Book Review: i saw the air fly by Sirkhane Darkroom

Over a decade of brutal civil war in Syria has created a dire humanitarian crisis. The conflict has displaced approximately two-thirds of the population. Of the almost 7 million refugees who have fled Syria, more than 5 ½ million are sheltering just across the border in Southeast Turkey, with minimal access to education, health care, and other resources. As is always the case, young people are especially vulnerable. Those coming of age during this time are at risk of becoming a lost generation.

Published in 2021, i saw the air fly provides an intimate glimpse into the daily lives of some of these young people, from their point of view. Defying expectations, it’s a collective portrait of resilience and joy, wonder and curiosity.

The book compiles over 100 black-and-white photographs that showcase the work of the Sirkhane Darkroom, a photography program for child refugees in the region. The program began in 2017, in conjunction with an NGO called the Sirkhane Social Circus School. Documentary photographer Serbest Salih, a Syrian refugee himself, is the director and co-founder. Children as young as 7 are eligible to participate, and there are a number of Kurdish and Iraqi children in the program as well. (In his afterward, Salih describes the area as a “melting pot” of refugees from around the region.)

The kids are given old compact point-and-shoot film cameras to document their daily lives. Afterwards, they develop and print their images in a small makeshift darkroom on wheels. The project could have just as easily utilized digital point-and-shoot cameras, but Salih wanted the children to experience the process of shooting film and the magic of developing prints. In his afterward, he elucidates how analog processes emphasize the need for patience. There’s no instant gratification, and there’s no disrupting the moment to look at the photos on the back of the camera.

These young people have a great deal of talent and potential, and quite a few of the photos are strong standalone images. Yet, what truly gives this book lasting value is the way that it reveals the kids’ collective resiliency, independent spirit, and playfulness. Amid extraordinarily challenging circumstances, the workshop participants turn their cameras on the fun and joyful moments rather than focusing on the struggles resulting from being displaced, and that’s why these photos are so essential. Such images are almost always missing from the overall story.

Their photos help tell a more complete story of what happens after the bullets stop flying, as people try to pick up the pieces of their lives. As Salih writes in the afterward, “These aren’t the photographs adults expect to see from children who have grown up surrounded by conflict, they aren’t photographs of trauma or sadness. Instead, they are a testament to the resilience of the childhood imagination, the healing power of photography, and the enchanting perspective of childhood.”

Photo by Refai, 12 years old, from Derbasiye, Syria.

There’s something timeless about children playing, and the black and white film approach conveys that sense of timelessness better than digital could. Many of the images tend to be a little rough around the edges, which also adds to the appeal for me. There are tilted horizons, blown-out highlights, soft focus from taking a picture too close to the subject and other “composition errors,” all of which accurately convey the anarchic chaos of childhood exploration, in which there are no rules. And in the process of discovery, the kids take photos that call to mind those of famous photographers who consciously bent or broke the rules as well.

The photos are either printed one per page or laid out across two pages, and most come at you in short, staccato bursts. In one spread, the photo on the left-hand page shows a young girl at prayer in an empty rug-covered room next to a generic plastic chair that is slightly taller than she is. The photo on the right shows a young boy practicing with a hula hoop indoors. It appears to have been taken in the same room—or perhaps a similar room. (The living spaces have a cramped uniformity.) In a few instances, grown-ups (parents and relatives) are pictured, but mostly it’s just kids, in their own worlds.

The circumstances of war are mostly hinted at, found in the margins and a few revealing details. The most direct and compelling depiction appears towards the middle of the book. A helicopter hovers in a grainy, monochrome slate grey sky, situated in the lower middle of the frame. Rendered in silhouette, it has an ominous quality, a signifier of the ongoing conflict.

The photos are printed without captions – only the first name of the photographer along with their age is provided. This is a smart decision—for the majority of images, captions are unnecessary. And while a little more information or context would be useful for the helicopter photo, as a viewer, I can’t help but put myself in the photographer’s shoes, and to try and ascertain what I would be thinking and feeling as a young person in that situation. That’s more valuable than caption information when it comes to understanding these images.

Photo by Muhammed, 17 years old, from Raqqa, Syria.

The proceeds from book sales will help fund the Sirkhane Darkroom. People can also support the program by making a direct donation.

A quick note: When I started this review, Russia had yet to invade Ukraine. Now that the invasion is in full swing, I can’t help but consider the parallels. The flood of images coming out of Ukraine can and will bring about greater awareness and understanding of the tragic situation, counter disinformation, and inspire action. Let’s hope that the toll that conflict takes once the bullets stop flying—especially on the young—does not go ignored.

i saw the air fly by Sirkhane Darkroom. Mack Books, 2021. 160 pages. Paperback.

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