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17.03.2024 · Serbest Salih & Aslı Baykal

 Interview & Edit by Hasan Gündogan

Located in southeastern Turkey, just kilometers away from the Syrian border, lies Sirkhane: a roaming darkroom that journeys from one village to another, educating children on capturing, developing, and printing their own photographs. Run by Serbest Salih, a photographer that fled from Syria, this darkroom operates under the foundational principle of photography as a universal and healing medium. We got to talk to Serbest and also Aslı, who directed the documentary "Darkroom", to learn more about the children of Istasyon (Mardin), Sirkhane and their gaze.

Hasan: Before we dive into your work with the kids and Sirkhane, I wanted to know how you first of all found your way to photography and what it means to you?


Serbest: My journey into photography began with a sense of curiosity and a desire to capture the world around me. As a child, I was fascinated by the ability of photographs to freeze moments in time and evoke emotions long after they were taken. Over time, photography became not just a hobby, but a means of self-expression and a way to communicate my perspective on the world. It allows me to document moments of beauty, resilience, and humanity, as well as moments of struggle and injustice. Through all of this, I strive to shed light on untold stories, amplify marginalized voices, and inspire empathy and understanding. In essence, photography is not just a profession or a hobby for me - it is a way of life. It is a lens through which I view the world and a medium through which I seek to make a positive impact, both personally and socially.

HG: Since Sirkhane is registered as a Social Circus School & Culture House, that is organizing far more programs than just the “DARKROOM”, how did you actually first start or get in touch with them and what was sort of the most important feature / meaning that you wanted to implement into “Sirkhane Darkroom”?

SS: My journey with Sirkhane began through a shared passion for using the arts as a means of empowerment and social change. I first became aware of Sirkhane's work through their reputation as a Social Circus School & Culture House that provided a safe space for children affected by conflict and displacement to express themselves creatively and build resilience through circus arts, theater, and other cultural activities. The most important feature and meaning that I wanted to implement into "Sirkhane Darkroom" was the idea of using photography as a tool for healing, empowerment, and self-expression. While Sirkhane already offered a range of programs aimed at fostering creativity and resilience among children, I saw an opportunity to introduce photography as an additional medium through which children could explore their experiences, tell their stories, and connect with others.

My vision for Sirkhane Darkroom was to create a nurturing and inclusive environment where children could learn the technical skills of photography, while also gaining a deeper understanding of the power of visual storytelling.

I wanted to provide them with the tools and resources they needed to capture moments of beauty, resilience, and hope amidst their challenging circumstances, and to share these stories with the world.

Moreover, I wanted Sirkhane DARKROOM to serve as a platform for amplifying the voices and perspectives of marginalized children, both within their own communities and on a global scale. By showcasing their photographs in exhibitions, publications, and media outlets, I hoped to challenge stereotypes, foster empathy, and inspire positive change. <

HG: As someone who just like a lot of the children that you encounter at your workshops and travels, has a story of fleeing or displacement - how would you describe the importance of creating these playful spaces for them?

SS: These spaces serve as sanctuaries of safety, joy, and normalcy amidst the chaos and uncertainty of displacement. For children who have been uprooted from their homes due to conflict, persecution, or other adversities, playful spaces offer a sense of stability and routine in an otherwise tumultuous environment. They provide a respite from the challenges of displacement, allowing children to momentarily escape the harsh realities of their circumstances and reconnect with their innate sense of curiosity, creativity, and wonder. Moreover, it´s playing a crucial role in promoting their emotional well-being and psychological resilience. It allows them to process their experiences, express their emotions, and build coping skills in a safe and supportive environment. Through play, children can explore their identities, form meaningful connections with others, and regain a sense of agency and control over their lives. 

Additionally, playful spaces offer opportunities for learning, growth, and empowerment. Whether through art, music, sports, or other recreational activities, children can develop new skills, expand their horizons, and cultivate a sense of belonging and community. These experiences are not only enriching on an individual level but also contribute to the social cohesion and cohesion of communities. Creating these playful spaces for children affected by displacement is not just about providing entertainment or distraction—it is about nurturing their holistic development, resilience, and well-being. It is about recognizing their inherent dignity, worth, and potential, and affirming their right to a childhood filled with joy, laughter, and hope, regardless of their circumstances.

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Hamoude, 10 years old from Alhasake, Syria

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Yusuf, 9 years old from Aleppo, Syria

Hasan: How did they first interact with the cameras? It seems as if you try to make it as entertaining and free as possible for them - could you describe that process?


Serbest: When the children first interacted with the cameras at Sirkhane DARKROOM workshops, we aimed to make the experience both enjoyable and liberating for them. Here's how we approached it:

1. Introduction to Cameras: We began by introducing the children to the cameras in a playful and inviting manner. Rather than overwhelming them with technical details, we focused on showcasing the cameras as tools for creativity and self-expression. 

2. Hands-On Exploration: We encouraged the children to explore the cameras freely, allowing them to touch, handle, and experiment with the various buttons and settings. This hands-on approach helped demystify the cameras and made the children feel more comfortable and confident using them. 

3. Playful Activities: We incorporated playful activities and games to familiarize the children with the cameras in a fun and interactive way. For example, we might have organized a scavenger hunt where the children had to find and photograph specific objects or colors around the workshop space. 

4. Encouragement and Support:Throughout the process, we provided plenty of encouragement and support to the children. We praised their curiosity, creativity, and efforts, regardless of the quality of their photographs. This positive reinforcement helped boost their confidence and motivation to continue exploring photography. 

5. **Freedom to Experiment:** Importantly, we emphasized that there were no right or wrong ways to use the cameras. We encouraged the children to experiment with different angles, perspectives, and subjects, empowering them to trust their instincts and express themselves authentically through photography. 

6. Sharing and Collaboration: Finally, we facilitated opportunities for the children to share their photographs with each other and collaborate on creative projects. This fostered a sense of camaraderie and community among the participants, as they celebrated each other's successes and learned from one another's perspectives. 


By creating a supportive and playful environment, we sought to ignite the children's curiosity and passion for photography, while also empowering them to develop their own unique artistic voices.

HG: That's incredibly thoughtful and I think it translates into their amazing images perfectly. It just illustrates how important the whole provided setting is for not just their social wellbeing in the group but also their individual mental state. This also leads me to a question regarding a lot of descriptions that I saw in articles naming the Darkroom a “workshop”.

Would you actually call your work with the children “workshops” because I believe is there a far more social and pedagogical aspect, since I doubt that every single child has access to regular school courses due to for example the earthquake disaster last year or even simple language barriers?

SS: While "workshop" is commonly used, our work at Sirkhane DARKROOM extends beyond traditional workshops. Given the diverse backgrounds and challenges the children face, our activities address social, emotional, and educational needs. We provide a holistic learning environment, fostering personal growth and cultural exchange. Our approach is inclusive and adaptive, ensuring accessibility for all children. Ultimately, our mission is to nurture, empower, and inspire, regardless of the challenges they may face.

I saw the air fly book

"I saw the air fly" published by MACK London

Hasan: You´ve published this beautiful book called “I saw the air fly” together with Mack London, that illustrates some of the black and white photos the kids took. What does it mean to you and the young photographers to actually create printed matter, since you use analogue methods as a core feature of your project - and then of course, to what degree does it help from a pedagogical standpoint?


SS: Creating the photography book with Mack London holds profound significance for both myself and the young photographers involved. For me, it represents a tangible manifestation of our collective efforts and a testament to the power of storytelling through photography.

For the young photographers, seeing their photographs published in a physical book is a source of immense pride and validation. It validates their creative talents and provides them with a platform to share their unique perspectives with the world. Moreover, the process of creating printed matter instills a sense of accomplishment and ownership over their work, reinforcing their confidence and self-worth. Beyond personal fulfillment, the publication of "I Saw the Air Fly" holds broader implications for the children and their communities. It amplifies their voices and stories, shedding light on their experiences and challenging stereotypes and misconceptions. By sharing their photographs in a tangible format, the young photographers become agents of change, contributing to greater empathy, understanding, and social change. In essence, "I Saw the Air Fly" represents more than just a book—it is a symbol of empowerment, resilience, and hope. It celebrates the creativity and resilience of the young photographers while amplifying their voices and fostering positive change in their communities and beyond.

Our zoom mic was always in the hands of the kids.

They interviewed each other and sang to it. The sound design of the film comes from these field recordings. <

HG: Well speaking of validation and the manifestation of their work, this is a great moment to introduce Aslı Baykal! Now as Serbest already mentioned how Sirkhane works and shared the process of their image-making, you´ve on the other hand created this beautiful 14 minute documentary called “DARKROOM”, that premiered MoMa´s Doc Fortnight 2023 and had its London premiere at the London Short Film Festival. It sort of displays an immersive glimpse into the life and environment of the children in and around the studio in Istasyon, Mardin. We can see the kids wandering around the nearby scenery, singing & dancing together, talking about their future plans and a couple of moments where they are shooting and developing film together. But what was your first impression / feeling when you encountered Serbest, the kids and Sirkhane - and ultimately how did it generally came to be?

Aslı Baykal: I came across Sirkhane Darkroom’s Instagram page back in 2019. I was in awe of the kids’ images and how their creativity came across unobstructed. They were free, honest, playful and carefree. I grew up wanting to explore in that way, but being so conscious in some ways, I waited for permission to do so.

So, that was my first reaction to the images. I wanted everyone to see them and be aware of what Serbest was doing. It didn’t start off with me wanting to do a short film project but to raise awareness through their presence. I built up the courage to reach out to Serbest. After the lockdown, I set out to travel there, which ended up taking place in October 2021.

HG: It definitely had to be a big event for the kids, seeing you and your crew arriving with cameras from abroad just to be filming them - while until then, they mostly were in the role of photographing and observing their surroundings. How did they react to that and how did it feel to work with them?

AB: Kids love performing to the camera. If there are a group of them! They will want to touch it and one up each other. My crew included Gillian Garcia (DP) and Raf Fellner (Producer). They came to help me out from LA and London. I was the translator between them and the kids. They were the stars of the town! I was happy to watch them interact with the kids and exchange mutual curiosity. We played together a lot. Raf led a drawing class. Gillian learned some Turkish words related to the camera to show how it works. Our zoom mic was always in the hands of the kids. They interviewed each other and sang to it. The sound design of the film comes from these field recordings.

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Stills from "DARKROOM", a documentary by Asli Baykal

HG: In the first scene of the short film, we´re following two young girls through a cornfield just when the title appears, and we suddenly find ourselves watching and listening to the kids of Istasyon and Sirkhane. As you mention yourself - the children´s gaze and thus their photos often form portals into their reality, and I felt like your depiction of them and their surroundings sort of did something similar. We ́re immersed into the sounds and scenery of them. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?


AB: My initial idea was to create an exquisite corpse of stories in which kids collaborate together. It’s a play where each one adds another line to the unfolding story. I thought this would be a good way to introduce storytelling as an additional tool to their already beautiful visuals. And the film would be “making of” reenacting this epic story. When I went there and started to interact with the kids, I realized that I had to adapt to them, not the other way around. As we began to get to know each other, each day became another layer of the film, and I observed the life they led there. The darkroom is situated inside this garden with pomegranate trees in contrast to the rest of the village. So, I wanted to portray this oasis and how the kids interact with the space while giving the audience the similar experience of being there but also keeping the mystery. The cornfield is where they go in their free time, so I was down for that adventure. That one was one of my favorite days to this date.

HG: Could you maybe tell us about anything that you learned during the process of filming / collaborating that was unexpected or interesting for yourselves?

SS: One of the most inspiring aspects was witnessing the remarkable resilience and creativity of the children. Despite facing significant challenges and adversities, they approached photography with enthusiasm, curiosity, and resourcefulness. Their ability to find beauty and meaning in the midst of hardship was both humbling and enlightening. Collaborating with the children from diverse backgrounds provided valuable insights into the power of cross-cultural exchange. Despite differences in language, culture, and lived experiences, we found common ground through our shared passion for photography. This reinforced the universal language of art and the potential for creativity to bridge divides and foster understanding. Filming the children as they shared their stories and experiences through photography revealed the profound strength and vulnerability inherent in their narratives. Many of them courageously opened up about their struggles, hopes, and dreams, demonstrating a depth of emotional maturity and resilience beyond their years. the process of filming and collaborating with the children at Sirkhane Darkroom was a profound learning experience that deepened our understanding of resilience, creativity, cross-cultural exchange, community support, and the transformative power of art. It reinforced the importance of amplifying marginalized voices and investing in initiatives that empower vulnerable youth to thrive and flourish.

AB: The most cherished lesson of our project while filming was the importance of collaboration with Serbest and the children - the way it comes out in listening to each other, observing, being curious, being patient, understanding, sharing ideas, being inspired by each other's courage and culture. I’m forever in awe of them, and I learned so much. Hope I made them proud.

They long for a world free from violence, where they can live without fear and uncertainty, and pursue their dreams in safety. <

HG: Lastly, what are the kids wishing for these days and what is it that we from abroad in Europe or wherever, could maybe do to support that in your opinion?

SS: The wishes of the children at Sirkhane Darkroom vary widely, reflecting their individual hopes, dreams, and aspirations. However, some common themes that emerge include: Many children wish for access to quality education and opportunities for learning and personal growth. This includes access to schools, teachers, and educational resources that can equip them with the skills and knowledge they need to build a better future for themselves and their communities. Given the experiences of conflict and displacement many of them have endured, peace and stability are often at the forefront of their wishes. They long for a world free from violence, where they can live without fear and uncertainty, and pursue their dreams in safety. The children cherish opportunities to express themselves creatively and to share their stories with the world. They wish for platforms and support to showcase their talents, whether through photography, art, music, or other forms of creative expression. Despite their diverse backgrounds, the children value connection and solidarity with others, both within their communities and beyond. They wish for friendships, understanding, and support from people around the world, recognizing the importance of global solidarity in addressing shared challenges.

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Gizem, 12 years old from Nusaybin, Turkey

Serbest Salih

is a renowned photo artist and the dedicated director of @sirkhanedarkroom. Hailing from Kobanî, Syria, Serbest's journey in photography began as a means of documenting the resilience and beauty he witnessed amidst the turmoil of conflict and displacement. His passion for using photography as a tool for healing and empowerment led him to found Sirkhane Darkroom, a pioneering initiative that empowers children affected by war and displacement through the art of photography.

Aslı Baykal

is a Turkish visual artist and film curator. Her work is expressed in films and photographs, ranging from documentaries to magical realism in fiction. Existing between reality and fiction, she aims to create works that address layered social issues and old and newly formed collective histories embedded in personal journeys. She has collaborated with musicians such as Sampha, Nick Hakim, Princess Nokia, Karen O, and others. More recently, she started AIRTIME, a new alternative streaming platform.

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