Kashmir through my lens


By Durdana Bhat

I don’t decide to represent anything except myself, Mahmoud Darwish once said, but that self is full of collective memory.

These words of the prominent Palestinian poet resonated when someone from my community (assembled in Delhi for a book release) said that likes of me—a female photojournalist of Kashmir—doesn’t exist in Valley’s ‘conservative’ landscape.

I mulled over the remark and found myself mired in the landscape, which is schizophrenic in its existence with picturesque meadows, relaxing and retiring hamlets bursting with life throughout the city which the river bifurcates into the old and the new. All of this beautiful, no? — ‘a paradise’, as they say, but a home to somebody like me.

It is a home that lingers like the haunting backdrop. But is it usually the case with these memories?—or with forgetfulness? I am not sure.

But I remember, in my landscape, where even police is poet, there is no poetry in living alongside those men in uniforms weaponised to slay you for even expressing voice over legitimate rights.

Presented with this question—embedded in the very essence of my landscape—I found (while frequently looking out from my room and office window) the struggle wasn’t only in me, but with the place that is our home, Kashmir.

A look at it and you get entangled in this very dialogue. My engagement with it was through frames and lenses, literally and metaphorically. For me, it became a vast unfolding of narratives hiding in plain sights. Every frame was a lurking ghost, a pregnant silence.

My interest in these stories led me to journalism, where I found more formal and conceptual appeal in images than scribing. Covering the conflict and its looming narratives – disappearance, killing, torture, pellet victims and other human interest stories – I became part of the battered landscape and its myriad hues.

Working on the ground, going into depth of the unseen, I visualized and interviewed the inner happenings. It is never easy for a photojournalist to bring out story through images of victims, who harbour much anger build up for the system. The anger manifests itself violently enough to leave the cities and the alleys raging.

And anyone interacting with these emotions and sentiments runs the risk to be shut out—or, to be tagged as an outsider; or, such is the narrative that one is led to believe.

As a female photojournalist, I have been on the field since last four years in Kashmir, working on sensitive assignments and stories. I covered volatile and vulnerable villages, housing events and scars, marred by tragedies — unfathomably disturbing to very essence of the existence

But the situation isn’t as scandalous as has been made out of it. But, yes, there is this perpetual struggle against the grey shades. Or, shall I invoke that mother, whose four sons were consumed by the conflict, “I have no hope of justice.”

It is this absence of hope that makes the society and the environment unpredictably volatile.

The restless state of the immediate surrounding has a compelling urgency and immediacy to it, luring the attention and seeking a registration, a voice.

Given the hurdles that one is presented with, under the umbrella of conflict, it becomes increasingly urgent to go out and seek the narratives, stories that weave the very fabric with tendency to define us (society).

But in this age where the narratives are monitored and promoted through internet (making it more accessible and easily believable), one is often led to believe in the hurdles and ideologies, existing till the time they stand unchallenged and unexamined.

One such narrative is the ‘conservative society narrative/syndrome’—where it gets used as a cover for the areas which one is uncertain about. And one such incidence is the impossibility of the female to function professionally in the fields like that of photojournalist.

Considering my personal experience and psychosis induced systematically over the formative years, it all ended up no more real than a grim tale.

Fact is, the moment I was out on field, the society became an unfolding book ravaged by the marks of years and centuries of systematic torture, occupation and victimization; but above all, an uncontrollable will to resist the fangs of forgetfulness.

As a female photojournalist, I have been on the field since last four years in Kashmir, working on sensitive assignments and stories. I covered volatile and vulnerable villages, housing events and scars, marred by tragedies — unfathomably disturbing to very essence of the existence.

Covering these areas, even when covering a protest, never once has the society been a threat to my safety or to my work. On flipside, they (people) would make sure to take me to the cases, new or neglected. They became my eyes and ears to stories. They were happy to share their torment, their doom and their dogged defiance with a smile on their faces.

I found a particular eagerness once the victim speaks. I have seen their uneasiness, not towards interviewer, photographer or to recorder, but to one’s own self. It is a moment of negotiation with the schizophrenic self. The deep set trauma manifesting in the violent silence is being negotiated with revisiting the trauma for the nth time, so that it can be recorded, transported (in the form voice or images) and be heard or seen.

This negotiation mostly has the tone of desperation, suppressed anger, certain lack of trust and a cursing sense of existential trauma.

The voice speaking becomes an inescapable reality with magnitude of no less than a nightmare. Devoid of any gender politics towards who is recording theses stories.

So, there is no question when people (for the sake of talking) label your society something which it isn’t—despite its traumatic journey.

As Darwish says in The Cypress Broke, ‘And a woman said to her neighbour: Say, did you see a storm?’

I say, yes, I did! In fact, I even recorded it for you to see, while performing my professional duties in the ‘conservative’ society of your imagination.

(Durdana has been part of Kashmir Life for many years. She is currently studying Peace Building and Conflict Resolution in Jamia Millia Islamia Delhi. She has also done a number of films on contemporary Kashmir.)



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