My piece on Witness, in Mint Lounge:
A magnificent new photography book offers a fine-grained, harrowing engagement with Kashmir's last 30 years.
In a recent interview, Donald R. Winslow, a veteran US photojournalist and former editor of News Photographer magazine, rued what he called the “philosophical devaluation” of photojournalism. “It used to be about the vision of the photographer you were sending...,” Winslow told The New York Times. “Now, we’re willing to accept whatever we can afford to buy from somebody who’s already there. It’s not about the caliber of the journalism or photography.”
The question of location is certainly fundamental—just not necessarily in the way Winslow presumes in his classic view from the metropole. The 200 photographs that make up the magnificent new photo book Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016/Nine Photographers were all taken in Kashmir, shot by “somebody who’s already there”. Barring one, the nine photographers grew up in Kashmir, and continue to live there or at least visit frequently. Their work, then, is precisely the opposite of the outsider who jets into the conflict zone to get a great picture: It is a fine-grained, long-time engagement with the world around them, a turbulent world of which they are themselves part.
In a world where “photographers, their subjects and spectators all share the recognition that what they are witnessing is intolerable”, as film-maker and writer Sanjay Kak suggests in his introduction, photography becomes the exercise of a civic skill. The stunning archive of images in Witness is, thus, an excavation of Kashmiri public memory, of the sort that almost never gets seen outside the state. Along with Kak’s detailed, thoughtful profiles of the photographers, these photographs leave us in no doubt about what it is like to live and work in Kashmir—what it has been like for 30 years. As the pot of memories is stirred, the photographers’ own experiences of violence rise to the surface: a schoolmate found dead one morning, a teenaged brother lost to a cause, frightening encounters with the army or police.
For many of the photographers, the camera was a personal response to the harrowing times they grew up in. “In those days, when you left in the morning, you didn’t know if you would come home in the evening. I thought if I get a press card, it might save my life,” Javed Dar said at the book’s Delhi launch in February. Dar smiled broadly, but it was no joke. And what began as a strategic tactic— the press card as a way to stand out from the crowd in a landscape strewn with army and police barriers—transformed into something more deeply felt. “Pictures gave me something. When I go out with my camera I still do feel strong and powerful, like a soldier with a gun,” photographer Dar Yasin told Kak.
Of course, the life of the Kashmiri press photographer is inextricably entwined with the threat of violence. Meraj Uddin, the most senior photographer in the book, speaks of the death of a photojournalist (in a bomb attack ) in whose honour Srinagar’s Press Colony was renamed Mushtaq Ali Enclave. “Vulnerable as individuals, photographers in Srinagar began to move around in groups, with no fewer than three cars, a practice that is visible to this day,” writes Kak. Risk is the photographer’s currency, and it is normalized to the point of becoming an initiation ritual.
Soon after his arrival in Srinagar in 2009, when Sumit Dayal, who was brought up in Nepal, got beaten up by a crowd calling him “CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) ka aadmi”, his photojournalist friends received the news with equanimity, and that brand of mordant humour one hears often in Kashmir. “Welcome to the club. Now you are officially a Kashmiri photographer,” Dar Yasin told Dayal. “What you also need is a beating from the other side, from the CRPF. Then you’ll be a full man, a photojournalist.”
Photography in Kashmir has emerged in a cultural context where there is almost no local film-making, and little space for art. Witness opens up a much needed conversation about Kashmir, including the role of creative and intellectual practice in a place so embattled. Not all the images here refer directly to the conflict. But whether we are looking at a child at an Eid sacrifice, or a watchful migrant worker bundled up in plastic during the 2014 flood, violence can never be far from our minds. In Kak’s words: “There will be blood, but in what way will you confront it on the page?”
|Kuka Parray with his Ikhwan militia|
Meraj Uddin, b. 1959
The doyen of Kashmiri photojournalists, by 1990 he was the first port of call for all journalists visiting the state. His images act as an archive: a beret-wearing Yasin Malik at a 1986 rally for Palestine; the open-mouthed body of Neelkanth Ganjoo, a Kashmiri Pandit judge assassinated in 1989 (possibly for sentencing Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front founder Maqbool Bhat to death); and, in the image here, the militant-turned-counterinsurgent Kuka Parray, posing with his infamous pro-government militia, the Ikhwan.
|Village boys at Yusmarg -- Javeed Shah|
Javeed Shah, b. 1967
To newspaper readers, Shah’s photographs are familiar from his years at The Indian Express and, later, Mint. Shah often composes a picture along a diagonal axis, like the one here, which makes clear how different life is for boys and girls in Kashmir. His flair for colour can sometimes produce something disturbingly elemental: His image of a watermelon, bleeding red pulp on to the tarmac after the 2006 blast at Naaz Cinema, is pure documentation and metaphor.
|Funeral at Pehlipora -- Dar Yasin, @AP Images|
Dar Yasin, b. 1973
Yasin has worked with Associated Press for a decade; his images must feed the relentless maw of the news cycle. “He likes to think of himself as doing a job, one that he simply wants to do well,” writes Kak. And yet, as his Witness images reveal, Yasin’s work can always be read for more. The stone-throwers he captures in dramatic mid-leap have blank, masked faces—sharply juxtaposed with the angry gaze of the boy pockmarked with pellet-gun injuries. In the image above, the crimson blankets that swathe dead militants’ bodies lend their funerals a mythic air, evoking blood but also royalty and martyrdom.
Showkat Nanda, b. 1982
Nanda was 7 when police firing in Baramulla killed his teenaged cousin Parvez. Months later, in March 1990, Nanda’s 16-year-old brother Sajad joined the Jammu and Kashmir Students Liberation Front. He died in an accident while crossing the Line of Control, and Kak’s conversations with Nanda in the book elicit the family’s stored-up grief: a fiery speech Sajad once crafted; a poem their headmaster-father wrote about losing a son to a cause. Much of his work appears rooted in that personal loss: There’s a series on young boys on the run, a series on stone-throwers, another on women whose sons and husbands have disappeared.
|Shopkeepers at Jamia Masjid -- Azaan Shah|
The youngest to be included in ‘Witness’, Shah lives with his parents and elder sister in Fatehkadal and likes to think of himself as a photographer of Srinagar’s streets. “I want to show only one thing well, and that is downtown,” he told Kak in the book. But even as he stalks the downtown neighbourhoods of Zainakadal, Bohrikadal, Alikadal and Jamia Masjid (seen in picture), he usually overlooks the protest image for the street that is shut down, or the stillness of a lone figure against a background. The most dramatic things in his pictures are the shadows.
Published in Mint Lounge, 11 Mar 2017.