Biennale of Sydney

Shaheed / Witness / Kashmir

Meraj ud din, Crackdown by Army Soldiers, Srinagar, Kashmir, 1993. Copyright © Meraj ud din

Shaheed/Witness/Kashmir

Meraj Ud Din

Born 1959 in Srinagar, Kashmir
Lives and works in Srinagar

Javeed Shah

Born 1967 in Srinagar, Kashmir
Lives and works in Srinagar

Dar Yasin

Born 1973 in Srinagar, Kashmir
Lives and works in Srinagar

Javed Dar

Born 1975 in Anantnag, Kashmir
Lives and works in Srinagar, Kashmir

Altaf Qadri

Born 1976 in Srinagar, Kashmir
Lives and works in Srinagar

Sumit Dayal

Born 1981 in Srinagar, Kashmir
Lives and works in Kathmandu, Nepal and New Delhi, India

Showkat Nanda

Born 1982 in Baramulla, Kashmir
Lives and works in Baramulla

Syed Shahriyar

Born 1992 in Srinagar, Kashmir
Lives and works in Srinagar

Azaan Shah

Born 1997 in Srinagar, Kashmir
Lives and works in Srinagar

Sanjay Kak

Born 1958 in Pune, India
Lives and works in New Delhi, India


Shaheed/Witness/Kashmir presents the work of nine photographers from Kashmir, first brought together in the photobook Witness (2017). The images were created in Indian-held Kashmir between 1986 and 2016, as its people found themselves pulled between the exhilaration of a struggle for freedom and the violence of its consequences

Sanjay Kak is a filmmaker and writer, whose recent documentaries include Red Ant Dream, Jashn-e-Azadi, and Words on Water. He is the editor of the anthology Until My Freedom Has Come – The New Intifada in Kashmir and the photobook, Witness – Kashmir 1986-2016, 9 Photographers.

In Arabic, Persian and Urdu, the word ‘witness’ translates as Shaheed. In all three the word also carries a second implication, that of ‘martyr’. It is in the breach offered between these parallel meanings that we locate the photographic work represented in Shaheed/Witness/Kashmir.

The images here were made in Kashmir between 1986-2016. These were decades of strife that came as the culmination of an older discontent, one that had simmered for more than a century, first against the feudal order of a Maharaja, and after the partition of British India in 1947, with Indian rule. This anger and restlessness broke out in mass protests on the street, and by 1990 this had metamorphosed into an armed uprising. This is what Kashmiris call the ‘militancy’, marked by bloody gun-battles with Indian soldiers, and frequent (and mysterious) street-side killings.

These troubled decades had also held out a heady promise, of Azadi / freedom. That euphoria was short-lived, for India launched a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in Kashmir, directed at what it saw as an insurrection by its largely Muslim population. Three decades of this unspoken war, and more than 70,000 are dead, at least 10,000 ‘missing’, and uncounted numbers have been injured, or carry the marks, visible and invisible, of torture and sexual violence. Meanwhile the presence of more than half a million Indian soldiers has transformed the Kashmir valley into one of the most militarized zones in the world. The crisis has only deepened in the present. In February 2020, Kashmir made another global first when a punishing internet shutdown entered its sixth month. Behind that silence protests continue, and blood flows.

These images were first brought together in the photobook Witness (2017). The men who took these pictures (and they are all men) had drifted – untrained – into photojournalism, and for the most part seen it as job, not an artistic practice. But to feed the insatiable appetites of the global hunger for images meant going out every-day, forced to look at their own world, and relentlessly pushed to engage with a story that in many ways was also about themselves.

The curation of images for Witness was a search for the language in which a generation of photojournalists in Kashmir described themselves and made pictures as a way of translating what they were enduring. That is the ‘witness’, giving up to the reality around, and offering the self to it. Shaheed, Martyr and Witness.

Courtesy Sanjay Kak