Photographers are the latest fall guys in Kashmir. They are often harassed, yet carry the burden of being impartial witnesses of the conflict. And then one of them, Kamran Yousuf, was arrested
Almost all days are good days for photography in Kashmir. The sky is always clear, and is, in fact, powder blue. You can literally see the roofs of houses three streets ahead. But the poplars ringing a red brick wall of a college facing a stadium knew things were about to change.
By mid-afternoon, the strip on which Amar Singh College, Srinagar, stands, is full of smoke. Police in riot gear are pushing the snouts of tear-gas guns through the crevices in the campus walls. Or, firing in the air. Students protesting the death of civilians in Shopian early this month – this summer’s first eruption of violent agitation following the deaths on April 1 during an encounter between the militants and the security forces – are curling their fingers around the stones to target cops. And Meraj-ud-din, the veteran photographer and videographer, aiming his camera, is, at times, standing, running or walking towards both of them, to capture this scene that will be added to the mountain of visuals routinely made off the Kashmir street with no change in ground realities.
My nerves are shot within a few minutes of arriving at the site; my hands cold from simply holding a notebook. Meraj-ud-din’s are warm – he has just held his hand out to introduce himself – from holding his camera. At least 20 other photographers have been here outside the college with their equipment since morning; the result of holding two jobs, sometimes three.
Most Kashmiri photographers work with a local paper to be plugged into the local network, to be invited to government press-cons. The second job, if they are lucky, is with an international, or a national agency. (The starting salary of a press photographer in mainland India, at around Rs25,000, is usually what the photo editors of the Valley’s best papers are paid.) So the camera is almost a body part. Updating of the ‘scene’ is expected almost by the hour. Their day begins and ends with looking for and clicking trouble. And sometimes that trouble is hard to shake off.
Kashmir’s civil rights activists face a constant threat of arrests. But for the first time in the past five years, a photographer has been arrested. Kamran Yousuf, a resident of Pulwama, was arrested on September 5, 2017. The National Investigation Agency charge sheet stated that he was not a “real journalist” because he had not covered “any developmental activity of the government” in his career. Kamran was released on bail in March.
His fraternity feels Kamran, a freelancer, was picked up because, unlike other freelancers, his photographs, covering various aspects of the Kashmir protests, were run in the Valley’s largest circulated paper, Greater Kashmir. It was also shared widely on social media.
Black and white
How far or how much can a Kashmiri photographer distance himself from the story of Kashmir? Who steps in when he covers conflict and runs into trouble for doing the job? Can the job still be done with feeling without acting like a crusader? The first decade of news photography in Kashmir, one driven by the entry of international news agencies, offers some answers.
Meraj-ud-din and Fayaz Kabli became photographers in the late ’80s – early ’90s, a period when photo agencies had begun looking at Kashmir and Sri Lanka as emerging areas of conflict in South Asia. Meraj-ud-din, then with Reuters (he also used to work for Kashmir Times and India Today), photographed the spot from where Rubaiya Sayeed, a daughter of the late Kashmiri politician Mufti Mohammed, who was then India’s Home Minister, had been abducted in Srinagar; he shot the key figures of the watershed 1987 elections that, perceived in much of Kashmir to be rigged, drove its leaders and their next generation away from the electoral process towards militant separatist politics.
“So it was politics that came first, not the gun. The Kashmiri story so far is the gun came to the Valley and it changed everything. The gun became the news point and the photograph sought in Kashmir post the ’90s,” adds Kabli, who now teaches photojournalism in a school in Srinagar.
The pictures by Kashmir’s photographers have, in this way, also introduced its leaders and the many players of Kashmir to its people, and to mainland India.
“Yusuf Shah became Syed Salahuddin (the Hizbul Mujahideen leader) after the 1987 elections. He had campaigned wearing a kafan (shroud). I shot that picture,” says Meraj. (Meraj’s archive was used extensively for an anniversary issue dedicated to the 1987 elections in Srinagar-based magazine Kashmir Life in 2016.) Yasin Malik, chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, used to be one of Yusuf Shah’s polling agents. “Later, when I took a picture of Yasin for a story, my putla (effigy) was burnt in Jammu. My house has also been raided.” Meraj has been beaten 11 times by security forces in the course of his work. After the eleventh beating, he stopped counting.
Most Kashmiri reporters say their work can be done quick and on the go, unlike photographers. “I go to the spot, my diary and pen is in my pocket, and I am back in the office to file my copy,” says Faisul Yaseen, a local reporter. A photographer’s work is visible and interventionist; at the scene of the protest, his work seems almost participational. His camera tracks and keeps a visual record of every shift of every atom of the Kashmiri situation.
The job of witness
The reason why most photographers remain important witnesses is that, by and large, they recognise that the ‘truth’ of Kashmir, and those who try to discipline it, will always be a matter of paradox. Here the black turns to white or the white bleeds into the black in the blink of an eye. Meraj-ud-din, for instance, says he doesn’t remember names or years but “it’s a fact that the BSF has beaten me; yet once, a BSF man took a bullet for me.”
Kabli similarly feels the profession is best served if he, a photographer, does his job impartially. “The reason I have never felt any pressure is we were taught to mention, first and foremost, both sides in the caption – the police story and the militant story,” he says. A caption is like the first paragraph of a reporter’s story, says Sheikh Mushtaq, a former Reuters journalist for whom Kabli has shot many assignments. “The brief for us both was always to be fair. In Reuters, the best photo was used even if it hurt the militants, or upset India or Pakistan,” he says.
Kashmir’s newspapers are more tightly run than the agencies operating out of Kashmir so that one errs on the side of caution. “Even the newspapers with the best circulation in the Valley don’t get the central government’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) ads for the past 10 years, a major source of revenue, so the newspaper staff have to cover their backs well and not cross the line when it comes to journalism,” says Faisul Yaseen.
To any young photographer who will listen, this is senior photographer Farooq Khan’s advice: “I tell them there are other things in Kashmir to shoot. Conflict is not the only way to build your profile. Show Kashmir’s culture, its nature.” Khan is the president of the Kashmir Press Photographers Association. It is advice that has few takers simply because a day spent shooting papier mache handicrafts or the Tulip Garden cannot build an alternative reality.
Masrat Zahra, a young woman freelance photographer, opens her laptop to show two pictures of a single day. On April 1, the day the news about Shopian’s encounters broke, she got out of bed thinking she would spend the day differently. “By 5 a.m., I was at Srinagar’s floating vegetable market clicking the boats. I watched the vegetables change hands – from the farmer to the buyer. And then I got to know what happened in Shopian,” she recalls.
At 4.30 p.m., she was in Shopian clicking people ducking the pellets and teargas shells fired from shotguns by paramilitary troopers and policemen at the procession of mourners. “When the CRPF shoots a Kashmiri you have to tell that and when a Kashmiri shoots a Kashmiri you have to show that too,” she adds. Lately, she has been thinking of joining a newspaper full-time. “If something should happen to me, I want that somebody should at least own me. Not like what happened with Kamran. But Kamran should not quit the profession. Otherwise people will think he did something wrong.”
Is Kamran’s a cautionary tale for Kashmir’s photographers, I ask Vikar Syed, an independent photographer whose work has been featured in the BBC. He is one of Kamran’s friends from south Kashmir. “What do I do best? I take photos,” he answers. “I also want to shift from shooting funerals, women crying…then I tell myself I have to be strong. I have studied journalism and its ethics, I’m not someone who just one day decided to start shooting with my camera. In Kashmir, you can’t shut your eyes to the conflict. As for Kamran, he came out free, didn’t he?”
It’s dangerous now
There is another pressure on Kashmir’s cameramen these days. The pressure of daily demonstrating one’s neutrality in a profession that is under attack due to the impact of a photograph and the huge numbers of people in the field. The competition is fierce. There are now more than 10 local papers in the Valley and as many photo agencies. The conflict, ironically, has opened up avenues for jobs; the conflict has brought, in its wake, conflict-watching. Someone or the other at an agency between Ankara and New York and Tokyo is looking and buying pictures from Kashmir because they are feeling angry, upset or curious.
Photographer Ahmer Khan, a downtown boy, who organised Srinagar’s first cybergames championship in 2013, has tried to see where he can fit. He freelances for Diplomat, a Japanese magazine; for Anadolu, a Turkish news agency, and Vice News, a current affairs channel in New York.
“Questions are constantly thrown at us about our work. For a newspaper photo, in case of a death, we try not to show the body so people say, ‘you never show the body because you don’t want to show…’. But somebody shooting with his mobile camera from the house next to where a death has happened, can click and show everything!” says Farooq Khan. Photographers battle cynicism daily to establish their street cred. Sanna Mattoo, a photographer we meet just outside Amar Singh College, says the ordinary Kashmiri is nowadays suspicious of anyone with a camera.
Nissar, a photographer from Pulwama who meets us in Srinagar, shows us the sides of his face that have blistered due to the effect of continuous exposure to teargas shells. “Three things frighten us now. The awaam (people), the police and the army. As we near the encounter site, which we rush to photograph, our fate is almost as unpredictable as that of the militants. A man without a weapon fears the man with one. But the funny thing is,” he says patting his camera, “I think they fear this too.”