It’s a photograph of a hotel. Once a thriving, buzzing hotel in Gulmarg, now empty and silent. The picture is taken through a window. The next image is that of a boy with flutes in the foreground, also through a window. A tailor, also seen through a window, examines a needle and thread. Through a door, a window, or barbed wire—each picture has been captured from a distance; perhaps a distance as great as the Kashmiri reality is from the rest of the country.
Steering clear of capturing curfews, angry demonstrations, blood or the mesmerizing landscape of the valley, Amit Mehra’s Kashmir is the photojournalist’s attempt at finding an entirely new idiom to document the state. A series of 66 photographs being exhibited at the Photoink gallery, Kashmir is also being published as a book by Penguin in January (Rs.3,500).
“Most people have seen certain kinds of photos of Kashmir—the images of conflict, death, funerals. It’s the pervasive image that defines the way people inside and outside Kashmir look at it. Those are the images the world wants to see and largely these narratives feed journalism and mainstream media. This applies not just to Kashmir, but Palestine, in fact all conflict zones. This set of work tries to create a different dialogue vis-à-vis photographs of Kashmir,” says Devika Daulet-Singh, director of photography, Photoink, who has curated the show.
It started when Mehra was on an assignment in Kashmir in 2006. “I was freelancing for Newsweek and stayed on longer to explore the subject. I kept shooting over several visits and, for two years, all I could shoot was images you see all the time: demonstrations, protests, curfews, or its beautiful landscape. I got trapped in the same ‘turmoil’ and ‘beauty’ stereotype,” he says. “After two and a half years of shooting either the Dal Lake or the conflict, I decided to go to Kashmir again (in 2008), this time without a camera,” he says. Over two seven-day visits without a camera in 2008, Mehra spent time just observing Kashmiris, their lives and their wounds. As a photographer, it’s extremely difficult to go somewhere without your camera, says Mehra, and initially it almost felt like he had gone “without his eyes. But observing such a subject required that there be no interference between my mind and the mind of the subject and this is when I realized the camera had become an interference,” he says.
Gradually, he started to get immersed in the context. “I felt the alienation of Kashmiris, saw the deserted streets, how every household has a story. I tried to let people unwrap themselves and not be an intrusive photographer,” he says.
Moving into their inner spaces wasn’t easy. “They wonder why you’re here, they’re on their guard. A lot of observation went on during those visits, and no shooting; at this point, I was focusing on building trust and just observing,” says Mehra.“I started to feel rather than simply see. I could feel the distance between India and Kashmir,” he says. When he went back the same year, this time with his camera, that was the distance he captured.
What every photo captures is a silent, hurt civilization. There’s a silhouetted picture of a barbed wire fence and a vehicle with a glowing red “police” sign, a photo that, Mehra says, defines the Kashmir situation: “entangled and confusing”, with people suffering. There’s a picture of a cat: Its watchful expression is, he says, the same as the look on the faces of Kashmiris. There’s a crossing with hordes of pigeons taking off, one of them hiding a man’s face: He stands for the faceless Kashmiri, the one who happens to get shot just because he’s there, says Mehra. “It’s a silent body of work, it’s what happens after the conflict. These visuals are silent notes of a photographer, of a civilization hurt, wounded,” he says.
Kashmir is on till 12 January, 11am-7pm, at the Photoink gallery, Jhandewalan, New Delhi. Mondays by appointment only.