Words by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
Sirkhane’s aim is to grow the creative confidence of young refugee communities. A caravan-turned-darkroom is traveling the Turkish-Syrian border to make that happen.
Serbest Salih was already transfixed by photography after studying the medium at college in Aleppo. But when he was forced to flee Syria with his family in 2014 after Islamic State fighters closed in on his home town of Kobani, his appreciation of photography was renewed. Witnessing firsthand the value of documenting history—which some of those he was traveling with were—was enough to confirm that democratizing photography would become his life’s mission.
Salih finally arrived in Mardin, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey 350 kilometers from the Syrian border, which is now home to over 100,000 refugees. There, he partnered with Sirkhane, a nonprofit that offers circus and art workshops to Turkish, Kurdish, Syrian, and Iraqi youth, and later paired up with photographer Emel Ernalbant who first founded the darkroom workshops at Sirkhane in 2018. One year later, the duo started leading a mobile darkroom that travels from village to village, teaching children how to shoot, develop, and print their own analogue photographs.
“So many children from these regions have been deprived of educational and joyful activities for too long,” said Pınar Demiral, cofounder of Sirkhane. “Our intention is to help these children access joy.” Sirkhane was founded in 2012, six years before the mobile darkroom launched, as a safe space for children to learn and socialize with one another. In addition to arts classes and circus workshops, Sirkhane also offers child protection services, including psychological support for children who have fled warzones or escaped persecution, and helps children prepare for and enroll in local schools.
The Sirkhane darkroom was initially intended to be a short-term project born from a one-off collaboration between Ernalbant and the nonprofit. But the reception from the children they worked with was impossible to ignore. One successful grant application later—the neighboring war in Syria meant more humanitarian aid became available to Turkey-based nonprofits operating near the Syrian border—and Sirkhane’s darkroom units became a mainstay in the organization’s base in Mardin. Sirkhane also invested in a caravan-turned-darkroom to reach youth in rural areas. As part of its programmes Sirkhane started providing local youth with compact point-and-shoot cameras, each of which had 36 exposures. Each child could then use the darkroom facilities to see their negatives, choose their favorites, and learn how to develop their respective negatives from scratch. Today, the mobile darkroom can stay from six weeks to six months at a time in one community.
“These children are using photography as a very personal expression of feelings and ideas,” said Demiral. “Even if a child is not very verbal, very physical, or very sociable, photography can help them communicate their emotions to the rest of the world.”
“So many children from these regions have been deprived of educational and joyful activities for too long. Our intention is to help these children access joy.”
The photographic workshops require both a time commitment as well as emotional and creative investment. When the darkroom arrives in a village, the organizers speak to parents and guardians to explain the parameters of the project in order to gain their consent to work with the children, and to use and promote their photography via press and exhibitions. In the first week, the workshop focuses on artistic experimentation through games that help participants harness their creativity agency. The project also provides insight to the potential of photography as a storytelling medium by, for instance, explaining the ways in which framing and composition choices can alter the meaning and tone of an image. In week two, the organizers go on to demonstrate a number of cameras, offering children an opportunity to better acquaint themselves with the equipment and understand how they work. The Sirkhane darkroom organizers are also dedicated to teaching children about local and international photographers to help inspire them and show just how varied the medium can be.
By week three, the children are encouraged to begin shooting their rolls. A mixture of self-portraiture, family photos, and candid street photography, the result is a loving and affectionate snapshot into the commonplace moments of the children’s everyday lives. “These images are so honest; so pure and intimate,” said Demiral. “They bring these cameras into their own houses, onto their playgrounds. No adult has access to these moments. It really is amazing to witness.”
The work of Sirkhane, which operates in a region that has been troubled by political unrest and social conflict for decades, was already urgent. But after an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 hit eastern Turkey and northwest Syria earlier this month, Sirkhane’s mission is all the more necessary. “We never had such a disaster experience before,” said Demiral, who was in Mardin, 300 km from the epicenter, at the time of the earthquake, which has so far killed over 45,000 people and made many more homeless. “It’s heartbreaking and the situation it has put children in is extremely difficult. Our team is in the area to help affected children through psychological support.” The earthquake has forced thousands of people to seek temporary accommodation in Mardin, including in schools, mosques, and private residences.
The road to recovery is long. Turkish authorities have said that 13.5 million people have been affected by the earthquake. Although Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has promised to rebuild every destroyed home in all 10 affected provinces within a year, critics have pointed out that it was his government that facilitated weak building regulations and the waiving of safety certificates in exchange for money. While in Syria where nearly 11 million people have been affected and at least 11,000 families have been displaced, according to the United Nations. The country has been largely deprived of humanitarian aid, and international search and rescue operations despite the high death toll.
“We want to offer all our programmes [to the people who have been affected by the earthquake],” said Demiral. “Right now the situation is acute, people need food, they need shelter. This means our offering of photographic classes and our aim to create space for children to express [themselves] will come a little bit later. It’s important that it does eventually reach communities [affected by the earthquake].”
After all, the aim of the programme, Demiral stresses, is to heal through artistic expression; to empower young communities across the Turkish-Syrian border to trust their creative vision. It also serves to equip young artists with the tools and resources they need to further develop their creative journey. Not only are these important life skills, the effects can be transformative and liberating in equal measure.
“We’ll continue developing programs that center the safety and stability of children all the while bringing back that access to joy and that space for young people to socialize,” said Demiral. “That is where freedom lies—in [unbounded] self-expression.”
February 24, 2023 10:30 am
This article was updated to include Emel Ernalbant's involvement in founding Sirkhane's darkroom workshops.