Kashmir’s Forgotten Children
Showkat Nanda talks to Suhani Lakhotia about personal losses, a means to cope, and on discovering a medium that helped him channel his grief.
Last year, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report, stating the disappearance of over 8000 people in Kashmir, since 1989. However, the official figures by the state and central government places the figure at 4000. To make matters worse, these individuals have been categorised as ‘missing persons’, instead of being acknowledged as (enforced) disappearances.
In March 1990, a 17-year-old boy from Kashmir crossed the Line of Control for arms training, and was never heard from again. His younger brother, who was eight at the time, grew up under the shadow of this oppressive uncertainty. The young boy in question is Showkat Nanda, a photographer and teacher in Kashmir.
“Growing up in the early 90s, children often found themselves in the company of women, because the men, in fear of being arrested, would leave their homes and spend days in forests and other ‘safe’ places. The only people left behind were the elderly and children. So, I grew up seeing the conflict through the pain and misery reflected on the faces of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, neighbours… A woman’s face was (still is) the most prominent symbol of suffering in Kashmir,” he said. Showkat’s project, The Endless Wait, is a result of this anguish; of women who have unwillingly embraced this unresolved grief for nearly three decades, and who continue frequenting graveyards, jails, police stations and torture centers, for news of their loved ones.
His Treatment of the Pictures
Showkat’s childhood was pivoted on survival. Having witnessed deaths, gunfights and search operations, these experiences shaped his identity and perception. “My fascination for photography, and the urge to tell the stories of my people, with regards to what I had witnessed, completely transformed me—first, as a person, and later, as a photographer. I believe that the events occurring in any society is almost always manifested through people’s emotions. And a human portrait is the most powerful way to depict this,” he said.
Perhaps, the most devastating images of suffering are the ones that are devoid of human presence. In The Endless Wait, Showkat has photographed items that belonged to these ‘vanished’ men, thereby creating an almost tactile visual perception. One such picture is of a garment hanging on a tree (shown on the last spread). Without context, the scene is inconspicuous, but the story held within the fibers of the cloth, is overwhelming. A young, battered boy, buried 15 years ago. In case his family comes looking for him, the garment will be proof of his demise. The roles had reversed.
His photographs of the living—of the bereaved families—feel like snippets of conversations. They’re simple, honest and dignified portrayals of verbal and emotional exchanges, between Showkat and his subjects, without the formality that is often seen in projects of this nature. “It’s like how you’d speak with your mother or any other family member. I feared that if the compositions were complex, it would have lessened the effectiveness of the message in the images. Moreover, the domination of the people int he frame, lends them a certain dignity,” he said.
When asked why he chose to photograph the series in black and white, Showkat responded, “When the conflict in Kashmir began, most photojournalists shot on black and white film. Newspapers, too, reproduced everything in black and white. By shooting in monochrome, I wanted to take the viewer back in time, thereby lending my photographs a sense of endurance.”
Despite Showkat’s own history being tethered to the enforced disappearances in Kashmir, gaining access to the families in his project was challenging. “Most of these women have had enough of journalists impinge upon their lives. However, when I approached them, I was honest and respectful, explaining what their story meant to me, and to those who would eventually see them. But I was clear about one thing, that revealing their stories to me might or might not change their lives in any way,” he said. “It was also important for me to blend into their space. I did not want to come across as a photographer, and therefore dressed like them. Whenever I’d go to their homes, I’d wear a khan dress—a type of shalwar kameez worn traditionally by the men in Kashmir—and would carry a small mirrorless Fujifilm camera, in my pocket,” he said.
By rendering himself invisible to his subjects, Showkat went beyond how these women were, so far, visually depicted in the media—as protestors and victims of the conflict in the region. “Instead, I wanted to show how they lived their lives, earned their livelihood, spent time with their families, and raised and educated their children.”
Besides photography, Showkat also found his calling as a teacher. Since 2007, he has been teaching photography to students, mostly in the age group of 18-25 years, across universities in Kashmir. In 2015, he began a mentorship program that focused on documentary photography and narrative visual storytelling. “There is no doubt that the practice of photojournalism in Kashmir has grown exponentially in the last thirty years of the conflict. The valley has produced some exceptional photojournalists, whose works have played a critical role in informing the world about the conflict and its humanitarian cost. The practice, however, has mostly been confined to daily visual reportage and breaking news photography. There’s much more to Kashmir than protests,” he said.
Having begun his career as a staff photographer for a local newspaper in Kashmir (2007), it was only after discovering the works of James Nachtwey and W. Eugene Smith that Showkat changed his perception towards the medium. “Smith’s work blew me away, and made me question my own practice. That’s what got me interested in documentary photography, and visual storytelling in long-form. In 2011, I took a break and worked as an editor for a weekly magazine in Kashmir. In hindsight, this was a period of introspection, where I devoted time to studying and exploring various techniques associated with building visual narratives. Then in 2012, I received a Fulbright Master’s Fellowship that allowed me to complete a Masters in Photojournalism, from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, in the U.S.,” he said.
In a way, being away from Kashmir enabled Showkat to look at his own history, and as well the history of the valley from the perspective of a documentarian. “I decided then that I would revisit every story that I had done as a newspaper photographer and reporter, and find a deeper meaning in them.”
Rising Above Temptations
When asked what changes he would like to see in the current culture of photography, Showkat responded… “As a photographer and photography teacher, I’ve been increasingly seeing photographers shooting for recognition. They need to get out of this rat race and focus on the work they love. It pains me when I see youngsters pursuing projects, just to make it to the World Press Photo awards. In this pursuit, you will most definitely end up copying others, and forget why you took up photography in the first place. I hope that awards and institutions that endow grants discourage sensationalism, and support projects that can help bring about a positive change in society. Moreover, I would love to see photographers working in their own communities. We seriously need to debate on the dangers of parachute journalism, and the subsequent problems of representation,” he said.
In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini had written, “Of all the hardships a person has to face, none seems more punishing than the simple act of waiting.” Though it’s been almost three decades since his brother’s absence, Showkat found an almost therapeutic and healing aspect through The Endless Wait. He discovered a sense of belonging with those who shared his grief, and found a way to make the bitterness of the past, a little more bearable in the present.
Showkat Nanda is an independent documentary photographer and instructor, based in Kashmir. A recipient of the 2012 Fulbright Master’s Fellowship and the
2016 Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund grant, Showkat’s work focuses on the consequences of the conflict in Kashmir.