with an introduction by Serbest Salih
Texts in English, Arabic, and Turkish
Serbest Salih co-founded Sirkhane Darkroom with local Turkish photographer Emel Ernalbant just a few years after fleeing his native Aleppo. Resettling in Mardin in 2014, in the southeastern part of Turkey, along the border with Syria, the young Syrian photographer quickly became aware of the tensions between the area’s Turkish and Kurdish residents and the growing refugee populations that have spilled over the border while escaping neighboring wars. The region has been the site of the continuous movement of people for millennia, as power struggles have periodically sparked waves of migration. Today, Mardin Province is mostly populated by residents who have ancestral ties to the plain, including Turks, Kurds, Arabs, and Syriac Christians, in addition to recent migrants who have resettled there from Syria and Iraq. Seeking to ease these tensions with a community-oriented project, Salih and Ernalbant created Sirkhane DARKROOM, a mobile darkroom that offers workshops to children aged 7 to 17. Training over 400 children in a little over three years, the darkroom has become a critical outlet for youth in the region and a creative springboard for residents who would otherwise have little access to photography.
In the introduction to i saw the air fly, which gathers a selection of photographs produced using the mobile darkroom, Salih notes that, for these young participants, the appeal of analog photography is its inherent sense of magic: “I am always awestruck by their reactions as they watch the photograph as it begins to appear on the paper. Many of them really believe at first that it’s a type of magic.” Scanning the books black-and-white images, the process of discovery appears to unfold from one photograph to the next. The pictures are left untitled, and only the first names and ages of the young photographers are provided on the bottom right corners of each page. The exact locations of the photographs are unclear, although if one reads the selection closely, it is possible to piece together the region’s rocky terrain as it is increasingly disrupted by urban sprawl.
Over one hundred images were selected for publication. The scenes illustrated include young sheep herders guiding their flocks; groups of children running through fields of brittle tall grass; and groups of kids in front of large apartment complexes, their unfinished exteriors reflecting their newness. A young girl cloaked in a winter jacket sits proudly on a ledge made from cinder blocks that snakes behind her and out of the picture. Her young admirer, Cane, age 8, has composed the scene so that she serves as its visual anchor, much like the muses of meandering landscapes that were produced during the Italian Renaissance. Rows of recently erected, multistoried buildings in the distance are surrounded by barren land that has yet to be tended to, a blank canvas for the displaced. In the middle ground, a row of leafless trees signals the early phase of neighborhoods that will inevitably shape the lives of the children as their families make these green spaces their own. The girl’s evident confidence suggests that she is a resident of the neighborhood, comfortable in a place that she likely explores, driven by curiosity and constantly in search of wonder.
Some of the most striking photographs are reproduced over a two-page spread, for example, a picture of young boys running in a sundrenched school yard taken by Alican, age 11. As the children run toward the camera, their faces are blanketed by sun rays while their schoolmate shoots directly into the sun. Overexposed, the image has a dreamlike quality to it. Although their facial expressions are hidden, their feet, suspended in the air as they leap, reveal a moment of joy. Many of the book’s photographs similarly capture mundane carefree scenes. Shehad, age 13, photographs a girl, a friend or family member perhaps, who lifts a spotted cat in the air like a proud mother admiring her baby. The flash of the camera lights the otherwise dark living room, brightening the girl’s white dress as her long wavy hair hangs behind her. The image is simple, yet it describes unfettered tenderness.
Looking at these photographs, it is difficult to detect the emotional weight that the parents of these children must carry as they attempt to restart their lives. Sometimes, that weight creeps into the photographs—a father whose face reflects an unshakable weariness as he sits next to his daughter, or a serious child who protectively wraps her arms around younger siblings as though shielding them from the photographer’s gaze. Yet the overall feeling of this poignant book is that children are not only inquisitive but resilient, even experimental, and that no matter the context, photography will always be magical.
All of the proceeds from i saw the air fly go to the nonprofit organization that operates the mobile darkroom. Although the book is modest in size, its design pared-down and its content understated, Salih’s selection of photographs negates the type of othering imagery we are used to seeing in mainstream media. In these images, migrant communities are neither victimized nor villainized. Instead, as the children are playful and self-reflective, their lives are depicted as ordinary and familiar.