches children the fundamentals of photography, giving them tools to compose their own photographs and develop them by hand.
Creativity has long been perceived as a way to help people find solace and healing; a way to navigate life’s biggest challenges. This is the perspective of Serbest Salih, a photographer from Kobanî, Syria. Serbest is the founder and director of the nonprofit organisation Sirkhane Darkroom, a project that works with children across Syria, Turkey and Iraq who have witnessed violence, poverty and war. Through the project, children learn the fundamentals of photography; how to develop visual ideas; create original visions; and express themselves through the medium, later even developing their own photographs.
The inspiration for the project came to Serbest in 2012, at the start of The Syrian Civil War. Encountering many displaced people from cities across Syria in Aleppo, Serbest began getting to know individuals, carrying a camera with him and documenting people’s stories, ensuring the horrors of the war were documented. “This is when my love for people transformed into me always having a camera by my side,” Serbest says. In the years following, Serbest began formulating the idea for Sirkhane Darkroom, before it was eventually launched in 2018. And now, the project operates in the southeast of Turkey, a few kilometres from the Syrian border. Importantly, Serbest presses, the project is “non-political, non-ideological and non-religious”, founded solely with the aim of offering free creative workshops that “enable children to first of all know themselves better”.
Alongside helping children “learn how to create beauty and out of the darkness of their past and present”, Serbest tells us that the project is also one that aims to prolong childhood. “We try to prolong the childhood of those children who had to grow up very quickly due to harsh circumstances,” Serbest outlines. “We work in the areas where it is difficult to be a child and to remain a child.” In tandem with building a creative, fun and expressive place for children to meet other children their own age and with similar experiences, the project also applies methods outside of the photographic practice, taking children and their problems seriously. “Our organisation structure applies child safeguarding policies,” Sebest says, “we also facilitate access to specialised protection and other welfare services for Syrians and non-Syrian refugees in Turkey.”
Unlike many nonprofit projects, the programme takes place over an expansive time period; eight weeks to be exact. Additionally, Serbest has ensured that this period is flexible to each child’s personal circumstances, allowing for their own timeline of completion, staying with the children and ensuring each has an enriching experience. Travelling with the aim of reaching as many villages as possible, the mobile darkroom has seen numerous locales. When arriving, Serbest explains that the team meet with the “responsibles” of the village, and once the go-ahead has been given, put on a show to pique the interest of local children. The project begins after speaking with the children’s guardian or parents, and gaining both consent for the use of photos to promote the project.
“We work in areas where it is difficult to be a child and to remain a child.”Serbest Salih
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Nesrin (11) I captured this photo at the window in the garden while my brother is looking outside from inside the room. The ones in the window are me, my friends Tiyamo and Nalin.
The first week involves getting the children both excited and invested. Games are played and the children are encouraged to create their own rules and goals for the project, offering both direction and personal agency. They’re also given a summary of the project and process, and why photography is a powerful medium of expression. In week two, the children are shown a variety of cameras, being taught their main details and how to use them, and that “there's no such thing as bad photos or rules in photography”. Then, in week three the students learn about local and international photo artists, and the art of composition.
In the interim weeks the children are given a period of time to complete a 36 exposure roll; Serbest shows them how to develop them in the mobile darkroom, allowing them to get involved as a group, and also showing them how to make their own pinhole camera and photogram. Before, in week eight, focus groups discussing the photos take place, with the children selecting the photos they want exhibited or included in photobooks, adding their own personal captions.
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Seher (12) My family goes out every weekend and chats. This moment is so precious to me, that’s why I took this photo.
The programme is specifically catered to giving the children guidance, but most importantly the freedom to manifest their own creative journey – driven mainly by Serbest’s dedication. “My motivation to continue working is the impact that I see on the children by the end of the workshops, when they have started to express themselves,” Serbest says. “Children see the world through their hearts and capture it with their eyes.” This sensitivity comes across in images that have so far been produced through the projects; showing families, friends, pets and self portraits – they give a precious insight into everyday life through the lens and innocence of a child. While so many have a warmth about them, the moments of free, ashamed experimentation also result in something truly artistic. This includes a friend being captured through a window; the reflection of the photographer captured beside them in the window; a figure shown towering above through blades of grass taken through the perspective “of other living things”; and the bustling streets of a market shown from a window above.
Currently, the project is exploring ways of helping its growth – like finding ways of giving older children the tools to autonomously continue the project in their towns for future generations of children. It is also collaborating with other photographers, like Nick Brandeth, who has experience as the historical process specialist at the George Eastman Museum, and is helping the project discover ways of creating their own 35mm film. But, primarily, Serbest tells us that he simply hopes to be able to continue his project of assisting young children to “speak for themselves”, using the power of photography, film processing and storytelling to help them navigate and heal from the experience of trauma.
Sirkhane Darkroom is a nonprofit organisation who rely on people’s support to continue the project. Click here to see how you can help.
Abdullah (13) While taking pictures, I tried to capture human beings through the eyes of other living things.
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.