“Azz draev na photo kehn?” Didn’t get the pictures today?
Nineteen-year-old photographer Azaan Shah’s family asks him this question every time he returns home looking a bit off colour. Seemingly innocuous, the question appears at the end of a comprehensive new volume of a photographic history of Kashmir and is telling of India’s imagination of life in the state – one that is largely shaped by the photographs in the mainstream media. If one does not see images in the newspaper on a particular day, Kashmir’s conflict becomes invisible again.
Edited by Sanjay Kak, a documentary filmmaker, Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016/Nine Photographers is not just a book of photographs – it is also a volume of experiences by insiders who chose the visual medium over text. “Partly by serendipity, partly by editorial influence, this is a narrative about Kashmir, encouraged by new ways of thinking about it,” said Kak about Witness.
Comprising 200 images by nine photographers over three decades, the book is also an object. A thin thread wraps itself around the book, compelling the reader to untie it and reveal the heaviness of the title and the weight of its consequence. By design, the inner spine reveals the colour palette of pages that bear blood and tears, much like Kashmir’s landscape. This kind of intuitive book-making gives the photographs a life beyond what visuals of conflict would find in a newspaper or a magazine.
Though arranged chronologically by the photographers’ ages, the images in Witness steer clear of a historical timeline of Kashmir’s conflict. The emphasis here is on the common space where photographers, spectators and subjects are all witnesses in their own right.
Beginning with Meraj Ud Din, the oldest photographer to appear in the book, Witness reveals its gravitas. The legendary American photographer Weegee had a police radio installed in his car, which led him to New York crime scenes in the 1930s before anyone else. Meraj inadvertently enjoyed a similar advantage during his time at the English daily Kashmir Times, where if one picked up the phone, they could hear the wireless feed of the local police control room. That is how Meraj first heard of the kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed, the daughter of Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, by Kashmiri militants in December 1989.
The Jhelum floods of 2014 wrecked much in Srinagar, including the Press Colony, taking in its flow not only the entire archive of the Srinagar Times, but also Meraj’s two boxes of film negatives. Some of the negatives that Meraj’s son Umar managed to salvage were worked on digitally for the book, and their renewed viewing and presentation is interesting. There is an image of abandoned footwear in Bijbehara town with a yellowish band running through, because Meraj’s camera was opened by a soldier, leaving the film exposed.
The carefully considered book design also presents cropped parts of photos on separate pages, preceding the original frame, thus exposing the fragility of context and how it influences the perception of events. An example of this is the cropped image of a dweller on the Dal Lake, gesturing with one hand. He could be half-smiling or half-angry and there is no way of knowing that truth until one sees the whole picture on the next page. Shot by Javeed Shah, the dweller is seen talking to (almost admonishing) Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as he waves from a shikara during an election rally in 2004. Talking excitedly about the “corner shot”, Shah says his focus is on the composition: “It’s a kind of mathematics that has to be correct, that has to be worked out.”
Dar Yasin’s photographs Protesters and Police are as cinematic as they are indicative of the unrest on the streets. Much like French photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Yasin depicts the dynamic choreography of movement as he turns his lens, in harsh light, toward the action between the protesters and the police, while drawing from their opposing intent but similar movements. In his grisly, unsettling image of animal sacrifice during Eid, a little girl is seen smiling in the corner, symbolic of a common ritualistic practice.
“There will be blood – the question is how you will confront it in the book,” Kak said, as he discussed the range of photographs and the year-long process of curating them. The book conspicuously lacks works of female photographers from Kashmir and Kak is quick to mention that this wasn’t intentional. As the book makes its own journey, he explains, this skewed ratio will change.
There is no seamless narrative in the works of the nine photographers and yet their concerns are universal. “It is hard to shoot your own conflict,” said Javed Dar, pausing nervously while speaking about his experiences as a photographer. “One thing that hasn’t changed is the risk to life.”
A marked departure in the book is Sumit Dayal’s work as he returned to Kashmir after 17 years. The only non-resident photographer in the group, Dayal’s Kashmir Lightbox series is an installation in the form of a transparent filmstrip placed on a light table, and viewed through an enlarging loupe, in which factual photographs are aligned in a fictional narrative. As he relies on past memories and the revisiting of what was once home, Dayal talks about loitering around and working with his camera’s inability to be controlled, thus resulting in surrealist images.
In the end, it is clear that the book is a concise biography of the photographers and their lives in Kashmir. It offers no apology for not being a historical guide – it is “a marker, not a bestseller,” as Kak puts it. In its form as a book, an object and a resource, this edited volume opens up endless possibilities of engaging with the truth, if there is such a universal standard.