Meet the man photographing the women who lost their families in the Kashmir Valley

Showkat Nanda was just a kid when his brother disappeared. Now, he’s documenting other families missing members in Kashmir
June 12, 2018, 5:38pm

This is Photobomb, a series about the photojournalists who spend their days in crazy, dangerous or just plain weird situations to document the world.

There was a time when Showkat Nanda didn't think he would live to see his 15th birthday. He was just a kid growing up in the Kashmir Valley when separatist rebels began an insurgency against occupying Indian security forces who controlled much of the Muslim-populated area.

“I made up my mind that, OK, maybe two years, maybe three years, or maybe four years, we’re not going to live beyond that,” he told VICE News. “Because the situation was really, really terrible.”

India and Pakistan have fought over the Kashmir region for decades, but the latest iteration of the conflict began in 1989, when Muslim pro-independence rebels rose up against the Indian security forces. A year later, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act granted Indian security forces sweeping power to crack down on the insurgency, including the right to arrest people without warrants and to “fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death,” against people who were acting “in contravention of any law or order.” Though this law has been widely condemned by human rights watchdogs, it remains in effect.

“I was like any other Kashmiri kid, I was watching and seeing all these happenings,” Nanda said. “You still get goosebumps when you think about that time.”

Nanda was just eight years old when his 17-year-old brother left home to cross the border into Pakistan in 1990. His family never heard from him again. It took them more than a year to find out he had been killed on the journey.

According to Indian government records, more than 41,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 1990. But what’s less documented is the number of people, usually young men, who simply go missing. Some are killed in crackdowns and later found in mass unmarked graves, while others disappear while attempting to cross the border into Pakistan.

Today, Nanda is an award-winning photojournalist who works for local outlets and freelances for international publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. But in recent years, he has turned his attention away from daily news and towards a long-term documentary project.

"Photojournalism in Kashmir was essentially restricted as hardcore news photography, and I think while doing so, I think we missed a lot of things,” he said. “What we missed was in-depth stories."

In “The Endless Wait,” he documents women, who, like his mother at the time, don’t know if their family members are alive or dead.

“My mother kept waiting for him for almost one-and-a-half years,” he said. “I think the pain of these women whose husbands, whose sons have disappeared, was similar to my mother’s.”

He sometimes works with local activist groups like the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, which tries to raise awareness of the issue through protests and regular demonstrations of mothers and wives who have lost someone.

“Most of the time what I had seen about those people was the protesting pictures of survivors,” he said. “So I wanted to go beyond those photo ops, and I wanted to document their normal lives.”

Recently, he’s started a second part of the project, which he hopes will go beyond the tragedy, and focus on women’s resilience. VICE News followed him as he met up with one of his subjects in Srinagar last April.