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Being a Witness: From scrapbook to photo book

Feeling creative unrest, a Srinagar teen made a scrapbook of newspaper images featuring the summer slain of 2008, only to emerge a promising photojournalist and The Witness years later.

I knew, the only way to save myself was to hold a high tension wire.

In Kashmiri, it is to say, Nange taa’re lagun!

Moments before, I had rushed inside a crowd-filled alley—like a scared someone—desperately trying to make a way. Behind me, a posse of irate cops with cocked guns and batons were inching closer. Nerves had never been so jittery…

That day in summer 2011, the restive Rajouri Kadal in downtown Srinagar saw the protesters walking into a trap. It was an ambush laid by the forces on all sides to catch hold of stone-throwing youths who rock the area with high-pitched street battles every Friday, demanding freedom.

FPK Photo/Syed Shahriyar

In that melee of sorts, even journalists weren’t spared, some thrashed, some detained and some returned with broken cameras.

I had a narrow escape, but shortly found myself grappling in fear in that crowd-filled lane. I was staring at a stampede situation. And the only option available to walk unscathed was to catch hold of the high tension wires of the nearby electric transformer. I could have walked on its platform only by holding them and jump into a residential house.

“But shall I go for it?” I froze over the question.

My pulse shot up. I looked back, watched the cops yelling, getting closer. In panic, I did the unthinkable. I caught the wires! And immediately, I felt life still intact in me.

I jumped into the house and saw dozens of protesters already taking refuge there. They were surprised to see a person with a camera trying to hide among them. They couldn’t ask, and I didn’t tell: how covering my own conflict has costs and consequences.

***

I grew up watching the war in my backyard.

Fun and frolic had long gone, replaced with bangs, beatings and burning. It took me years to understand how Kashmir and its armed struggle against Indian State has become a paradise of newsmen. Akin to wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Libya, Iraq and Syria, incessant bloodletting made Kashmir a good tragic story to tell—and equally, a great melancholic image to click.

What these soldiers of the “fourth estate of democracy” were doing always fascinated me. Somehow, I wanted to join the tribe. But then, working in one of the oldest unresolved conflict zone of the world has its own costs. While documenting the war, one often ends up becoming its casualty, either directly or indirectly.

FPK Photo/Syed Shahriyar

It took me a while to sense how a senior photojournalist ended up selling clothes in Srinagar to feed his family, even after covering the war in Kashmir for over 18 years.

But like they say in Srinagar’s Press Enclave, these “occupational hazards” never deterred Kashmiri storytellers to document war and abuses.

That watershed event—2008 Amarnath Land Agitation—changed me forever.

While consuming those images of the young Kashmiris being bled to death on streets for seeking freedom changed my hobby. I began compiling a rough photo scrapbook from the newspaper cuttings. Not a single day passed without me sticking to this routine.

It was madness. It was mojo. But, it was a dawn of new meaning amid the street slaughter.

Among those scattered pictures was a haunting picture of a Batmaloo youth’s funeral. The image shows cops kicking his corpse, left abandoned by mourners being gassed on a militarized street. Wait… the picture shows something very chilling, too. It shows the father of the slain hugging his son’s corpse, shielding him from the raining kicks. Till death do us part, still strikes my mind.

FPK Photo/Syed Shahriyar

That year, I kept pasting those pictures on papers giving them good headlines on every single page. The book cover had a collage of two pictures equating Kashmir situation with Palestine: A picture of a young Palestinian boy pelting a stone towards an Israeli tank and a picture of a Kashmiri boy hoisting an Islamic flag on the famous clock tower in the red square of Kashmir.

For years, Kashmiris would watch inside their curfewed homes how troopers would unfurl tricolor on the clock tower in Lal Chowk to celebrate India’s Independence Day. I could tell with assurance, it was no pleasant sight.

***

The door of the house was being repeatedly banged by the forces outside. They were trying hard to storm in. I managed to enter a jam-packed bathroom already sheltering seven people including two minors.

Such was the level of fear that none of us could peep through a bathroom window opening on a road outside. The fear of getting caught was overwhelming and the worse, a bullet!

I heard cries, shrieks of those caught outside. It was as if truckload of boys were being ferried to a concentration camp. I was numb — until, I heard him speaking…

***

Then, I stepped on streets with a camera, covering protests every Friday in downtown Srinagar. I was just 18, the youngest in my professional pack. Pictures were a reflection of my thinking towards things. I could never shoot things that didn’t affect me. My every picture was blurred, but the sharpness of the situation remains deep in my mind. My camera was always eager to shoot things bearing a struggle, pain and the resistance in it. Situations like these were the start of my passion.

A year passed. I started my internship in a local newspaper. The photo editor out there never gave me a byline despite my repeated requests. It would hurt something very deep in me.

But then, came a godsend opportunity. I joined a local newspaper as a photojournalist. I began working with dedication and determination. A byline finally came. They come in battalions now. And I wanted more.

I went on to cover gunfights, funerals and daily life in Kashmir. But still, I was treated more of an employee than a photographer. I was advised to continue taking pictures “but concentrate on expanding the newspaper business”. As a photojournalist I was tasked to set a canopy on a Srinagar street to get subscribers!

Such experiences have taught me that some accidental editors in Kashmir don’t understand the value of pictures and the plight of being a photojournalist. They use pictures as fillers in their papers. This attitude of taking pictures lightly often creates embarrassing situations for them.

I still remember how a leading newspaper of Kashmir used a picture of an injured woman from Nishat only to pass her a woman killed in army firing in Handwara in 2016.

How I wish to tell these editors that the world remembers wars and conflicts through pictures. Be it the famous picture of the Vietnam war showing the naked children running or the picture of the youngest victim of 2010 uprising in Kashmir lying dead on a stretcher. Both these images remind us the plight of children during wars.

Finally, my big moment came in 2013 when my picture of a Kashmiri Muslim boy jumping in a spring on a hot Ramadan day appeared on Time Magazine alongside pictures of the war-torn Syria and conflict-ridden Palestine. It was an immense satisfaction.

14 Jul 2013, Srinagar, India — Srinagar, India. 14th July 2013 — A kashmiri Muslim boy jumps in a spring during a hot ramadan day in the outskirts of Srinagar as Kashmir valley witnessing heat during Ramadan month. — Kashmir valley witnessing heat during the month of Ramadan which began on a tough note across the Muslim world. This is going to be the longest Ramadan since 1979 with fasting duration of 16 hours. — Image by © syed shahriyar/Demotix/Corbis

And today, my journey from a scrapbook has made me The Witness of the war in my backyard. My work along with eight other photojournalists of Kashmir has become a photo-book.

***

Among those eight men inside that bathroom was a father of a martyr. He was the oldest among them. In whispers, he told me, “I am out on street to seek justice for my slain son.”

Before the remark could sink in, the boys regained control of streets outside. I was the last to step out of that bathroom. The father of the martyr rejoined the charged crowd with a pitched slogan.

On the street, I saw slippers scattered all over the place. The scene reminded me the gory scenes of the indiscriminate firing inside the Jallianwala Bagh during India under British Raj.

What has changed in last one century, I mulled.

“Only the colonizer,” my colleague later told me.


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