Even after 24 years in photography, this assignment was quite a challenge. But it is also my favourite, and I’ve never enjoyed a series so much.
The beauty of the place initially overpowers you. But my style of working is that I do a lot of reading and research, and I interact with people to get into the skin of the place.
Being an Indian photographer, it was initially difficult to get into the soul of the people. They had their doubts: Why was I there? Was I an Army man in disguise?
On the other hand, the Army thought I was a human rights activist!
In the first phase of my work – from 2006-2008 – I almost came close to shelving the project.
Photographs out of Kashmir fall into two categories: The pretty pictures and the conflict pictures.
You know the drill with the international media – They arrive every Thursday, expecting a protest after the Friday prayers, and shoot their packaged pictures for the week.
I felt trapped – between the Dal Lake-Hazratbal and the conflict images. I felt I was not moving ahead, and this was a personal project.
Beyond a point, even beauty gets saturated.
In 2008, I decided to do things differently. I thought I’d take one last chance, and went to Kashmir without a camera.
I spent hours in street corners and restaurants, just observing people and writing notes.
It was then that I noticed how numb Kashmiris had become. Things weren’t okay. There was always this cold, eerie silence. There was always pain, even behind their celebrations.
Unlike other cities I’ve been to, I noticed less interaction among people – They just went from point to point and back, because you don’t know at which junction you would be asked to prove your identity.
After that visit, I went back again, and this time, I started writing down my thoughts in detail. Kashmir is the personal, visual notes of an observer. I knew I had to go beyond the beauty and the conflict: I wanted to capture the psyche of the Kashmiri in the aftermath of so many years of conflict.
Image: Hazratbal, Srinagar, 2010
Image Copyright: Amit Mehra. Republished from Kashmir, with permission from Penguin Books India