What 5 young women photographers see in Kashmir

They reveal what makes them tick, despite the odds, and the biases they face.

Majid Maqbool

Five young, promising Kashmiri woman photographers, all in their twenties, talk about what makes them pick up the camera, go out, and click images, against all the odds.

They also point out the difficulties they encounter while working in the field, the societal bias, and why there’s a need for more women photographers and photojournalists in Kashmir who, they feel, should be encouraged and supported to tell stories through their images.

Here, they tell their stories in their words and through their photos that capture what words can’t.

UMAIRA HASSAN

Age: 27

‘Some support and encouragement to women photographers can bring out more stories’

A decade ago, my parents wanted me to be a doctor. I got a graduation degree in science, though I wasn’t willing to pursue the stream. In the second year of college, I decided it was time to be myself. I made up my mind to pursue a Master’s degree course in mass communication and journalism from Kashmir University after graduation.

When I was younger, my father had bought me a polaroid camera. I would randomly click anything, anywhere. When I grew up and went to the university in 2012 to pursue a Master’s degree, photography became my passion. I learned about the technicalities of the camera, scene-setting, angles, lighting and other important things about making images.

I developed a greater interest in photography. It is an art that needs to be appreciated. It’s a way of telling stories. For me, photography is emotion. When you click, you’re not only capturing a photo, you are also creating a memory that stays forever. I express myself through photography.

Photography changes the way you see things. It makes ordinary things look like poetry. You come close to nature by noticing each and every detail. You start noticing light, shape, colours, people and structures, all of it in a different way.

I wish all I can do in my life is just photography. I know there are successful women photographers in the world but if I talk about my own state, here we have a different story.

In Kashmir, one needs job security to pursue other passions. I like to make time from my schedule for photography, though. It can never be an option for me.

If I talk about myself, I was told by my parents that if you want to work, go for a stable job. Roaming on the streets and cities is not good for a woman, we are often told.

Your work is restricted, though I won’t say this is true for everyone and for every work. For example, as a girl or a woman, you can’t come home late. You can’t jump a wall because, as we are told, “girls should avoid acting like boys”.

Whenever I am out for work, with shooting equipment, some people start gathering and stare as if I am some alien!

Passing odd comments about your work, your dress, is so common. They will stare at you just to make you feel uncomfortable. All one can do is carry on and ignore the surroundings.

It’s not only about women photographers; every woman in other fields also faces eve-teasing as she goes out for work. Also, when it comes to driving a car or scooter, she faces it all. A woman is always a soft target even if she excels in a field.

In Kashmir, we have a dearth of workplaces where a woman is encouraged and appreciated for her effort. A little support can make things better.

A woman is a combination of strength and emotions. As a photographer or photojournalist, her perspective can bring a whole new face to events and stories. We have few women photographers here and that too restricted to certain fields.

This place, being a conflict zone, needs more women photographers and photojournalists who can tell many stories from their unique perspective.

FURKAN KHAN

Age: 27

‘It is easy to dismiss women narratives in Kashmir’

I took up photography while studying for an undergrad degree in journalism. It is a telling medium of communication and in today’s world, it’s a vital part of reporting and storytelling.

Although I was pursuing a degree in journalism, the course did not focus on the technicality of photography. I did not pursue any other course for photography.

I am a media researcher, having earned an undergraduate degree in journalism from Delhi University and a Master’s degree in international development from University of Edinburgh.

I have been working as a media researcher with various research organisation and NGOs, on issues ranging from urban poverty and land rights to youth advocacy, culture and heritage.

I have been using photography as a means of communication in my work. I focus on development issues and taking photos is a vital part of the projects I undertake.

Kashmir is a very tricky place when it comes to women photographers. As a place that highly regulates women’s existence in public spaces, being a woman photographer, especially a Kashmiri, leaves you trailing, hopping and skipping the cultural biases and completely throws you off your professionalism. Adding to this is the fact that mobility for women here is a major challenge.

Personally, the act of a woman in Kashmir being able to make someone else a subject of their gaze (or the camera’s gaze) is a massive challenge. A Kashmiri woman with a DSLR camera in her hand in Kashmir is a spectacle. So the basic act of reaching from point A to point B in itself feels like inviting gazes.

It also means that women become more comfortable shooting inanimate objects and anyone other than people, because that is the only scenario where the woman herself is not a subject and therefore able to photograph freely.

Which should give you a clue into why most “women photographers” in Kashmir click scenery, animals, objects, food, etc.

Secondly, one of the major problems I have faced is the refusal of people to interact with you. In the case of men, due to a lot of reasons, they do not talk, maybe because they don’t think it means anything to interact with a woman. Or even if they do, it is always done snidely, because it is probably a comical idea when a woman subjects you to questions and queries!

In the case of women, although it is a lot easier to interact with them and have a meaningful conversation as a photographer, the huge obstacle here is that women do not want to be photographed. There is a massive trust deficit which hinders women from facing a camera or being photographed.

There is a major denial of narrative for the women in Kashmir. Having been second-class citizens since forever, it is extremely easy to dismiss women narratives here unless it fits the bigger narrative. Women’s perspectives are undoubtedly an important part of any place’s narrative, but the question here is, does anyone really care about that narrative in Kashmir?

I think one vital lesson that I have recently learnt in the case of Kashmir is that women need to find their own space, collaborate and work with other women and support each other in this profession. They need to find their own narrative, say it with their own means and really, really, get rid of all the male patronising that takes place. Easier said than done, but I really hope we are able to do this.

TUBA NASIEM

Age: 26

‘We are looked at differently when we have a camera in hand’

I’ve always loved photography and I’ve always been an amateur photographer. I used to click pictures with my phone camera. I have learnt a lot, from camera settings to Photoshop and editing through the internet, and it has been the learning medium since.

I’ve always been fascinated with pictures because a single frame can tell multiple stories based on the personal experience of the viewer and the photographer. And that’s the beauty of a photograph - it doesn’t change but is still differently perceived.

Photography has been looked down upon as a profession not only for women but men as well in Kashmir. It’s difficult to step out of a career lineage, mostly when it is art-related as family pressures, job security and “what society will think” takes a toll.

People usually don’t consider it a reliable career option here, maybe because they are unaware of the vast possibilities and opportunities this field has to offer. Families will always support “female careers” which guarantee respect, safety (high priority and tops the checklist) and money. Sadly, the passion and creative side is always ignored.

I’m mostly into visual art, still life and minimalist photography but there have been many instances when I wanted to click a portrait and the moment I took out the camera and framed the scene, apparently the subject always sensed it and I failed to capture the image.

I mostly click with my phone camera because it is handy and can often be easily camouflaged! And for the male photographers in Kashmir, it is easier to click without disturbing the mood and stillness of the subject and without getting noticed. It’s different though when we (women) have a camera in hand.

Unfortunately, the most fragile and vulnerable subjects of a conflict zone are women and children. To capture a striking story and real trauma, the shields and guards of a person have to be down. I believe women photographers can be more sensitive in capturing the depths of damage and trauma (women) have been through. I think women-to-women interactions can capture the essence in more explicit ways and the real trauma can be exposed with empathy.

DURDANA BHAT

Age: 24

“I prefer to focus on the root cause of issues facing people’

I took up photography as a medium of exploration four years ago and since 2014, I have been focused on photography as a medium of documentation of our stories in Kashmir. What interested and continues to interest me about this medium is its critical capacity and responsibility of dealing with the “frame”.

I studied for a Bachelor’s degree in mass media from Women’s College, Srinagar. I also worked with local weekly publications which gave me some professional training.

I don’t believe there is any discrimination based on gender when I go out to work in the field.

Personally, I was never been discriminated against. But at the same time, there are some restrictions (not discrimination) on girls who aspire to become photojournalists due to the conflict in Kashmir.

The obstacles are more or less the same for any photojournalist working in Kashmir. As a photojournalist, you sometimes get targeted by both sides if caught in a protest but that doesn’t mean people target journalists based on gender.

To become a photographer, or to work in any field, requires will. I don't think it is difficult for a woman to become a photographer or photojournalist in Kashmir just because of her gender. Gender is not a requirement if there is will, passion and the capability to strive no matter the circumstances. For that matter, these are the requirements for doing well in our day-to-day life too.

My work has primarily focused on conflict-related issues in Kashmir. I’ve tried to bring to the front various hidden facets of Kashmir through my photography. I prefer to concentrate on the root causes of problems rather than sensationalism in my work. I look at my work as an installation of hidden elements, and strive to understand issues at the ground level.

MEHREEN ALAM

Age: 24

‘A female photographer can do as good a job as a male photographer’

I am a Pathan and a native Pashto speaker. I’m a resident of Gutlibagh village in Ganderbal, where the majority of people are Pashto-speaking Pathans. I have got a Master’s degree in linguistics from Kashmir University. Currently, I work in a bank. In my free time, I’m an amateur photographer who loves to make frames.

I developed an interest in photography about three years ago. I loved capturing everything that attracted my eyes. I started it as a hobby and it gradually became my passion. What I love about photography is that you can convey so many things very powerfully and without using words.

I haven’t had any professional training, neither have I done any course in photography. I have learnt it on my own, by experimenting and clicking photos. I have learnt by observing the work of other photographers. I still have a lot to learn. I see beauty in everything and I want to show that to people through my photos.

If a woman takes up photography, or decides to make it a career in Kashmir, she is definitely looked at differently as compared to a man. Due to social influence, many parents don’t approve of photography as a career option for their daughters. It is looked upon as a male-oriented career. Photography hasn't gained much importance in our society so that it could be considered a safe career choice for women.

Whenever I go out to shoot something, especially on the streets and in crowded areas here, people start observing it as if something unusual is happening. I have had comments passed at me and some people even laughing at me when I shoot outdoors. At times, people don’t allow me to photograph them.

It’s not easy to be a woman photographer or a photojournalist in Kashmir as it is a conflict zone. There are a few women photojournalists though, who go out to cover encounter sites or protests.

Many parents don’t allow their daughters to cover such incidents. Also, the negative social perspective about women photographers is the reason we don’t see many of them in Kashmir.

A female photographer can do as good a job as a male photographer. It depends on how hard one works. In the case of Kashmir, a woman photographer can, for example, click photos in places where men can’t have access. Also, women are more comfortable being photographed by other women. A woman photojournalist can cover the plight and suffering of Kashmiri women more effectively than her male counterpart.

More women photographers and photojournalists can bring to light more stories of Kashmiri women that are waiting to be told.

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