Sanjay Kak’s Witness: An archive of memory in the face of constant erasure

Witness, a new book celebrating the work of nine Kashmiri photojournalists was recently launched throughout India and abroad. The book is a collection of more than 200 photographs taken between 1986 and 2016. It is not a visual guide to events in Kashmir as some may think. It is visual-textual narrative that draws you into a discussion with itself, photography, the photographer’s intent and, above all, Kashmir. The book has a distinct aesthetic materiality and its contents and treatment offer layers of provocation to viewers. The accompanying text helps us understand that, as Kashmiris, the individuals behind these lenses are as present and implicated into the images that appear before us. In other words, these are not photojournalists looking from the outside in; their work operates dialectically so that there is no ‘outside’ or ‘in’.

As viewers, in the process of contemplating these images of Kashmir as a place, a people, an idea, as a source of conflict, the book invites us to reflect on photography and image making as a practice that is as political as the idea of Kashmir itself.

A loose idea for the book developed in the mind of documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak in the early 2000s when he experienced difficulty in trying to evoke the Kashmir of the 1990s. As he explained to the audience at Galleryske, Bengaluru, where he launched the book, “People would talk to me in a roundabout way of how they experienced the 1990s, but when the camera was around it became very monosyllabical. People’s memories suddenly became very diffused and disappeared like smoke.”

Kak began looking at the work of Kashmiri photojournalists, their images as possible insight into this time period. The result was a feeling that: “[this] was a very profound way of telling the story about Kashmir and that some day there should be an opportunity to tell it like that.”

That opportunity came Kak’s way in 2014. Witness owes its inception to the Culture in Defiance programmme of the Prince Claus Fund as well as the Bengalaru-based India Foundation for the Arts, IFA. Both organisations are committed to art, that, in the words of IFA programme officer, Tanveer Ajsi, asks critical questions in order to break new grounds. Kashmiris should take heed to such initiatives. Given the systematic draining of resources for creative practices in Kashmir, be it the non-existence of cinema halls or the near absence of theatre, film-making and other creative forms of expression, Witness demonstrates a commitment to work being done not just about Kashmir, but by Kashmiris themselves.

The works of nine photojournalists represented in the book span a period of 30 years, when things were calm, then came a sudden eruption followed by a  severe period of mass suffering, then episodic uprisings that brought more pain as the State employed violence to quell popular dissent. The photographers featured in the book have aged in this period or were growing up or born during this time. These photographers are Meraj-ud-Din, Javeed Shah, Dar Yasin, Javed Dar, Altaf Qadri, Sumit Dayal, Showkat Nanda, Syed Shahriyar and Azaan Shah. Each photographer is represented by a series of images as well as text. Although it is not an encyclopedic chronology of events in Kashmir, one discovers an organic evolution of ideas through the tactility of image and design.

During the discussion at the Bengalaru book launch, Kak pointed out that while nine photojournalists are represented, that is not to say these are the only Kashmiri photojournalists deserving of the spotlight. Kak also addressed the fact that no women were included, a problem that speaks less about the selection process and more about photojournalism as a practice that is based on the quotidian act of going out into the streets no matter what the context or conditions or time of day. The book is the initiation of several important conversations at several levels, particularly about what comes next, not just in respect to women, but also the extreme importance of turning a critical eye toward the act of image making in and of Kashmir.

As Tanveer Aisi explained to the audience, until recently, images of Kashmir have a traditionally narrated a gaze of the outsider looking in, be it the colonial photography that depicted a landscape without people, the gaze of tourism or Bollywood. Photojournalism offers several counter-narratives. First, it documents the daily life within a conflict zone with all its rawness. Second, it re-establishes an archive, a public memory in the face of constant erasure that comes not only from the Indian state but in events such as the catastrophic flood of 2014. Third, these images represent a voice that is alternative to language, which is so often manipulated in the realm of media and politics.

That is not to say that images are inherent bearers of truth. Renowned art critic and historian Sadanand Menon offered several points on the nature of the image, particularly the observation that the very destructive elements of war, torture, cannot operate without the image. Images depict but also produce conflict. Even the history, the fact that technological advancement in photography has largely been through war. As the camera is “always framing conflict for a particular kind of idea of memory-building,” then the question is, who is behind the camera and what perspective is being chosen? The camera cannot replace the human eye, which observes continuous movement and continuous frames. “Can the camera ever be the real witness?”

For the two photojournalists present for the discussion, Altaf Qadri and Showkat Nanda, photojournalism emerged as a necessity rather than aspiration or desire for the profession. As Qadri explained to the audience: “I wanted to become a doctor but then an urge to tell the stories unfolding before my eyes, my passion for expressing myself through the visuals turned me to photojournalism. You want to tell your bit of the story. The everyday experiences, the things you witness around you, it’s a natural outcome of what is happening there.”

A similar purity of intent, which is captured in all of the images included in the book, was also expressed by Showkat Nanda. “As a photojournalist, you have to be truthful. I have a responsibility to show what is happening on the ground no matter who the audience is. If you witness anything, you are supposed to inform people,” Showkat explained.  He said he doesn’t want  to “spoon-feed” people what to look at. “I’m there to record and to inform what I have seen. So it’s as clear as that.” Elaborating on this, Showkat said it was his own background that dictated what to shoot what he has witnessed. “So I’m in a situation, say violence or anything terrible happening around and I could go back to my teenage years and say yes, that is exactly what happened when I was a teenager and I was held at a gunpoint by the paramilitary. If I had a camera then I would have definitely shot the same thing.”

Witness has a double meaning. In Urdu, it means someone who saw it happening and in Arabic it translates to ‘martyr’. It allows the viewer to move beyond the utility of the image as the book becomes as much an art form as the work inside of it. However, the reality that owning a copy may be prohibitively expensive for the general public was a point raised during the question and answer session. To this Kak offered several points. First, when you make an object, such as this book, there is syntax. “If I need to make a poem, I will make a poem and not a pamphlet,” Kak said.

Witness may not reach the hands of everyone but that doesn’t diminish its power. It is to honour the work of these photojournalists, to slow down and reflect on the images as well as the act of image making, which takes on a whole other level of meaning in the context of Kashmir. For people who buy the book because of an affinity for photography, the book becomes an opportunity to learn about, to witness Kashmir. As Kak said, “Everyone can understand complex things.”

The work of these nine photojournalists reveals the complexity of the situation within Kashmir but their work within the context of the book also reveals the complexity of photojournalism as a practice of image making.

For Qadri, both the book and the act of photography is about small truths. And, the immediate, personal feedback he receives from Kashmiris. When a group of 12 and 13-year-old Kashmiri boys went into hiding to avoid persecution by State forces, Qadri shot their picture and it was eventually carried by the Washington Post. “After that, I uploaded some of these pictures to Instagram and you know, I found a comment and it was from one of these guys I had shot, and he was like, ‘I’m so happy you told our story and actually that helped us to not be arrested’.”

This boy’s words probably explain the power of a photograph even in the face of a brutal authority. They also point to the limitation of a photograph that it can do only that much. Sometimes even not that. And sometimes just the opposite of the photograph’s and photographer’s intention as it becomes an undeniable proof of your presence at a particular place at a particular time. In Kashmir, photographs are regularly used by State agencies to identify and arrest dissenting protestors. But no matter how a photograph gets used or abused, it is witness to some unknown and forgotten shades of reality, just like the book Witness.

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    By: Morgan Campbell

    No biography available at this time

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