“As a Kashmiri, that feeling of uncertainty, a feeling that you’re being watched, is always there,” says Syed Shahriyar, an award-winning photojournalist from the valley. We’re sitting on the banks of Jhelum, talking about his experiences living in Delhi. “You’re always aware of what you represent and the narrative that people in India have been fed, and what could be the consequence of that.” With works published in VICE, TIME, Le Monde, Radio France International, The Quint and Catch News, Shahriyar is often at the forefront of the conflict that has engulfed Kashmir for over three decades. At first glance, the 25-year-old appears relaxed and jovial, providing hilarious anecdotes from his life in Srinagar. “Once, when I was going through the first barrier of security at Srinagar Airport (there are five security checkpoints), an officer asked me what my tripod was for?” he says. “I told him that it was a stand for an AK-47, and the officer also laughed.”
However, his is a life spent in conflict, and there are gut-wrenching stories spread throughout every phase of his young life that are often unheard.
Born in Srinagar, in a Shia-dominated neighbourhood called Hassanabad, Shahriyar grew up close to the Jamia Masjid, the central mosque in the city. “I’ve grown up hearing sounds of tear gas shells being fired,” he says. “Every Friday, when protests used to take place after Friday prayers, we could hear the clashes at home. I had a friend who used to skip school and go work and then participate in stone-pelting. He used to tell me stories of what happened at the clashes. In 2007, that same friend came to the darasgah, where we used to study the Qur’an, and told us about a boy named Muntazir who had been killed. Children in Kashmir understand at a very early age about the struggle because we see it happening all around us. Another time, there was an army crackdown during my Uncle’s wedding, and they came and sat in our aangan–these are the kind of memories that stay with you.”
Initially, Shahriyar wanted to be a writer. His grandfather, Syed Akbar Jaipuri, was a famous Urdu poet and was bestowed the title of Mujahid-e-Urdu (militant of Urdu). “I grew up in a home that always welcomed poets and writers and there was an atmosphere that welcomed intellectual thought and an open exchange of ideas,” he says. “At that age, I thought I would be a writer. In 2009, it was the first anniversary of the death of Sheikh Aziz, a martyr popularly known as ‘The Jailbird’ who had lost his life in the 2008 uprising against the transfer of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board. I went to his grave and found no one there, whereas the year before, there were thousands and thousands of people at his funeral. People had forgotten him. I wrote a piece called ‘Remembering Aziz’ in a local newspaper.”
At the same time, Shahriyar was discovering the power of images. “Back then, I realised that most of the accurate and unbiased reports were being provided by local Kashmiri news channels,” he says. “When the local channels got banned, newspapers carried on the mantle. I thought that these images should be preserved because they tell our history. I compiled a scrapbook, which was also featured in the Boston Review, and it started with an image called ‘Kashmir Intifada’–it depicted a Palestinian boy throwing a stone towards an Israeli soldier which was juxtaposed with an image of a young boy holding a flag on top of the Ghanta Ghar (in Lal Chowk, Srinagar). It was a compilation of the uprising [in 2008]. That’s when my love for photography began.”
In 2011, Shahriyar enrolled in Baramullah College’s journalism programme, aiming to continue his passion for writing. At the same time, he found work as a photographer. “I used to go around downtown Srinagar clicking pictures for a local weekly newspaper on a Nikon 3100,” he says. “I still remember the blood, the sharpness of those images, even though they got blurred later. People used to tease me– aapka newspaper jahaan aap kaam karte ho Lal Chowk ke bahaar jaata hai? (is the newspaper you work for available anywhere beyond Lal Chowk?) But I wanted to work no matter what–it’s important to me.”
In 2012, Shahriyar joined Kashmir Observer, which allowed him to travel freely and cover better assignments. One of his first big pieces, titled ‘A Night In The Martyr’s Village’, published by Kindle Magazine, captures the sense of loss, confusion and desolation that is felt by a community away from the public eye. “It didn’t feel right to just capture the image and leave,” he says. “This boy, Farhat Ahmed Dar, was martyred. We spent the night there with the family and the body, having reached after facing many difficulties from the cops who tried to feed us wrong information about the funeral.” Next year, Shahriyar got his big break, with an image featuring young boys bathing in a spring during a rare Ramadan that fell during a heatwave in the valley published by TIME as one of the best pictures of the month, alongside photos from Syria and Palestine. “I messaged my friend to check,” he laughs. “Is it really my picture on TIME or is someone making a fool of me?”
As his work started getting picked up, Shahriyar was often the first one to upload images covering events, protests, etc. in Kashmir to international photo agencies by Indian and international media publications. His work was also featured in Sanjay Kak’s critically-acclaimed book Witness, a compilation of the work of Kashmiri photojournalists. In 2015, Shahriyar was shortlisted by Freedom House, a US-based non-governmental organisation, as one of the top photojournalists in the world.
The following year, he won the ‘National Photography’ competition organised by Home Solutions in India. With a growing profile, it became a delicate balancing act between following his convictions and compromising them, especially when dealing with Indian media houses. “There’s a certain level of self-censorship,” he says. “International publications don’t edit your captions but, with Indian publications, you have to compromise and portray things with a certain tone. They’ll edit your caption, or remove the story itself. As a freelancer, you have to play the game.”
One of the most difficult stories for him to cover was Burhan Wani’s funeral. “There was so much anger in the region,” he says. “It still exists to this day. Identifying myself as a journalist could have meant trouble for me on that journey, because we were being stopped by everybody–security forces and locals–and both could have done anything. It was a tricky situation so I took pictures of the funeral on my phone and that became my pass with locals. There’s a quote by Susan Sontag which describes how a photographer is an authority on the subject he’s shooting and a part of the situation. As a photographer in a conflict zone, I need to judge these situations really quickly.”
Throughout our time together, Shahriyar is keen to stress just how much the situation has deteriorated in the valley. People are alienated, and the anger in public consciousness against the State has reached unprecedented levels. I ask him if there’s any chance that this relationship can be repaired, and what role the Indian media can play in such a process. “To be able to repair any relationship one must first admit to the truth,” he says. “When you don’t portray things in an authentic manner, there’s no chance that people will trust you. How can news channels report about Kashmir from their newsrooms in Delhi, taking the officials statement at face value, without investigating and experiencing what’s happening on the ground? This is a different kind of alienation from the rise of the militancy in the ’90s–the situation has compelled people, even intellectuals, to explore different avenues of resistance. How have we reached this point? Because they refuse to show the truth.” In a time when Kashmiri journalists such as Aasif Sultan and Kamran Yusuf are being jailed on charges of terrorism, the work done by their peers such as Shahriyar is of paramount importance to understanding the ground realities of the situation in the valley.
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