FROM COMPUTER TO CAMERA,
ALTAF'S JOURNEY TO PHOTOJOURNALISM
Excerpts from Altaf Qadri's conversation with Sanjay Kak, filmmaker and editor of the book "WITNESS".
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 few hours, but the fear, humiliation and helplessness has stayed with him. “Maybe if I 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 Desk Top Publishing (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 'Press Card' provided to 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, a 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 Malaysia 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 photojournalism: 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 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 Islamophobia 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, a devil king according to Hindu mythology, 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 (click here to read about the Libya incident). “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.
Altaf is presently working with The Associated Press and based out of New Delhi, India.