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LOUNGE HEROES| Masrat Zahra: Conflict through her lens

The Kashmiri photojournalist has received the Anja Niedringhaus Courage In Photojournalism Award and been booked under the UAPA. She continues to tell stories from one of the most militarized zones in the world

Masrat Zahra
Masrat Zahra

Afew days after 5 August 2019, when the Union government revoked Kashmir’s special status, 26-year-old photojournalist Masrat Zahra hopped on to her scooty and rode to Anchar, a locality in Srinagar’s Soura. The region had been plunged into a communication blackout, curfew imposed, military presence heightened and people detained as some of the mainstream media pushed the narrative of normalcy.

Soura was seen as a pocket of resistance—protests and rallies were commonplace.

When Zahra reached, Friday prayers had just ended and the protests began almost instantly—residents raised flags, chanted slogans and began to march towards the main road, Zahra recalls. “From the other end, the (Armed) Forces began to fire tear-gas shells and pellets; there was smoke everywhere. Smoke from the tear-gas shells, and from the cardboard people lit on fire to protect themselves," says Zahra. “A few pellets hit me as well but did not penetrate (the skin) since I was further away," she adds. Zahra began taking photographs with her DSLR from behind a tree.

Suddenly, she saw a young woman emerge from among the smoke and protesters. Her face was covered in salt (which helps neutralize the effect of tear gas) and she was screaming in Kashmiri, “Come out, the forces have entered. We have to save ourselves!", to the other men of the locality. For Zahra, this was a powerful visual. “Meri nazron se, I saw a courageous girl with anger in her eyes. It was so stunning in that moment," she says.

It was a memory and photograph that endured. Zahra, who describes herself as “the only woman photojournalist in Kashmir", reporting the conflict from close quarters, is driven by the need to inspire women. Documenting their role and space in Kashmir as more than grieving mothers or devastated kin presents a break from what Zahra calls “the male gaze with which Kashmir was previously seen".

A woman in Kashmir puts salt on her face to neutralize the effect of tear gas shells fired by the forces. Credit: Masrat Zahra
A woman in Kashmir puts salt on her face to neutralize the effect of tear gas shells fired by the forces. Credit: Masrat Zahra

In a span of two months, Zahra has been awarded for her work by an international forum and booked by the cyber police under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (Uapa) for uploading “anti-national" posts on social media. On 11 June, she was honoured with the Anja Niedringhaus Courage In Photojournalism Award by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF)—named after German photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2014.

“This award was for my work. When I was charged under Uapa, they didn’t even acknowledge I was a journalist, they called me a ‘Facebook user’," she says. “But the outpouring of support has made my mother, who was initially reluctant about my profession, come around to accepting it." So far, Zahra’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, TRT World, Al Jazeera, The New Humanitarian and several other media outlets.

The photojournalist grew up in the 1990s, at the height of militancy in Kashmir. As a young girl, she recalls looking out from her school bus at military personnel, jackboots entering her home during cordon and search operations, taking officers around the house when ordered. “We would talk to our friends about it in school the next day—yesterday the army men came to our home with guns, you know! We had no idea at the age of 8 or 9 what those operations were, we only found out much later," she says.

A resident of the old town in Srinagar, Zahra is no stranger to clashes, rallies and funeral processions. As she grew older, she began noticing that every photojournalist in the field was male: “They were telling intimate stories even of women and I would wonder, is this profession made only for men?" She recalls she had no role models to cite to explain her aspirations to her reluctant family. She studied for the journalism entrance test in secret, heading for the exam amidst curfew the city.

“When I was in college (Central University of Kashmir), I would go on assignments with my friend, who was already a journalist. I learnt on the field from a group of photojournalists. Some of the first few things they taught me are things that have stayed with me even today," she says. “They taught me not to take photographs from the protester’s side, otherwise we would get hit by pellets or bullets, we had to be alert to stones and slingshots, they taught me where to hide, where to get the most powerful shots," adds Zahra.

She is driven by the conviction that as a Kashmiri, she is able to provide more authentic accounts of her home and people. “When everyone is supposed to be celebrating Eid with their families, I report clashes," says the photojournalist, describing a time in 2018 when she was hit with pellets on the forehead. “But I know I will not stop doing my work, especially at a time like this when the authorities are trying to muzzle journalistic voices in Kashmir."

Since 5 August, the government has not allowed high-speed internet access in the valley. Functioning on 2G speeds for nearly a year has made work difficult, particularly during a pandemic. In a region like Kashmir, Zahra maintains, social distancing is a distant dream. On 20 May, for instance, a gunfight between the Armed Forces and militants left a trail of tragedy—at least 15 homes were completely destroyed. “A 12-year-old boy died—small rooms packed with so many people grieving," says Zahra. “Everyone says stay home, stay safe, but if homes are destroyed, where are people supposed to stay?" she asks.

Still, she has been reporting through the pandemic. Zahra files stories from the media facilitation centre for journalists set up by the government, where they are granted internet access for a few hours of the day. This, she says, increases the risk of contracting the coronavirus, given the number of people using the limited systems available.

But Zahra says nothing can deter her—not being “falsely branded a mukhbir" (informer), not “intimidation by the State" and certainly not any form of discrimination. “I remember on one of my first assignments covering clashes, a boy told me to go home because I will get hurt.

“It has always made me wonder, do male photojournalists not get hit by pellets? Would they not bleed the same way I do? Why must I leave?"

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