The image she shows me on her laptop shows smears of blood on the floor, discarded clothing and prayer mats at one corner of the corridor. No action. No people. But Sanna Irshad Mattoo, one of Kashmir’s growing bunch of women photo-journalists, conveys the potential of objects and belongings to bear “witness”. The inanimate speaks out of the terrible violence that stains, not just the hospital floor, but, as the hashtgag suggests one that has permeated the soul of Kashmir.
The 24-year-old, who did a bachelors in Science, but then gravitated towards what “I really wanted to do”, completed her Masters in Convergent Journalism from Kashmir’s Central University. Sanna is fond of poetry and writes poems but photography, she says, gives her the opportunity to go where there are no words.
In Kashmir, she says, one cannot be immune to the killings and the chaos but, for her personally, the defining moment came in 2010. That year on June 11, her young cousin, Tufail Ahmed Mattoo, a class 12 student was killed as he was returning home from tuition classes. A tear gas cannister, shot at close range, pierced his skull and he died instantly. His death triggered massive protests throughout the summer of that year.
“I was in class 11. He was like my brother and his killing changed forever the way I saw things.” Sanna, who calibrates the lens of suffering, when she shoots people, and events, feels it is important to be ethically sound and to approach people with sensitivity.“I try to see things in the light of what I experienced. “I know what it feels like when someone comes to click a grieving family and then gathers up the equipment and just leaves. I try to spend time, to show my empathy.”
There is a fine balance she believes, between being a witness and then also respecting someone’s grief and spaces to mourn. It is about finding alternate and subtler ways to tell the story_ sometimes using objects to assume the role of witness.
She recalls April 1 in SMHS hospital, Srinagar, where dozens of injured people were being brought in after protests in Shopian following gun battles between militants and armed forces. “I wanted to take some pictures but the families and friends of the injured were angry. I asked a boy, holding an X ray, whether I could shoot that but he refused. He was scared of misrepresentation. I did not want to victimise anyone further. I put down my camera, went up near the operation theatre and shot the blood-stained floor. I spent nearly three hours there. Next day I was back. The boy was still there and he called out to me. He said he wanted to know how to apply a kind of medicine. A certain trust had built up. He was acknowledging my right to be there with my camera.”
Sanna also believes that stories do not necessarily have neat endings and beginnings. Grief is not confined just to funerals, documenting the aftermath could be the beginning of another story. “I was checking my phone for news. I saw that Amir Lone, the 21-year-old youth from Kangan, who was shot in the head had died. The funeral was over and perhaps not many could have covered it because it was a Sunday. I decided to go to his hometown.” What she has captured is a moving image of Amir’s mother Hameeda being given solace by another woman. It is powerful in its elegiac contemplation of collective suffering, especially of the women.
Stillness, objects and a reflective mood are also evident in many of Sanna’s images where she captures what she calls the “fragments of reality.” They depict the tight-rope tension between the seeming ordinariness of life and the stark symbols of a menacing militarized milieu.
In many of her images the upper half of a person are missing; the dismembered body with hands and legs tell their own story. In one photo a man, upper torso missing, is seen holding the hands of two young boys on the street, the background also depicts the cut off figure of a man in uniform, his hand though holds the gun and in the foreground is the only too familiar tangle of barbed wire.
In yet another image, again with only the lower portions of the bodies being displayed, a man is painstakingly trying to untangle the kurta of a woman, caught up in the barbed wire.
Yet another powerful image has the faces and upper halves of the women missing but the hands clenched together suggest solidarity. In one hand are long chopped locks of hair and one can almost sense the stark fear of the braid chopping phenomenon days. A mysterious epidemic that many believe was a psy ops that was carried on in the Valley whereby women were attacked and their hair cut off.
Barbed wire, suggestive of the caged spaces and confinement seen all over Kashmir makes its appearance in many inags. In one the mood is deliberately different. A young boy, his body full visible, rollerblades in almost joyful resistance, seemingly oblivious to the surroundings and armoured vehicle. As the hashtag says breaking all barriers.
If action here is playful and defiant there are other images that document fervid action of street protests and stone pelting or then the emotionally surcharged moods during funerals when there is literally a sea of crowds milling around the dead person and, when armed troops fire tear gas shells into the crowds and even in the graveyard.
For a photographer the challenge lies in seizing upon the moment and capturing it even as there is the pressing need to “read” the situation and decide which frame to take or not.
Sanna explains the dynamics, “In protests and stone pelting there is so much action going on. You can’t shoot from a fixed point or position. You have to keep moving, running, analysing the situation. Kabhi iss side, kabhi udhar…. It can be extremely fast moving and hectic,” she adds.
What does she feel about being in spaces that were dominated by males for so many years? Does she as a woman bring in a gender perspective?
“I think everyone comes with their own unique perspective and understanding. It is not necessarily only gender. One’s approach is very important and one needs to understand that it is essentially pain that we are documenting. In Kangan when I was shooting recently one group of women objected to my videographing so I put the camera down. Another group, after a while, said it is alright. I told them they should decide finally and only after the assent did I start filming.”
Sanna is aware that the profession is saturated, there is little money to be made, there are limited spaces for exhibiting one’s work and yet for now it is just the sheer passion that keeps her going. “Jazba bhi hai,” she says.
Photography, for her, is also about affirming her faith in her land and people.
“I was at a funeral some weeks ago. There were thousands of people. In that dense crowd, an old man with a walking stick, his hands trembling visibly, came and stood in front of me in a protective gesture. Yes, people are good.”