Photo: Faisal Khan
With a career spanning four decades, veteran photojournalist Mehraj-ud-Din has covered Kashmir in its dangerous, heart-breaking, and sometimes unforgiving hues. Hailing from downtown Srinagar’s Nawab Bazaar area, Mehraj who works with world’s leading news agency, the AP, sat with Kashmir Narrator. Excerpts:
Tell us how you started your career in journalism. What was the media scene then and photojournalism in particular?
I started out in 1979. The scene was normal. We usually covered offbeat stories, of day-to-day incidents, like road accidents or a fire incident in neighbourhood, mostly human-interest pictures. Initially, I was a government employee in PHE department.
What made you choose journalism over a government job?
My entry into the field was somewhat coincidental. I had an acquaintance that used to write sports columns for Srinagar Times. One day the tonga drivers had called for a strike against shifting their stand from Hari Singh High Street. He proposed to me that I should cover the incident; I did. The photo appeared next day in the Srinagar Times. Late Sofi Ghulam Mohammad was the editor-in-chief, and I was noticed. I instantly quit the government job and became a fulltime photojournalist after negotiating my salary at Rs 70 with Sofi Sahab.
How did you adjust yourself from covering offbeat stories to an armed conflict in 1989 when the anti-India insurgency erupted?
We were in for shock of our lives in the beginning. It was a new thing for us and obviously we were unprepared to cover the steady stream of violence that erupted suddenly all around us. On top of that there was constant threat to our lives. There were several incidents when I barely escaped with my life. There was intense pressure from my family to quit, but I stayed put. And I must say that despite the situation we did our best to do justice with our coverage of the situation.
Tell us about a major incident or a highlight of your career.
There are many. Like the Gaw Kadal massacre of January 1990 which shook me emotionally. Bodies were piled on the bridge when we reached there. I wept like a baby when I saw soldiers trampling on the bodies.
Any other interesting incident you would like to share?
This happened before the conflict, during the rule of then Chief Minister Ghulam Mohammad Shah. His cavalcade was coming from Ashai Bagh and moving towards Khanyar. The 4 pm show had just finished at the Shiraz Cinema, Khanyar, and people were coming out in droves and Gul Shah’s cavalcade got stuck in that. A lone Sikh police officer Harnaam Singh tried his best to manage the traffic but failed. In a fit of rage Shah disembarked from his vehicle and started thrashing the police officer. We were coming from Ganderbal and were also stuck in the traffic mess. I captured the thrashing of the cop. Next day, when the photo appeared in the Srinagar Times the traffic cops went for a strike.
Was there any reaction from the State over the photos?
When they learnt that I had captured the incident, they sent men to Srinagar Times office, demanding that the photos shouldn’t appear in print. Sofi Sahab told them that we had lost all the pictures as the camera broke down. When we published the pictures next day, there was a hue and cry.
What is the difference between the work you did during the ‘peace time’ and after the eruption of militancy?
Back then whatever we clicked, action followed. For example, there was an abattoir in downtown which was operating in unhygienic conditions. We highlighted that. The abattoir was immediately sealed. But today nobody cares.
Forty years is a long career in journalism. What is the secret for surviving such a long time in the field?
Hard work. I have toiled day and night to reach where I am today. I cannot express in words the phases I have seen throughout my career. Unfortunately, I lost some of that hard work in 2014 floods. Whatever I have left will be soon uploaded and digitised on my website which I am working on. We are also working on a book and it will also be out soon.
–This brief interview appeared in Kashmir Narrator’s December 2018 issue. To subscribe to our print edition, please mail here: KashmirNarrator@Gmail.com, or call at 7298102560