In a country in conflict, there are journalists who arrive with the rapacious speed of breaking news: they land, they grab what they need, they leave. There are also those who come and stay a little longer, who want to get the story straight and see it unfold. And then there are those who call that place home, those who are there to stay and are part of the story. The different temporality of these presences produces different narratives that have varying degrees of amplification. The voracious appetite for fresh news often turns the shouted headline into the whole story, leaving the whispered expressions of the local people on the ground almost unheard.
On the fringe of this race, there are increasingly significant experiences of the autochthonous voices who reclaim the right to their own version of the story. The discourse around daily life in a country in conflict is, in fact, often tinged with a rhetoric of survivalism and resilience, hence placing the observer’s point of view within the framework of aid and development.
The “locals” are at the receiving end; they are the objects of attention and of charitable projects, hardly ever the narrators or the active subjects of their own story.
In 2008, I had the privilege of being a part of the initial steps of Metrography, the first independent Iraqi photo agency based in Kurdistan. The aim was to provide a platform to Iraqi photographers irrespective of religion, sect or ethnicity to respond to the omnipresent image of Iraq as a country on the brink.
Focussing on reportage rather than spot news, stories of ordinary life beyond ones of roadside bombs began to emerge. From pilgrimages and community celebrations to fashion trends, from street photography to the documentation of an incipient corporate life, Metrography managed to reveal the simple truth that in spite of war, life goes on.
Over the years I saw the same kind of yearning in Palestine and Afghanistan, where artists, photographers and writers have started building a solid and credible counterpoint to the standardised and stereotypical representations.
Witness/Kashmir 1986-2016: Nine Photographers embodies a similar desire emerging from Kashmir. Witness is a book edited and conceived by Sanjay Kak. It is a 30-year-long journey in the history of Kashmir through two hundred images taken by nine Kashmiri photographers – Meraj Ud din, Javeed Shah, Dar Yasin, Javed Dar, Altaf Qadri, Sumit Dayal, Showkat Nanda, Syed Shahriyar and Azaan Shah.
The book is an immersive experience, one that takes days to fully savour and digest. It is comprehensive, yet not encyclopaedic. It gives no explanation but makes a request to allow for time to look and listen, and thus it opens a window to the backstage of the complex reality of Kashmir. Witness is a project as intricate and elaborate as a piece of kashidakari, an elegant embroidery where each stitch is perfectly calibrated and contains several layers and messages within itself.
There is no single definition that can fully encompass the book: it is a photography book, a history book and a book of personal stories. In its assemblage, Kak produces multiple chronologies and orchestrates a variety of registers. The passing of time is marked by the generational history that organises the sequence of photographers: from the oldest, Meraj Ud Din, to the youngest, Azaan Shah, who is only 19 years old.
Another timeline comes at the end of the book, where the captioned photographs are ordered chronologically. The (political) history of the last 30 years in Kashmir is reconstructed visually, one painful step at a time: ordinary life is inextricably mixed with the struggle for azadi, the shadows of the passer-by mingle with the strive for self-determination. Interspersed among the captions is a glossary of the vernacular of war that characterises the daily life in the Valley – counterinsurgency, massacre, militant, stone thrower – words that have come to indicate the perpetual state of exception that has become ordinary in Kashmir.
In this endeavour to build what Kak calls “an introduction to public memory,” the individual life stories of the nine photographers emerge intimately, as unique and singular, but also as part of a collective and shared inheritance of customs, trauma, anger and defiance. With a subtle but incredibly powerful shift, Witness reveals itself as a book about Kashmiris as much as about Kashmir – about the personal as much as about the collective memory of a people and their relation to their homeland. This is no little change in perspective, considering that the official rhetoric around Kashmir oscillates between a pristine paradise and a restive land – a disputed territory where its people are either invisible or troublemakers to be tamed.
As it was with Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir (2011) – the previous book edited by Kak – Witness comes as a timely insider’s reflection on a dramatic season of unrest.
In an ongoing conversation with Kashmiri poet and academic Ather Zia, we have come to refer to the 2016 upheaval as ‘the summer of the eye’. After the killing of the young rebel commander Burhan Wani in early July 2016, Kashmir erupted and its people took to the streets. This was by no means unannounced as rage had been simmering beneath the surface, but no one could predict that things would escalate to such a level. The Indian military and paramilitary responded to protests and ‘kaeni jang’ (stone pelting) with an iron fist. Over the course of almost four months, at least 6,000 people were injured, more than 1,000 were hit in the eyes by the infamous pellet shotguns and over 100 of them were left totally or partially blind.
Beyond the metaphor, by hitting people in the eye, the security forces tried to kill the vision of a different future. They tried to remove the possibility to look beyond the present in a fashion that differs from what is envisaged by those in power. Witness is somehow an indirect response to this attempt. It brings to the table a corpus of visual evidence that tells the other side of the story, with its nuances of affection, commitment, mourning and resistance.
In the wealth of imagery that the book offers to the reader, two photographs have caught my attention. The first is a photo taken by Javed Dar in 2015 in a recently vacated paramilitary camp at Kawdor, in Srinagar. In the middle of the debris, children play with the remnants of military equipment; smiling to the camera, a young boy carries a cargo net knotted to a stick as a trailing flag. Three generations have grown up in Kashmir forced to come to terms with the normality of an extraordinary military presence in their daily life – in their schools, on the streets, outside their homes, in their playgrounds.
The second photo, taken by Sumit Danyal in 2009, is a dreamlike black and white image of a tree. The tree is blurred and ungraspable and its branches seem to have captured a passing cloud. The caption reads: “In the tales of ghosts who want to be set free, what often holds them back is memory.”
Witness/Kashmir 1986-2016: Nine Photographers resides in that space of memory. Kak calls it “a marker, a flag planted in contested ground.” It is certainly a milestone in the journey towards a recognisable, autonomous Kashmiri voice. It is a testimony to the ghosts of the past and the struggles of the future, it is a testament to what Kashmir is and has been for those children who grew up playing in the leftovers of military camps.
Francesca Recchia is a researcher and writer based in Kabul. Her work focuses on intangible heritage and cultural practices in countries in conflict.