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In April 2011, just days after Altaf Qadri arrived in war-torn Libya as a photographer on assignment with Associated Press (AP), he was presented with one of the biggest challenges of his professional life. Altaf landed in Benghazi, which had just months before become the headquarters of a rebel push to dislodge the regime of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. On April 9, Altaf drove with his colleagues towards the volatile frontline, somewhere beyond the rebel-held town of Ajdabiya. Their destination was a check-post set up by the rebel forces on the highway. No journalists were being allowed beyond.
The check-post was next to a petrol pump, and Altaf quickly arranged a ride with the crew of a rocket launcher mounted on the back of a red pickup truck. “I thought I would take some photographs when they fire towards Gaddafi's forces.” It was the kind of risk that every photographer in a conflict zone must take sometimes, Altaf explained later. “I am sure given a chance any journalist would have done the same,” he wrote.
Sitting next to the Russian made Grad rocket launcher, Altaf remembered thinking only about how lucky he was to see live action at the frontline. The rebels drove the pickup off the highway soon after, and began firing their missiles from behind the shelter of sand dunes. Almost immediately they came under return fire by the Gaddafi brigades. “These were not soldiers I was with, but rebels, just ordinary people who had got hold of weaponry. You realised that only when they retreated. No discipline, no plan,” Altaf recalled. As the rebels scampered back onto the truck, they suddenly decided to fire one last missile. “That blast knocked me clean off the truck,” Altaf recalled. The Gaddafi forces were closing in fast, so there was no chance of the pickup coming back for him.
Suddenly Altaf was running for his life. “I heard bullets whizzing through the air, hitting the sand near my feet, even as I ran,” he said. By the time he got back to the petrol pump 500 metres away, everybody – rebels and journalists – had fled. The forces loyal to Gaddafi soon overran the check-post and proceeded towards the town of Ajdabiya. Altaf remained mercifully undiscovered, hiding in a dark, windowless room, 6 feet by 8 feet, at the rear of the pump.
Over the next 36 hours Altaf had plenty of time to think about his predicament. He thought about four journalists from the New York Times, including two photographers, who had been captured by Gaddafi's forces the previous month, and brutalised for several days before being freed. He thought about Anton Hammerl, a freelance photographer from South Africa, who had gone missing near the frontline less than a week earlier. “We spent a day together at the frontline. We videographed each other. He talked about photography, his family and his newborn baby,” Altaf remembered. Although the Libyan regime had repeatedly told Hammerl’s family that he was alive and well, the truth was that he was killed on the very first day.
Altaf’s luck held that day; the rebel forces were able to call in the help of NATO airstrikes, and the Gaddafi forces were slowly pushed back. Sheltering somewhere in the middle of no man’s land between the opposing forces, Altaf could hear the roar of war around him for the whole night. The airstrikes ceased only around noon the next day. As the rebels regained control of the check-post, Altaf was also rescued. “I have no idea how I survived. The Gaddafi forces searched only three of the rooms – they stopped outside the fourth, which is where I was hiding,” Altaf told me, the awe still inducing a tremor into his voice. “It was nothing short of a miracle. God gave me a second life, no less.” Read the complete story here and Watch it here.
Altaf Qadri is part of a generation of Kashmiri photojournalists who honed their skills in the troubled streets of Kashmir and then brought them to bear on other zones of bitter conflict. Some of Altaf’s best work as a photographer emerged during his five tours of duty in Afghanistan. “Kashmir was a preparation I guess,” Altaf told me, “in terms of anticipation, and reflexes, and simple things like how to keep yourself safe, how to deal with cops and army, even how to deal with people”. Since he began his career in 2003, Altaf has won dozens of prestigious prizes. As a staff photographer with AP since 2008, his work has taken him across the world, to cover elections in Myanmar and Nepal, and floods in Thailand.
Less than a year before his experience in Libya, Altaf had shot a picture at a funeral in Kashmir. That image of a woman splayed across the body of her dead brother, his pale bandaged face turned away from her, got him the 1st prize at the 2011 World Press Photo (in the People in the News category), one of the most valued awards of the year for news photographers. “The most rewarding thing is that the prize-winning photographs would receive greater attention. That is actually the crux of my profession,” Altaf told me. That prize-winning picture also speaks powerfully of the Kashmir in which Altaf’s pictures were often made.
On the morning of September 6, 2010, Altaf had travelled out of Srinagar with a group of photojournalists to cover a funeral in Palhalan, in northern Kashmir. Despite its rundown appearance, and a modest population of less than 15,000, this is not just another town. Since the armed rebellion in Kashmir broke out in 1990, more than 350 people from this town have been killed in interminable clashes with police, paramilitary forces, and the army. More than a dozen people have disappeared. That day there were actually two funerals scheduled in town, both of young men who had been shot and killed after police and paramilitary forces opened fire during a protest.
One of those killed was Feroz Ahmed Malik, a 16-year-old bystander, who had been running an errand for his ageing father. “It was the month of Ramzan, and the day before Shab-i-Qadr, the holiest night of the year for Muslims,” Altaf explained. The family had been preparing a modest feast. The boy was later found in a pool of blood outside the local butcher’s shop, a dressed chicken in his hand. Renewed protests against the two killings led to more firing later in the day. Eventually four funerals took place in Palhalan.
The summer of 2010 marked a watershed for Kashmir. It came on the back of two successive years of widespread political unrest, which together made the earlier decade of enforced calm seem far away, even unreal. These protests had been triggered in June after the Army’s claims of having eliminated three militants in the mountain village of Machchil was exposed as a staged ‘encounter’. The murder of these three men led to protests, followed by a police and paramilitary crackdown, and further counter-protests. It was a familiar cycle that convulsed Kashmir for four months. By the time the winter chill set in, 120 people had been shot dead by police and paramilitary soldiers.
It was during that tumultuous summer that Altaf had taken to slipping a compact camera around his neck, letting the Canon G9 unobtrusively roll video whenever the situation turned unpredictable. In the images he recorded on the day of the Palhalan funeral, you can see Feroz Ahmed’s body, laid on a hospital bed, carried aloft over the heads of a seething, slogan-shouting mass of people. From a point of vantage almost directly overlooking the hundreds of mourners, the neck-borne camera records a distraught young woman cutting through the crowd, and then climbing onto the precariously held bed. That is when Altaf’s prize-winning picture was made.
At Palhalan that morning, Altaf had noted the complete absence of policemen, for they usually kept a safe distance from the incandescent anger of these funeral rallies. But the real challenge for the photographers had been getting there. Less than an hour away, the ride had taken them the best part of the morning, and the utmost persistence, for every approach to the town was aggressively blocked off by the police. Altaf’s video of that ride, which was later uploaded onto YouTube in an effort to draw attention to the working conditions of journalists in Kashmir, shows the photographers taking their motorcycles on lengthy detours, negotiating the back lanes of villages, driving through orchards, and riding along the narrow earthen boundaries between paddy fields. (It also shows at least one of the photographers drive his motorcycle straight into a village stream, a kol, after it slipped off a slim log placed over the water.) Watch the video here. Please skip to 12:28.
“The forces know that the truth will only emerge from the photographs,” Altaf notes. “After 2008, the way they behave during protests has really changed. They beat photographers up; drag them to Police Stations – they respond to you as if you are part of the protesters… It’s important for them to stop images of the brutalisation from coming out,” he said. Sometimes the protesters did not want the journalists coming close either, anxious that those pictures might end up in the hands of the police. “But there are always a few sane voices in the crowd who understand the value of what Press coverage can bring,” he said.
Altaf has often chosen to speak publicly about an incident that nudged him into thinking about the place of photography in his life. In 1996, as a 20-year-old, he was returning home after prayers at the neighbourhood mosque in Rainawari, Srinagar. There had been a grenade attack at Shiraz, a nearby cinema hall that had been converted into a camp of the Border Security Force (BSF). Shiraz also doubled up as a notorious ‘interrogation’ centre for suspected militants and anybody else who ran afoul of the counterinsurgency apparatus. Just as Altaf was about to step into the narrow lane that led to his home, he was stopped by a group of BSF soldiers. The men dragged him off to the mouth of the street, where they then made him stand as a human shield, a cover for their own protection.
The whole episode probably didn’t last more than an hour, but the fear, humiliation and helplessness has stayed with him. “Maybe if I had had a camera, I could have recorded it,” he remembers thinking afterwards.
As the only son amongst seven siblings, the incident was enough to push Altaf’s worried family into sending him to Calcutta, and out of harm’s way. He came back only a year later, having used his time to finish a course in Computer Applications, and became a part-time instructor at a small computer institute at Barbarshah, in downtown Srinagar. A chance encounter with a khatib, an Urdu language calligraphist, brought him to the attention of the editor of Srinagar Times, Sofi Ghulam Mohammad. The newspaper was planning the shift to computer software for setting the Urdu language text of its pages, replacing the old hand-lettered calligraphy of their khatib. “I think I may have been the first person to introduce Urdu software in Kashmir!” he told me with a grin.
Altaf had barely finished with school at the time. The job as an Urdu language DTP operator meant getting home late every night, after a 6 pm to 11 pm shift. The coveted ‘Press card’ helped negotiate the multiple check-posts on deserted night streets, and he had quickly warmed up to its modest security. When Altaf later moved on to the Kashmir Observer he remembers the excitement of figuring out the layout, especially of the front page, but the even greater thrill of the ‘curfew pass’ obtained for him by his paper. In Kashmir, journalists seemed to be treated better than ordinary people, Altaf figured, the memory of the human shield perhaps never too far away.
For a few years Altaf shuttled between college in Srinagar (which he attended only to take the examinations, he admits) and New Delhi, where he had signed on to do a diploma in Advanced Computing. As a proficient, multilingual DTP operator, he soon got a job creating educational materials for an international company, and worked his way to the position of a Systems Administrator. It also inevitably led him to the emerging social universe of the internet: his first encounter with the early chat-room culture kept him awake the whole night, he recalls, and it was in a Yahoo chat room that he made a friend who was to change his life in a critical way.
Yuhanis Lockman was an ‘Internet’ friend, Altaf told me, an older woman from Malaysia, and he had often spoken to her about his very tentative ambitions for photography. One day, a casual query to Yuhanis about what the price of a good camera would be in Indonesia led her to offer to buy him one. “You can pay me back whenever,” she had said.
Altaf soon had a film camera, a Nikon 65D, and an ambition. Walking into every news organisation in Delhi, and asking for work, had not been productive. Then one night, not far from where he lived in New Delhi, he heard multiple sirens going off. Following the fire engines, Altaf located a chemical factory that was on fire in the Okhla Industrial Area. He shot through the night as if his life depended on it, he remembers, four rolls, all the way from 8 pm to 4 am. The next morning he processed the film and walked into The Times of India office, where he was lucky enough to bump into Harish Tyagi, a senior photographer at the newspaper. Tyagi couldn’t use the images – they were already yesterday’s news – but they exchanged numbers, and promised to stay in touch.
Only a few months after the meeting, Altaf got a call from Tyagi: he had taken over the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA) operations in India, and wanted Altaf to be their person in Kashmir. Altaf was already back in Srinagar by then, determined to make his way into journalism: in the day he took photographs for several small start-up publications, and the nights he worked as a DTP operator making up newspaper pages.
The work with EPA was to be his first proper job in photography, and a first exposure to a professional environment. It was an important learning space – “no advice, no suggestions, no interruptions” is how he gratefully remembers it. “When I look back at some of the work I did back then, I feel embarrassed,” Altaf told me about those early years, “I’m much more thoughtful about the images now. It’s not simply how much hard work you’ve put into the image… Just because I’m witness to something important does not mean that the viewer will understand what I want to show…”
For the next five years Altaf covered Kashmir for EPA. A downside to working for them was that it had no subscribers in Kashmir, or even in the entire region, so you never got to see your pictures in the papers. The anonymity bothered him, and perhaps to make up for the lack of a direct connection with his audience, Altaf started entering photo competitions. Between 2004 and 2007 he won more than a dozen awards, including the prestigious Picture of the Year International and the All Roads Photography program of the National Geographic Society. Flush with prizes, he decided it was time to pay back his Malaysian friend for the camera. But she declined. “You’ve repaid me,” Yuhanis told him when she came down to visit Kashmir in 2005. “The prizes you have won are reward enough,” she said.
In 2005 Altaf also grew a beard. This was not a matter of deportment, or style, but the result of a curious personal predicament. He had been courting, mostly at long-distance, a young woman from Kolkata, and the relationship had reached a serious point. Altaf had suggested marriage, and broached the possibility of her becoming a Muslim. “What would I have to do?” she asked Altaf, “what does it mean to be a Muslim?” He realised he didn’t have a proper answer for her, having simply taken that part of himself for granted. It was in trying to read and share his Muslim identity with her that Altaf began to discover what it meant for him. And that included his appearance.
This journey began at a time when the Muslim world had been badly wounded by the Islamophia that crested in the aftermath of the controversy around the Danish newspaper Jylland-Posten’s Prophet Muhammad’s cartoons. Altaf felt he needed to make a statement: “Here I am, a photographer. Not a bad person. The beard is to fulfill my religious obligation, and I’ll do it,” Altaf explained. “At that time I thought the only way I can counter all that is by making people confront the fact that I’m a Muslim too… I’m a Muslim, but I’m not like those stereotypes you see on TV. I don’t harm anybody.” In 2007, when Altaf went on tour across the US, as a prizewinner of the National Geographic All Roads Festival, speaking at events in Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Fe, he made it a point to always make his public appearances wearing a skullcap. “I got a lot of respect, no problems at airports, or anywhere else,” he said.
Things became distinctly harder after Altaf moved to Amritsar in 2008, as the AP photographer for the region. With his pronounced ‘Muslim’ appearance, it took him two months to find a house to rent in the city. While covering the Dusshera festival, soon after his arrival, his Kashmir identification cut little ice with the security, and he was hauled off to the police station. “I heard one of the cops say on the phone: “There is this Kashmiri guy here pretending to be a journalist…” It could have ended badly, but he somehow managed to scrape out of it. “It took many hours – the effigy of Ravana at the festival had been burnt down by then,” Altaf remembers with a laugh. Going to shoot at the India-Pakistan border post at nearby Wagah, and hearing the customs officials abuse him because they thought he was Pakistani, was hard. Things haven’t changed a great deal even today, including in New Delhi, where Altaf has been based since 2012. At many public events he is singled out as the only journalist whose credentials are physically checked by the police, and they often call his office for confirmation.
When he returned from Libya, Altaf was humbled by the outpouring of goodwill and concern that had come his way when he was reported missing. “It was as if I was reading my own eulogy,” Altaf said. But more than that, his return from Libya and Afghanistan, confronting so much ruin and so much sorrow, made him give thanks that things had not gone so far for Kashmir. It also made him think about his place in the wider world, and the important realisation that in his mind Kashmir always has a different value.
“In my case the story has no limits—”, Altaf had once said about his work in Kashmir, “I belong to it.”
Excerpts from Altaf Qadri's conversation with Sanjay Kak, Filmmaker and editor of the book "WITNESS". Reproduced with permission.