-- By Mimi Chakarova
Photographer and journalist Ami Vitale lived in India for five years from 2001. Here, she talks about her time in Kashmir, a place she describes as a magnificent but cursed landscape, where daily life has become defined by more than 50 years of conflict.
Mimi Chakarova: What is your understanding of why India and Pakistan have fought over Kashmir?
Ami Vitale:There's this magnificent landscape, and it's become a nightmare or hell-on-earth curse, as the two nations wage war over a small piece of land that's nestled like a pearl in the oyster of this tumultuous region. India and Pakistan have centered their foreign policies on the region and teetered dangerously close to a fourth [war] in June 2002.
Indians insist Kashmir is an integral part of their country, and without Kashmir, they could not embrace their secular credentials. [Indian Kashmir is more than 60 percent Muslim, making it the only state in India with a Muslim majority]. Pakistanis say the "k" in "Pakistan" stands for "Kashmir" and that they will continue to offer moral and diplomatic support to the separatists. The result? More than 80,000 people have lost their lives and most are native Kashmiris. The conflict has averted much that defined Kashmir, and everyone is held hostage to the suffering.
Since the [Muslim] separatist uprising [against Indian rule] began in 1989, there have been 6,000 to 8,000 cases of disappearances,18,000 widows and 40,000 orphans in the state. The Indian army claims those who have disappeared are Islamic militants who have fled to Pakistan. The relatives [of those disappeared] say they are innocent men who were killed after being taken into custody [by the Indian army].
Kashmir has been described as paradise on earth. Is this what you encountered when you first arrived there?
It has this physical beauty and this centuries-old graciousness, very spiritually tolerant of different religions. Before the most recent insurgency [in 1989] the Kashmiris would pack teapots and in the middle of the night have picnics in the saffron fields under the moon. It was peaceful. But in 1987 many people felt that the elections were rigged [when a pro-Indian government came into power], and this movement started with the idea of independence.
Kashmir used to be a tourist mecca. There were all these hotels, and they've all been turned into military barracks ... soldiers peeking out, their guns peeking out. The streets are filled with pockmarks from grenade blasts, and there's a soldier every 50 to 100 feet monitoring the streets. People don't go out after dark.
Can you describe your experience as a female photojournalist covering a conflict zone?
You know, I really wasn't interested in getting to the frontline. There were attacks every day and people dying, and often, you can't see that in my photos. I wanted to show the things behind that. I spent a lot of time with women and inside homes, and I think a lot of the work shows their suffering. I don't think it was intentional. It was just that I spent the most time with Kashmiri women, and I felt that they needed their voices heard, because they have one of the more difficult positions. They have to quietly endure their suffering.
There’s a fear and intensity that’s so present in your work. Can you talk about capturing that?
People are scared to be arrested because they don't know if they're ever going to come back. Every time a taxi driver would leave the house, there was the fear he would never come back. They'd say, ‘When I leave home in the morning, I have no guarantee of returning alive.’ It's so real, to understand that kind of fear... I think you can only understand it if you're Kashmiri or have lived there.
How has covering Kashmir for several years affected you?
I think it's obviously changed me as a human being -- I look at everything differently. Nothing is taken for granted in Kashmir, nothing, and it makes me feel like everything is so precious. I can never forget that.
What about your personal safety?
When I first arrived in Kashmir, I felt that as a foreigner I was probably safer than a Kashmiri journalist. My Kashmiri journalist friends have a very difficult time, a very fine line to tread, but because I could leave, my sense of security felt different. But over time, that became less the case.
You’ve taken a lot of photographs of beauty and daily life. Is there a particular image that comes to mind?
One image that I really love is when they were putting henna on a bride's hands, and it was just a particularly wonderful time.
There's so much I loved about the culture, about the weddings. They serve these 16-course meals of meat, and four people share one bowl. [Everyone] gathers around and eats… . The music is beautiful and people are happy; there’s this contrast -- the outside world is so different from the inside world.
There are many images of hands. What were you hoping to convey?
I like to be very close to people. Most of the time I'm not taking pictures. I'm sharing. I'm listening to their stories, and I'm usually sitting very close to them and spending time with them, so I think it's natural that hands and eyes and details are what I focus on.
What advise would you offer to those who know little about the history and politics of Kashmir?
I encourage people to go and live in another culture. All of a sudden, you start to understand why people feel the way they do. Our worlds do not feel as polarized and separate once you start to understand that reality.
I would go to the mosque on Fridays, and in many places women aren't allowed in the mosque, but in Kashmir they were. I'm not Muslim, but there's something very beautiful about seeing people communicating with their god.
Do you think photography has the power to change what you witness as a photojournalist?
There's definitely power to photography, but you have to be very ethical and conscientious ... to know whether people are changing things for you, especially with political stories. There's a lot of responsibility to understand what motivates people. I think we always have to be honest -- and if you're not, it shows.
What was your primary purpose when working in Kashmir?
I'm not there to make pretty pictures. It's really to convey something and hopefully affect at least one other person. Those people have allowed me to be there, and that's something I respect and honor. You can't betray them. There are so many moments when I see great pictures, but I won't take them because it feels wrong.