Serbest Salih on Sirkhane Darkroom

3rd Nov 2023

Sirkhane is a mobile darkroom based in the Turkish city of Mardin, led by Syrian refugee and photographer, Serbest Salih. The darkroom unites local children with refugees, collectively teaching them how to take and develop their own photographs. Salih believes in photography's ability to expand children's storytelling power, and the project encourages them to see things differently, taking playful, imaginative photos that radiate happiness and light. For many children, photography comes to serve as a language and a therapeutic medium.

Sirkhane have recently had books published by MACK and DoBeDo, as well as multiple exhibitions. Salih plans to continue to expand Sirkhane internationally and use the project to help integrate refugee children into their new environment.

What was your introduction to photography and why do you think it is an important tool?

I was introduced to photography in Syria at the beginning of the Syrian conflict when visiting displaced people in my hometown. The portraits of emotion inspired me to express myself and ignited my love for photography. I can speak Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic and English, but I think photography has become my fifth language.

Tell us about Sirkhane Darkroom, how it started, and why?

Sirkhane Darkroom is a photography program, established in 2017 under Sirkhane Social Circus. The idea of the project is to use photography as a language to help integrate refugee children while teaching analogue photography as a means for children to express themselves. We started the project in Istasyon, which neighbours Mardin on the Turkish-Syrian and Iraqi border. One of the important reasons for establishing such a project was to bring refugees and local children together, creating a friendly and united space for them. Due to barriers and inaccessibility to services, there was a lot of discrimination between local and refugee communities. As a solution, we wanted to give children the chance to unify and share the world through their eyes with us.

Why do you choose to use analogue cameras instead of digital ones?

Analogue photography pedagogy is a healing tool. It helps the physical and mental processing of emotions because it involves a careful step-by-step approach. Analogue photography teaches children self-confidence, communication skills, and is a way for them to make new friends. At the beginning of the project, the children might feel confounded entering a new environment, but with the power of analogue photography and our informal teaching methods, they slowly start expressing themselves. Being unable to instantaneously delete images, children can better understand that photography doesn't have rules and feel more connected to their pictures.

What is the biggest challenge you face running the darkroom?

We are a non-profit organisation. Our mission is to make the world a better place for children and give them a chance to learn new skills and be inspired by each other. We are an organisation based on donations alone and are always in need of support to continue our journey. Photography materials are expensive due to the weak value of the dollar in Turkey so a lack of funding can raise challenges in maintaining our program.

What does the future hold for Sirkhane Darkroom?

Thanks to our travelling caravan, we have plans to visit more vulnerable areas in Turkey and along the Syrian border. We hope to inspire and teach ex-students to become future leaders and continue the project, expanding our reach to even more distant regions. We are also trying to think up more sustainable solutions to continuing analogue photography; like making pinhole cameras, and creating more environmentally friendly chemicals.

You can show your support by donating money or by sending analogue cameras and darkroom equipment. Follow Sirkhane Darkroom on Instagram to find out more.

Buy 'Friends No Borders' by Sirkhane Darkroom here.