American photojournalist Paula Bronstein is no stranger to Ladakh. She has visited “at least half a dozen times for personal and professional reasons,” she says over phone from the United States. She has photographed the daily lives of people in the monasteries of Ladakh and its capital, Leh.
However, following the abrogation of Article 370 that rendered both Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh as Union Territories in 2019, she set about capturing the shift in the scenario — of people reacting to the new development and life inside monasteries that went on as usual. Some of these photographs will be a part of her online session for the Indian Photo Festival (indianphotofest.com) on December 11. She will also present snapshots from her vast repository of photographs from Afghanistan, a country she has been documenting since 2001.
In a career that spans over three decades, Paula has travelled extensively to cover humanitarian issues in conflict zones — Afghanistan, Myanmar, Bhutan, Mongolia, Sudan and Ukraine to name a few.
“I am constantly pushing the boundaries [as a photographer],” she says. During her visit to India in 2019, she photographed both Ladakhis and Kashmiris who were moving to Leh owing to the lockdown in Kashmir: “I could see people reacting to the change in the situation; many of them were celebrating the formation of the Union Territory and it was good to understand what these developments mean to them,” she says.
She went about capturing everyday lives and the culture of Ladakh, as she had done during her previous visits. “Everything is part of the story. It was important to cover different aspects. Nothing had changed inside the monasteries,” she explains.
The multiple visits to Ladakh over the years had made Paula familiar with its demography. Some of the images of women in their 70s and 80s narrate stories of those in homes for the elderly, who make do with bare minimum necessities: “Many of these women, who are of similar age like the Dalai Lama, hail from Tibet,” she points out.
Stories from conflict zones are often best narrated from the points of view of the silent victims. In Afghanistan, some of the most telling images by Paula are of the victims of war — bruised, battered and fighting for life and dignity in hospitals. She has also extensively photographed the women of the country, an exercise that she admits was “an ordeal”.
It was an ordeal in terms of getting access to the women, in a culture where women rarely have decision-making powers: “I worked within their cultural limitations. I would meet women in their homes after seeking permission from the male head of the family — husband, brother or father as the case may be. Even widows do not get to decide whom they can meet. The power rests with the brother or father,” she recalls.
The women, Paula reminisces, were only too happy to welcome her into their homes. “Every woman I photographed wanted me to tell her story. I photographed women in different situations and they were happy that someone cared about them and wanted to listen to them. The woman-to-woman empathy helped. However, it was tough for me to spend much time with any of them. There were so many images I couldn’t capture. The men, almost always, would never let me into the homes the second time.”
Persistently returning to Afghanistan for photo projects, Paula photographed women Marines, women in their domestic spaces, men and women who are victims of war, and the stunning landscapes. The book Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear is a window into the work done by Paula in Afghanistan.
(Register to tune into Paula Bronstein’s session on indianphotofest.com)