Interview with Documentary film-maker and publisher Sanjay Kak

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Interview with Documentary film-maker and publisher Sanjay Kak

In an interview with Majid Maqbool, Kak spoke about the making of Witness, a unique collaborative photo book featuring works of nine different Kashmiri photographers, and the growing creative capital emerging from the valley. 

“Sometimes Even One Image can Help Destabilize Long held Beliefs.”
Sanjay Kak, is a well known figure from Kashmir, a documentary film-maker, whose recent films include Red Ant Dream (2013) Jashn-e-Azadi (2007) and Words on Water (2002). He is also a writer, who has penned several long-form essays on Kashmir, and edited the anthology Until My Freedom Has Come – The New Intifada in Kashmir (Penguin India, 2011). Very recently, Kak also became a publisher, after founding  the independent publishing imprint Yaarbal books, whose first title is the photo-book Witness – Kashmir 1986-2016 / Nine photographers. 

He met up with Majid Maqbool to talk about his new venture, why he chose his first project to be a collaborative photo book and  the growing creative capital emerging from Kashmir’s young artists, writers and photojournalists.

Being a documentary filmmaker, putting together a book of photographs on Kashmir must have been a challenging task. How did you get this idea in the first place?
I think it was more than ten years ago that I first became aware of the remarkable body of images that have been created by photojournalists in Kashmir. I was actually looking for ways to illuminate the very dark period of the 1990s in Kashmir, for a film that I was working on, and it was in the work of news photographers that I began to find the first traces. Eventually I didn’t use still photographs in that film, but the sense that there was an important historical archive, one that opened out a largely unseen emotional landscape, that stayed with me.

How do you look at the work of photojournalists in Kashmir who work in difficult circumstances, are the first to reach the spot to cover a protest, an encounter, a funeral or any violent confrontation between people and the government forces?
The work of these photographers is all that you say, certainly, but much more too. Those flashpoints will dominate our visual memory, that first; on-the-spot dramatic picture will always mark certain moments. But as you will see in the book, there is so much more that contains the essence of these past thirty years in Kashmir. It could be a picture of a flower-laden shikara that is weighed under with a sort of desolation. Or even a picture of a young child walking past an abandoned bunker. So every great image need not be made under grave personal risk, or in exceptionally difficult circumstances. But you could definitely say that that the outstanding picture will always come from a lot of thought, from familiarity with the ground, and from a passion to tell a story.

Kuka Parray poses with his pro-government militia, the Ikhwan/ Meraj Ud Din

At a book release in Srinagar, you said that it is a book not only about photographs but also photographers. What influenced your decision about the choice of the photographers?
The book does not lay claim to representing the nine best photographers in Kashmir, although each one in the book is certainly an outstanding photographer. I have seen and admired the work of several other photographers who could have been a part of the book. But despite my best efforts I don’t think I was persuasive enough! Eventually the final choice of the nine was also shaped by the larger narrative that the book tries to map – not just of Kashmir in these last three decades, but also of the photographers own concerns, and eventually, photography itself. We were guided by which photographers work best signposted both the past and the future of image making in Kashmir.

Did you at any stage while working on the photo book feel that you needed to include a few more photographers in the book which could further enrich the photo collection? What made you to limit the number of photographers featured in the book to nine only?
I would have liked to feature a dozen photographers. But a photo-book is not only a collection of pictures. That would be an encyclopedia. At an early stage of the curation we decided that in order to give any sense of the range and depth of an individual photographer we would need to have at least twenty pictures from each, and sometimes we have 25. With that we were already running to close to 200 images, and with the text and index we eventually had a 400-page book on our hands… It had already become a financially nonviable book, which is why I had to decide to publish it myself, as Yaarbal Books. To have added any more photographers would have made it an impossible book.

Shopkeepers of Kashmir/Azaan Shah

Going through the book, one finds a considerable amount of text accompanying the photographs. Why did you feel the need for including the written word when the pictures would in itself be enough to convey the story?
The photographs in the book have very little text accompanying them – only the tersest of captions. The text actually accompanies the photographers – each person’s work is followed by a brief profile, and this text was always integral to the intention of the project. I always remain interested in the material and social conditions in which any art is made, including photography. Who are these people who take pictures? Where do they come from? Why did they turn to photography? Witness is a book about Kashmir, yes, but it’s also about nine Kashmiris, joined together by the fact that they are all photographers. That is what the text tries to unwrap…. Also I’m not sure that pictures without words would be enough to convey the story. They might convey a story, but I do believe context is important: where was the picture taken, which a caption defines. And why does the photographer do what he/she does: that the profile tries to answer.

But I must add something here. I was looking at the book with a photographer, and a very eminent one, and I made a reference to the profile of the photographer… What profile, she asked? The one that follows each photographer, I answered. She flipped through the book and found one. And told me she had completely missed them, even though she had been through the book several times! So each reader will pick on some things. And ignore others. Which is how it should be: give our readers their own volition.

A family of migrant workers/Javed Dar

Witness has an interesting design and there’s a string holding the book and an open spine. Who decided which photograph would feature as a double-spread, for example? Did the personal style of individual photographers play some role in enhancing the overall look?
Every physical detail of Witness is a carefully worked out part of a design: that is why it is a photo-book, and not a book of photographs. Itu Chaudhuri Design, who are one of the most outstanding design practices in India, poured in hundreds of hours of careful consideration into the design… So from the string that binds the folder-like cover, to the open spine, to working out the logic of placing an image as a double-bleed – or as a small inset, or as a series of continuous images – all of these come from the designers. There are certain patterns in the way the pictures are laid out, and those recur across the work of all the photographers – like an invisible rhythm that you set, and then the work of the individual photographers, very different from each other, works its way within that rhythm.

Flipping through the pages of the photo book, there’s a gradual change of visual style; the almost vintage-looking photographs of late 80’s and early 90’s are followed by the obvious hardcore photojournalistic images. A little later, we see more artistic images, mostly in black and white, where black dominates the frame and then suddenly there are color images again. Was there a special focus on the ‘flow’ of the book?
Some of the visual shifts come from the material itself – the early work by Meraj Ud din is shot on negative, some of which had suffered extensive damage during the 2014 flood, so it ends up giving what you call a ‘vintage’ look. Javeed Shah’s work in the book is mostly from his digital material, but you can see how technology is subservient to his own style, developed in the pre-digital era. In the middle of the book we have the work of three exceptional wire-service photographers – Dar Yasin, Javed Dar, Altaf Qadri – and you can see a very high standard of sharp, pictorially eye-grabbing photojournalism. Quite a few images in the last section of the book are in black and white, more experimental, often pushing the limits of what constitutes news photography. Obviously these are personal, aesthetic choices, made by Sumit Dayal and Showkat Nanda, and by the much younger Syed Shahriyar and Azaan Shah. But they are also made possible because this is independent work, and not done as an assignment, or for a wire service…Yes, there was a lot of thought given to arranging the images in a way that made the arrangement of images smooth, but also with its own narrative, its own tune if you like!

The book was first released in Delhi, then in Bangalore, and recently also in Srinagar, Kashmir. How have people outside Kashmir received the book till now as opposed to in Kashmir where the images featured in the book stir familiar memories of past and present?
It’s difficult to say, for how do you gauge reception? The book is selling well, given that it’s a self-published and even self-distributed. We’ve had very good press coverage, almost all of it uniformly positive, usually sensitive to the implications of what a book like this seeks to do. The public events have been very reassuring too… Does that mean that more Indians have begun to understand what Kashmir means? It might be too early to say that, given the general climate in the country, but certainly the kind of people who are interested in books, yes, you could say that they are increasingly more open to thinking around Kashmir…

In Kashmir the reaction has been very different, much more emotional, each image eliciting a whole cupboard of memories – and sometimes even the absence of memories as someone remarked at the Srinagar release.

In the recent years, say post 2010 uprising, there has been a resurgence of creative capital in Kashmir especially among the youth who are producing their own stories and even registering their protest through various art forms, which includes prose, poetry, music etc. You also did an anthology of writings by young Kashmiri writers post 2010 uprising. Do you see this indigenous creative output making any difference over the years as to how the Kashmir narrative is being looked at by people from outside Kashmir?
If you allow me to make an unlikely parallel, then I would like to recall the land reforms of the 1950s which played a major part in releasing the productive capacities of Kashmiris by the revolutionary act of giving land to the tiller. In many ways the arrival of the Internet has done that for a new generation that has grown up in the last three decades. They have found a voice, and despite distance and the restrictions imposed by the terrible conditions of daily life, they have found a way of sharing with each other. They have found humour and irony, and music and poetry, and as important, analysis and understanding. And they have deployed all of these in a combative, joyous way. I have no doubt that the slight shifts in public opinion in India and across the globe have been strongly shaped by this creative capital.

Do you think this photo book will help in generating some meaningful discussions about what Kashmir has gone through in the last thirty years and what is happening in the present?
Why would one do it otherwise? Sometimes even one image can help destabilize long held beliefs. The very first image in the book is a 1986 image of young Kashmiris marching in support of Palestine, and it includes many well-known faces of the resistance. I know that image has had a deep impact on many people in India. To think that those were the protests thirty years ago, and where Kashmiris find themselves today.

You can buy The Witness here 


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