Conquest of paradise: Witness Kashmir in the light of reality
Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016: 9 Photographers, a photo book released by Yaarbal, toes a tough line. Edited by the documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak, the book decisively places the spotlight on photojournalistic work from the Kashmir valley, resulting in a collection of 200 images that are shocking and impactful. Designed by Sukanya Baskar, the book brings together nine photographers — Meraj Ud din, Javeed Shah, Dar Yasin, Javed Dar, Altaf Qadri, Sumit Dayal, Showkat Nanda, Syed Shahriyar and Azaan Shah. (The project was supported by the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, under their Culture in Defiance programme; and the India Foundation for the Arts, under the Arts Research programme.) In an email exchange, Nanda spoke of the moral dilemmas they were faced with, and the hope for peace.
How much of your effort was to present images of Kashmir that are true to ground realities, as opposed to idealistic picturesque visuals?
Showkat Nanda When choosing pictures for Witness, there came a time when I was superconscious about the choice of the images. Aside from my own possessiveness about some portions of my work, there were several other factors that influenced my decisions. The most important among them was an urge to offer an accurate depiction in terms of a visual style. During my conversations with Sanjay, I always stressed upon the importance of a visual narrative, a series of pictures telling a story, rather than single unrelated images.
Because I consider myself a documentary photographer rather than a photojournalist, I wanted the book to reflect that part of my style. Regarding the content, it was certainly about what was happening in Kashmir, which is the conflict and all its threads. All other pictures that show some kind of calm, or which are not directly related to the conflict, were mere visual disruptions — a place where the viewer can get some rest, and feel kind of relaxed, because in such pictures he/she doesn’t need to look for a context.
What manner of discussions do you hope to encourage with the book? How have you found people reacting to some of these visuals?
SN My hope is that the audience looks at Witness as an authentic document of history, as witnessed by nine different practitioners. I did have the apprehension that this might be seen as something projecting a certain narrative with a propagandistic tendency, especially by the Indian audience. But the fact is that nine different photographers with different backgrounds, who have worked in completely different settings, would not all be furthering a particular agenda. The only logical understanding of it would be that the work that went into Witness is indeed the ground reality of Kashmir, which has been documented as honestly as possible. I was, and am still hoping that this book will help people revisit their understanding of Kashmir, which oftentimes is very crude and extremely skewed.
What was your most provocative encounter, in capturing and putting together these pictures?
SN I think the most provocative encounter, in a very positive sense though, was when we had a discussion on one of my photographs, where a young boy is throwing stones at an armoured vehicle. This image had led me, years later, to drop my camera and throw stones. It was all about the rationality of my getting involved in this unusual way, the ideas of neutrality and bias, and my own responsibility as a human being and as a photographer.
Tell us about the fine line between photo-journalistic intentions and the visual aspects of a good composition. How much of this can be defined as fine art? Are you comfortable with the idea of photojournalism as fine art?
SN To me, documentary photography has always been about aesthetics as much as it is about content — and then using both to put across a point. I see a photojournalistic image as a product of tension between aesthetics and content. Creative tension suggests some kind of balance. If you have too much content over aesthetics, the photographs may be descriptive, but visually uninteresting. On the other hand, if you have too much of an emphasis on aesthetics, the photograph will fail to convey the message about the situation you are trying to document.
I feel that there are photographs in the book that overtly fall in the genre of fine-art photography, such as pictures by Azaan Shah. Whereas, there are some other photographs which are strictly photojournalistic but, as I earlier mentioned, have a strong aesthetic element in them. For instance, (Brazilian social documenter) Sebastião Salgado and (American war photographer) James Nachtwey have often been accused of ‘beautifying’ their pictures of war and suffering, but I personally have a disagreement with the critics.I am also of the belief that whenever a journalistic photograph finds its way into a gallery, it automatically becomes a piece of art. Though there has been a lot of criticism in this regard too.
Images of strife are never easy to consume. For the large part, people in Kashmir are hopeful about peace, and the valley’s identity as “jannat”, an earthly paradise. Do you fear that efforts documenting conflict in the region might work against such hopes? How wary were you of furthering negative impressions?
SN What you call ‘pictures furthering negative impressions’ is a hard reality of Kashmir. As a photographic artist, I have always felt that it is these pictures that are positive, in the manner that they depict a sense of self- consciousness among a population, and an ability to differentiate between right and wrong. Fighting or raising voices against oppression can never ever have a negative connotation.
I personally find hope in the so-called negative pictures than those that portray an idealism that doesn’t exist in a situation where killings are a routine. Dreamy landscapes may be beautiful and idealistic, but dreamy they are. When Kashmiris wake up in the morning, all they witness is strife and violence. Those pictures that seem to present a negative impression of Kashmir are, sadly, an everyday reality for common people. It would be unethical to show something that is contrary to this reality.
There is nothing wrong in taking pictures that “further a positive impression of Kashmir”. The problem starts when a particular narrative, extremely sinister in its design, is projected in the garb of these dreamy and happy pictures. In Kashmir, a person doesn’t need to an Einstein to understand how the state has been working on such things. People in Kashmir now understand a particular narrative is being projected behind a collage of those dreamy pictures!
If, as a photographer, you depict a rosy picture of the valley when violence is the norm, you could easily be labelled as a potential collaborator! So skeptic have common people become of the state over the last three decades.
How do you balance all these emotions — of rage, protest, agitation, fear, anxiety, sorrow, loss and longing — while capturing these snapshots? What kind of thoughts did you have racing through your mind, while clicking some of these pictures?
SN In the situation where we usually work, and I am sure that's true for my colleagues also, it's natural that you are engulfed in a sea of mixed emotions. Sometimes you are angry and enraged, at other times, you are just sad at what you are witnessing. The reaction to every kind of emotion has been varied, at least in my case. Sometimes I feel that the best way to react is to keep shooting. All you can do is to channelise your emotions into your work. Sometimes I just stop shooting and put my camera in my bag. There are times when I am on a personal story, and it moves you so much that you come back without taking a single picture.But I think the worst time comes when you do not know how to ‘balance’ the situation. For instance, I was taking pictures of the famous Srinagar-Muzaffarabad march in 2008, and the huge procession was fired upon by the paramilitary forces. Every time I looked through the viewfinder, I would not only be clicking pictures of the dead and the injured, but also making sure that the bullet-ridden bodies are not that of a cousin, or a friend’s brother, the son of a distant aunt or a neighbour who had greeted me when I was leaving home in the morning.
That is the biggest difference between covering a conflict miles away from your home, and the war in which your kitchen turns into a battlefield.
Do you ultimately hope to put together images of a pleasant Kashmir?
SN Yes, certainly. But only when we have no unpleasant pictures to capture. When we don't find scenes that make us cry unfolding on the streets of Kashmir. Everyone would want Kashmir to be presented as a happy place but that’s only possible in the absence of grief. I hope that one day Kashmiri photojournalists do not find a single picture that has violence in it.
Witness, by Yaarbal, `2,400. Order on the Facebook page @witnesskashmirbook.