Vignettes from the Valley: Documenting Kashmir through personal narratives

A lot has been lost in Kashmir through the years, and a lot demands to stay remembered. Kashmir Photo Collective puts private images in the public sphere, in hopes of achieving that end

Updated - September 14, 2020 02:07 pm IST

Published - September 12, 2020 04:27 pm IST

Gathering of all political workers working for Peerzada Ghulam Jeelani in Pampore (1958). From the Qadri Collection.

Gathering of all political workers working for Peerzada Ghulam Jeelani in Pampore (1958). From the Qadri Collection.

Sadiq’s handicraft shop had been completely submerged under the mighty Jhelum’s waters. The ravaging floods of 2014 showed little mercy on the Kashmir Valley. When photographers Nathaniel Brunt and Alisha Sett arrived at his shop a few months after the floods, Sadiq was busy cleaning, trying to salvage what little was left. The damage was still quite evident. “As we worked with him that day, he showed us a collection of images. While some of the images had been completely erased by the water, others showed the fragmented residue of what was left of the image,” recalls Nathaniel. These images narrate personal stories of families and individuals; threads that lead to the larger history of Kashmir.

Though Nathaniel and Alisha — photographers who had been working in Kashmir as early as 2013 and 2012 respectively — founded the Kashmir Photo Collective a few months before the floods, it was only during the deluge that they realised the importance of their mission. “It was only in the aftermath of the floods that we had this realisation that the work we were doing — archiving these stories and images — was extremely critical. This event, along with the destruction of many images during the 1990s, left a large lacuna in the visual history of the region,” says Nathaniel.

A KPC worksheet produced during an interview with the Amin family. Editorial Board of SP College magazine ‘Pratap’ showing Professor PN Pushp, SN Dhar, RC Pandita, and Abdul Graffoe Malik in the bottom row along with the student editors for the English, Punjabi and Urdu sections who are standing (1945-1947). From the Amin Collection.

A KPC worksheet produced during an interview with the Amin family. Editorial Board of SP College magazine ‘Pratap’ showing Professor PN Pushp, SN Dhar, RC Pandita, and Abdul Graffoe Malik in the bottom row along with the student editors for the English, Punjabi and Urdu sections who are standing (1945-1947). From the Amin Collection.

A little later, the duo met journalist Shafat Farooq who had been doing his own archival work, and a collaboration ensued. They have archived numerous private collections in collaboration with individuals, families, photo studios, photographers as well as institutions since then. Sadiq’s story and his priceless personal collection is just one of many.

The photographs in KPC’s collection date back to the 19th Century — “We catalogue the images based on which family collection they come from. In the future, with the help of an institutional partner, we hope to develop a more robust metadata system,” Nathaniel explains. In one of the images from the Qadri family’s personal collection, political workers gather around veteran politician the late Peerzada Ghulam Jeelani, at Pampore in 1958. Another frame from the Amin family’s collection, dated 1983, shows a group of friends lounging about on Sonalanka, a small island near the Hazratbal shrine on Dal lake.

Treasure trove

Since personal stories with sentimental value are at play, the research process involves a lot of back-and-forth. Many conversations with the families are naturally part of it. Discussions are followed by scanning of images and printing on standard A4 paper. Interviews follow, using the images as a means to develop a dialogue.

Teachers of Government Girls High School, Pampore (1952 to 1977). From the Qadri Collection.

Teachers of Government Girls High School, Pampore (1952 to 1977). From the Qadri Collection.

More importantly, while documenting personal history, where do they draw the line to make sure privacy is not breached? This has been a critical conversation in KPC ever since its inception, says Nathaniel. “With this in mind, along with the broader context of the region’s troubled history, it has been critical to maintain a dialogue with participants in order to ensure that this long-term trust is maintained. For us concerns around privacy trump any need for dissemination. Before any exhibition of material from the collection, the selection is vetted by the families themselves. If participants decide that some of the material should not be included, it is withdrawn from the show.”

Right now, KPC’s focus is on the collection at hand, and fieldwork has admittedly been sporadic. “We are primarily focussed on finding interesting and appropriate ways of disseminating the material we have gathered up to this point. In the future, we hope to continue the process of collecting more images and stories from Kashmir, and also from the broader Kashmiri diaspora,” says Nathaniel.

Peerzada Ghulam Jeelani (1958). From the Qadri Collection.

Peerzada Ghulam Jeelani (1958). From the Qadri Collection.

They were recently part of a group show called Archives of Persistence, which was part of Chobi Mela in Dhaka. For several years, they had also led visual literacy workshops for high school history teachers from across South Asia, as part of the annual History for Peace Conference run by the Seagull Foundation in Kolkata.

However, contentious incidents surrounding the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status have not helped their field work. “The changes have made it more difficult to consistently communicate with one another and conduct fieldwork on the ground.” But, he adds, “Having worked in Kashmir over the last six years, we have learned to adjust to a certain level of uncertainty.”

Reach Kashmir Photo Collective at https://www.kashmirphotocollective.com

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