Terrifying Beauty: A Question Every Kashmiri Photojournalist Must Confront

Are photographers complicit in the 'percepticide' their work evokes?

In any profession, there are stages of achievement to which its practitioners naturally aspire, for achievements confer prestige. Incremental stages of achievement are usually stamped by certificates or awards, which may include money – like the Rs 50,000 cash prize given as part of the Indian Press Photo Award, which many Kashmiri photojournalists have bagged.

So, is it material incentives that primarily motivate photojournalists to risk their lives to capture ‘visually compelling insights about our world’?  Different photojournalists give different answers. For example, in a 2011 article published in Open magazine, photographer Arko Datta said, “I would be lying if I said the awards, fame, and, most importantly, front-page bylines weren’t motivations. But more than anything else, what motivates me is the possibility of making a difference. Not every picture I take may change a life. But the possibility of it is enough.”

This possibility of making a difference through images is illustrated by a story Rafiq Maqbool told the Open magazine’s Aliefya Vahanvaty in the same article: In 1997, Maqbool had taken ‘blind shots’ of a crackdown at Bakhshi Stadium in the Srinagar city after being prevented to take photos by the Indian army. His pictures appeared in print the next day. But their significance – in terms of making a difference – was realised a few days later when the worried parents of a missing youth approached the media. In one of his pictures, Maqbool had accidentally – and fortunately – captured the young man who was said to have gone “missing.” This photograph became a key piece of evidence to prove in court that the young man was present during the military crackdown and had been detained by the army. The ‘missing’ young man was eventually released.

“It taught me,” said Maqbool, “never to take my responsibility lightly. Since then, I’ve always picked up the camera in the belief that a picture can make a difference to at least one life. That gets me through the good days and the bad days.” This belief is not shared by all photographers, though. When Kashmiri photojournalist Showkat Shafi returned from Cox’s Bazar after visiting a Rohingya refugee camp, his sympathy was tinged with a sense of pessimism: “I will wonder what good our pictures did after all.”

However, when someone says, I am doing photojournalism because it can make a difference to somebody’s life, then he or she is making a moral judgment premised on a utilitarian – and altruistic – conception of the photographic enterprise. If this utilitarian – and altruistic – element is at the core of the profession, then the awards and recognition that come with it are but of secondary importance; the primary motive being passion for human service. And to stay steadfast on this path, one must have hope. As Kashmiri photographer Showkat Nanda says, “If I give up hope, then I’m no longer a photographer. Hope is what keeps me working.”

A Rohingya refugee carries her child in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Credit: Reuters

And yet, the question remains: why would a Kashmiri photojournalist risk his or her life and jump into a dangerous theatre of war in a distant land? Is the primary motivation, then, that of ‘making a difference’ or is it, as photojournalist Tauseef Mustafa says in the Open article, that “the action sucks you in”? From their accounts we learn how life-threatening it has been for Kashmiri photojournalists to carry out assignments despite being embedded in well-guarded armies: Rafiq Maqbool in Afghanistan, Tauseef Mustafa in Iraq and Afghanistan and Altaf Qadri in Libya (the latter was embedded with Libyan rebels).

History and culture of war photography

“Ever since cameras were invented in 1839,” says Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, “photography has kept company with death.”

As a troupe of professional journalists went into the field to capture the action in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), it became the first bloody conflict “to be witnessed (covered) in the modern sense.” And being the first one to be televised, the Vietnam War (1955-75) “introduced the home front to new tele-intimacy with death and destruction.” For ambitious tabloids and news channels, the governing credo was: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Thus, the element of shock became a commodity which sold in the market. Sontag gives the example of the French magazine Paris Match, which espoused the motto: “The weight of words, the shock of photos.”

Modern-day readers and viewers consumed shocking or dramatic visuals and news producers readily provided such content, thus they co-constituted each other. The logic of market drove the photographic enterprise, where “the hunt for dramatic…images” became “part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value.” As modern human beings got acclimatised to dramatic visuals of wars and conflicts, so professionally (and sometimes heroically) brought to us by photojournalists, we were moulded into “a spectators of calamities taking place in another country.” However, as Sontag rightly says, “Awareness of the suffering that accumulates in a select number of wars happening elsewhere is something constructed.” Which is why some conflicts resonate with people, while others are ignored.

What makes pictures compelling?

What is it about pictures that make them so compelling, so powerful, or so useful for the media and the market? Sontag argues that being complex, nuanced and sometimes laden with a certain vocabulary, written accounts do not create the same effect as photographs. “A photograph has only one language and is destined potentially for all,” she avers. It is one of the great qualities of a picture that it gets stuck in people’s minds, “like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb.” Every day, one is exposed to the bombastic visual content on television and in movies, “but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite.”

It was around the Second World War that photojournalism came into its own. Robert Capa shot to fame with his dramatic 1936 picture of a Republican soldier getting shot during the Spanish Civil War. This iconic picture, the falling soldier, appeared in Life magazine on July 12, 1937. Later, Capa went on to form, along with David Seymour and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Magnum Photo Agency in Paris in 1941 as a representative of “venturesome freelance photographers.” For Magnum, a photographer was a rover who covered the world beat, bore witness and chronicled his own times. With the advent of colour photography, still visuals of war acquired a heightened appearance of reality. They were the reason Larry Burrows’ colour photographs of terrified Vietnamese civilians and wounded American soldiers published in Life “fortified the outcry against the American presence in Vietnam.”

On the road from Namdinh to Thaibinh. May 25, 1954. French troops with mine detectors. Photograph by Robert Capa. Credit: manhhai/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

But, as Sontag reminds us, only certain wars or conflicts (the Spanish Civil War, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Balkan wars) attracted international cameras, because not all wars were “invested with the meaning of larger struggles.” More brutal wars and conflicts (such as in Sudan, between Iraq/Kurds and Russia/Chechnya) “have gone relatively under-photographed.”

If we have an awareness of (and sympathy for) the suffering of only certain people, it is because grievable subjects are selectively constructed. One should recall here the treatment of Kashmir in the mainstream Indian media. Despite regularly covering the conflict, the mainstream media renders grieving Kashmiri families invisible, as the only grievable subjects for Indian media are soldiers (jawans) and their families. It is in this context of the mendacious – to the extent of criminal – propaganda of the mainstream (especially electronic) Indian media, Kashmiri journalists, especially the photographers, assumes special significance.

Facets of Kashmiri photojournalism

Ghulam Mohiuddin Rehbar (born 1904) is considered “the first photojournalist” of Kashmir, because he took the aftermath pictures of the July 13, 1931 massacre. Today, Kashmir has dozens of photojournalists, some of them working for international news agencies. Not all photographers are well read, and few of them, among the senior cohort, are graduates of media schools. Founded in 2003, the Kashmir Press Photographers Association now has around 35 members.

That there is a conflict (or war) on in Kashmir gives added weight to Kashmiri journalism as important professional sector, both locally and internationally, and Kashmiri journalists naturally find themselves at the centre of communication (as nodal points) between Kashmir and the world. News about the Kashmir conflict reaches the world mostly through Kashmiri journalists, whose writings and photographs often appear in leading international publications. Regular military skirmishes at the Line of Control, anti-India protests or gun-battles between militants and Indian troops are events of interest for which international media outlets usually rely on local Kashmiri journalists.

Not surprisingly, Kashmiri photojournalists have faced life-threatening situations; some of them have been grievously injured and killed in the past 30 years. Mushtaq Ali, a videographer with ANI, was killed in a parcel bomb attack, whose original target was the then BBC and Reuters correspondent Yusuf Jameel (presently with the Deccan Chronicle.) In the early 1990s, photojournalist Meraj-ud-Din lost an eye to a grenade splinter.

Irfan Ahmad was bed-ridden for eight months after getting injured in a bomb blast on August 10, 2000 (the bomb, killed, apart from a dozen policemen, Hindustan Times photojournalist Pradeep Bhatia.) In 2001, the Kashmir Times photojournalist Abdul Qayyum was severely beaten up by a security guard outside a hospital in Srinagar. During the 2016 uprising, Kashmiri photojournalists were particularly targeted. Thirty-year-old Zuhaib Maqbool lost his vision after police at Rainawari (in downtown Srinagar) fired pellets at him on the fateful day of September 4, 2016.

Paradoxically, it is the conflict which has mainly ‘exposed’ Kashmiri journalists to the outside world, and given some of them prominence. It is the war photography which has earned Kashmiri photojournalists acclaim and recognition. So, while it may sound crude and ironic, it is the war content which has become a source of capital, in its material as well as symbolic aspects. One can cite many instances, but let me give one: the bomb blasts of August 10, 2000 at Lal Chowk, killed a photojournalist and several police officers, but the picture of a policeman enveloped in flames by AP photojournalist, Rafiq Maqbool, won him an honourable mention for the Robert Capa award. That is what “visually compelling insights about our world” are all about.

There is another remarkable aspect of photojournalism. Unlike other art forms, says Sontag, “photography is the only major art in which professional training and years of experience not confer an insuperable advantage over the untrained and inexperienced.”

For example, on April 7, 2016, a young Kashmiri journalist, Javaid Naikoo, was covering the funeral cortege of slain Kashmiri rebel Waseem Malla in Shopian, a town 52-kms south of Srinagar. Some people, mostly young boys, had climbed poplar trees to have a glimpse of the slain rebel. Naikoo immediately pulled his Micromax smartphone and captured the scene: a silhouette of people hanging on trees while watching the funeral. His picture was widely shared on social media, and later it featured on Kashmiri author Shahnaz Bashir’s book of short stories Scattered Souls (HarperCollins, 2017). For Naikoo, it was by sheer ‘luck’ that he captured that moment.

Photo copyright: Javaid Naikoo

One of the reasons Naikoo’s photograph gained iconic status in the visual culture of Kashmiri resistance was its spontaneity and roughness, or, as one commenter said, it was “extraordinary.” However, being on the cover of Scattered Souls, Naikoo’s photograph will not produce uniform effects and meanings, because, in the words of Sontag, “the photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it.”

Nevertheless, according to Marianne Hirsch, “Iconic images are static. Even if they are recontextualised in myriad news outlets, they continue to point back indexically and to be used to reinterpret the moment when they were shot, a moment of political witness recorded by the camera.” One can evaluate both these arguments – Sontag’s and Hirsch’s – in the context of the reception according to the recently published book of Kashmir photograph by nine Kashmir photographers spanning three decades, Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016.

While illustrating, the visual narrative of Kashmiri photographers has also corroborated: their pictures serve as a repository of vital testimonies against war crimes and state violence. Especially for the relatives of the disappeared persons, photographs are key to their struggle for justice. As the narrator of Mirza Waheed’s short story ‘A Trail of Dew’ aptly says, “You see, the single most important thing for the family of a missing person is the photograph. Without it, the person can’t be. Without it, the disappeared cannot exist. I doubt you understand.”

Thus, the visual narratives produced by Kashmiri photojournalists have served to constitute a symbolic resistance, creating points of references and emblems of the azaadi struggle. Visual narrative enables remembrance, because, to quote Sontag again, “To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture.”

‘We are serving the cause of azaadi by documenting state oppression and people’s resistance’, is a common refrain among many young Kashmiri photojournalists. However, there is also a healthy competition among them to get published in prominent Indian publications or in international media outlets; and they have role models within Kashmir whom they follow. The profession usually leads to war photography, because that is what interests outsiders about Kashmir, mostly. And, in an attempt (or zeal) to capture the perfect war photograph (or to document state oppression, as some may argue), the ethics of what should go to print and what should remain unpublished, even un-photographed, is often overlooked by many young Kashmiri photojournalists.

What to show and what not to

In the wake of Daniel Pearl’s murder in Karachi in 2002, and the release of a video of his murder, a fierce debate ensued in the US: should the press exercise its right to show the video or respect Pearl’s widow and refrain from giving her more pain through its broadcast and publication?

Indian policemen detain a Kashmiri student during a protest in Srinagar on April 24, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

“With our dead,” writes Sontag, “there has always been a powerful interdiction against showing the naked face.” She cites a few examples where the American press withheld publication of photos that showed the faces of fallen American soldiers, and she emphatically denounces the hypocrisy that lies behind it, because “this is a dignity not thought necessary to accord to others.”

One is forced to say that in Kashmir, the ethics of according dignity to relatives of the dead, or to the dead, is yet to be learned. The largest circulated English daily in the Valley, Greater Kashmir, on June 12, 2010, carried the slain teenager Tufail Matoo’s disfigured face on its front page and, repeating the same mistake six years later, published on its front page, on July 9, 2016, the photograph of the bullet-ridden bodies of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani and his two associates. Online ‘news portals’, which have mushroomed on social media in last few years, have simply tossed ethics out the window. This is not only unprofessional but also an unethical and amoral practice.

Funeral of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. Credit: Reuters

And this bring us to an important issue: the tendency among a new crop of photojournalists in Kashmir to take pictures of grieving people, and the congratulatory fervour their publications create on social media. What makes people write comments like “beautiful” or “congratulations” on otherwise poignant pictures of grieving mothers and sisters, or relatives of the dead?

I would argue that it is the sense of aesthetics associated with photography that makes commenters focus on a photographer’s art rather than the content. Moreover, many people seem to miss the point that there is, even if thin, a difference between art and photography. Art, like that of Rollie Mukherjee’s paintings or APDP calendars about pain and suffering in Kashmir, can be aesthetically ‘beautiful’; however, when a photograph on the same subject-matter is ‘beautified’, not only is its avowed altruistic purpose diminished, it also ceases to be journalism.

The sense of aesthetics which drives a photojournalist’s desire to take ‘beautiful’ pictures and share them enthusiastically on social media is determined, in a broader sense, by the logic of the market. “See, I took a great award-deserving picture!” photojournalists seem to be telling their followers. That is why you will often find a photo credit stamped on poignant photos, sometimes crudely put right on the face of a grieving subject. Such photo credit help contribute to the commodification of photos, making them open to the wider market. And ‘beautification’ of poignant pictures is achieved when respondents praise them with superlatives (superb, beautiful, great, ultimate etc.); In this whole episode photographers are complicit, because they actively seek approval and praise on social media for their war photos.

Relatives of Umar Kumar – a class IX student who was killed after being hit by a bullet during clashes – mourn his death. Credit: Reuters

Some might argue that their objective is to show the suffering of Kashmiris so that the outside world is moved. While poignant pictures can certainly move people, we should remember that a lot will depend on who the audiences are and where the picture is being seen or shown. Have the pictures of Kashmiri pellet victims had an impact in the outside world? Perhaps, yes. Was Indian civil society moved by those pictures? One cannot be too sure.

A man injured by a pellet gun lies in a Kashmir hospital. Credit: Reuters

A man injured by a pellet gun lies in a Kashmir hospital. Credit: Reuters

When compelling pictures of pellet victims were published on social media during the 2016 uprising, did people congratulate the photographers? I don’t think so. Then why did people recently congratulate a photographer for his picture of “a boy walking through a ruined house”? Could it be because it was featured as the Photo of the Day (December 19,  2017) in the Washington Post?

Perhaps among some people in Kashmir, such tendencies are determined by a sense that Kashmiri narrative is getting international attention, that Kashmiris can challenge the Indian media’s wrongful projection of the Kashmiri struggle. Hence, when they say ‘congratulations,’ they might mean it as a gesture of solidarity for the common cause. This is implicit in the narratives of reports such as ‘Nine Kashmiri Photojournalists Who Won Laurels at the International Level’ (With Kashmir: June 3, 2017). But, one cannot say for sure that this sense of solidarity explains all the congratulatory comments on social media.

Yet another interpretation could be that many people in Kashmir have got used to – or inured – to pictures of violence, pain and suffering, owing to the rapid diffusion of such visuals. Or, perhaps, in the words of Wordsworth, people’s sensibilities have been “reduced…to a state of almost savage torpor.”

But then again, can we be certain that ceaseless exposure to images of violence, horrific incidents and suffering ultimately blunts the mind and dulls our sympathy? An affirmative response to this question would amount to what Sontag calls conservative critique, with which she concurred in her previous book On Photography (1977), but later found it problematic. Taking a more sceptical line, she asks 26 years later in Regarding the Pain of Others, “What is the evidence that photographs have a diminishing impact, that our culture of spectatorship neutralises the moral force of photographs of atrocities?”

The argument that after some time, and due to ceaseless repetition, sympathy for images of pathos ultimately withers is countered by Sontag by referring to rituals like martyrdom enactments in ta’ziyah, which, despite having been watched many times over never cease to move observant Shia audiences. However, I would argue, the context, or rather atmosphere, where ta’ziyah is enacted is qualitatively different than the atmosphere of social media, where a plethora of images (poignant, funny, awkward, entertaining, historical, artistic etc.) compete for attention, fleetingly pass through one’s field of vision, and thus make one continuously shift one’s sensory gear from one emotion to another. It is in this context of a content-saturated world that a book like Witness becomes more effective, as one can immerse oneself in it in contemplative solitude, in an undistracted atmosphere where emotions can be concentrated on one subject only.

To give a psychoanalytical spin to Diana Taylor’s powerful concept of ‘Percepticide‘, can we say that because the state has inflicted so much violence, oppression and suffering on the Kashmiri people,  it has caused a percepticide among some Kashmiris? Not because despite seeing it all people do not admit that they are seeing but because they see, and even admit that they are seeing, yet go into congratulatory mode on seeing it. This means that despite seeing their own death and subjugation, they fail to properly acknowledge that turning away from the victim in the photo and focussing on the success of the photographer instead is thus tantamount to colluding with the violence of the state – the violence whose purpose is to weaken and subjugate Kashmiris to the extent that it becomes taken-for-granted, a fait accompli.

In a sense, the state has dug a vast visual graveyard and some people, instead of visiting in solemn silence, stroll in it as boisterous tourists. If photographs of pathos primarily stir a congratulatory tune in the hearts of some, it implies that their inner chords of sympathy and solidarity have loosened, perhaps even been completely severed.

Muhammad Tahir is a PhD student of Politics and International Relations at Dublin City University (Ireland). His articles have appeared in The Japan Times, Caravan, The Express Tribune, Kindle Magazine, Cafe Dissensus, IAPS Dialogue and in different newspapers and magazines in Kashmir.