In Pictures: Playful Photographs by the Children of Mardin, Turkey

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I saw the air
Ibrahim, 14 years old from Al-Hasakah, SyriaImage from i saw the air fly by Sirkhane DARKROOM (MACK, 2021). Courtesy of the artist and MACK

‘I saw the air fly’ is a collection of photographs shot and selected by the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi children who have participated in a photography workshop run by Serbest Salih – here, Salih opens up about the project

When the children in Serbest Salih’s photography workshops first see their images come to life in the darkroom, they think it’s magic. “Bismillah [in the name of God]”, he amusingly recalls them saying in disbelief. Just a few kilometres from the Syrian border, in the southeastern Turkish province of Mardin, Serbest leads Sirkhane: a mobile darkroom that travels from village to village teaching children of various ages and nationalities how to shoot, develop, and print their own analogue photographs.

Over a period of a few months, Sirkhane brought together refugees from Syria and Iraq, as well as children from the area’s local Kurdish and Turkish communities. Sceptical parents too are invited to participate in workshops in the hope that this may improve strained intercommunity relations. At first painfully shy, within weeks the children are inseparable from their clunky point and shoots. They have formed profound friendships with one another and are producing photographs that shatter their parents’ and teachers’ expectations.

“Life here is hard, but that is not all these kids experience or think about. The results were surprisingly joyful,” explains Serbest, himself a refugee from the Kurdish city of Kobane in northern Syria.

I saw the air fly is an upcoming collection of photographs shot and selected by the workshop’s young participants, published by MACK. Its title – inspired by the poem Celebrating Childhood by the Syrian modernist poet Adonis – hints at the whimsical, eccentric quality of the images presented. In intimate domestic scenes, or in the plains of rural Mardin – a predominantly poor, agricultural province – the children capture moments of play in often sloping, blurry, mid-acrobatic shots.

But amid the fun and laughter, the backdrop of poverty, war, and displacement remains present: a tired, pained expression on a father’s face, an army helicopter flies overhead, children play in fields and farmlands where refugees are employed in a precarious and exploitative agricultural sector. The absence of adults in many of the photos is serene but also troubling.

The children’s images and names – transliterated from Turkish, Kurdish, or Arabic – appear side by side, evidence of the friendships that have formed between them. Most rewarding for Serbest, however, has been seeing his students better understand themselves and their place in the world. Here the choice of analogue is deliberate: “There are more opportunities to learn and grow. I wanted them to think carefully and deeply about the photos and their subjects.”

Alongside photography, the students take lessons in children’s rights, ecology, and gender equality, and have responded creatively, as in Serbest’s favourite photograph ‘one girl in two trousers’ (Zeynep, 13). Ultimately, beyond teaching photography as a technical craft, Serbest’s hope is to prepare his students for life ahead “in a region where it is difficult to be a child”.

I saw the air fly is published by MACK, and out now. The accompanying exhibition is at Bildband + MACK, Berlin until 4 September 2021. All proceeds from this publication will go to the Her Yerde Sanat-Sirkhane non-profit.