The Eye That Makes the Photograph: Showkat Nanda

It was the late 90’s. Kids were playing cricket on a pitch next to the martyrs’ graveyard in Baramulla when a small, white Ambassador came to a stop before them and a lady, a foreigner, came out accompanied by a number of journalists. There had been a suicide attack and she had come to report it. She began by first asking the children if they could speak English. A young boy stepped forward and in his excitement overlooked the fact that his English was, at best, rusty. The woman introduced herself as Pamela Constable, working for a newspaper in the USA. The boy, curious, asked for the name of the paper. This was The Washington Post. Pamela asked the boy a number of questions on the Kashmir conflict, on freedom, on living with the war and left him with a final query. What did he want to be when he grew up? The boy proudly said that he wanted to be a doctor to which Pamela answered smilingly, “A doctor? Why not a writer or a photographer to tell your story?” Pamela Constable is now the reporter for South Asia and the young boy grew up to be an internationally acclaimed conflict photographer, a Fulbright scholar and one of the most driven yet grounded people a person will ever meet, Showkat Nanda.

Showkat Nanda was a Biology student in Grade 12 when he decided to study mass communication at the Kashmir University. He then trained as a freelance photographer with the Agence France-Presse before moving on to The Rising Kashmir, where he worked for two and a half years.

In 2007, he was established as visiting faculty at Baramulla College for film making and in 2009 as a professor for photojournalism at the Islamic University. He was awarded the National Press Award for a photograph titled, “Three Widows” during his time as assistant editor for Kashmir Life. In June 2011, Showkat was shortlisted for the Fulbright Scholarship for graduate studies in photojournalism and is now a Fulbright scholar at the University of Missouri in Colombia, USA.

As speedy as his journey to success seems, Showkat admits that this abundance is well placed. “People often used to appreciate my photography,” he remembers “I did believe that I was standing alone, in competition with no one in this field. I just wanted to learn and have more than wonderful pictures.” Despite the sheer skill and brilliance that saturates his work; Showkat’s future was often questioned. “Many around me asked what kind of a field is photography; they told me I would not earn anything. But this has never been about money for me. I have a passion for what I do; I’d still be doing it without any money. I have found that at time people criticize you for the sake of criticism but some of it has been really positive.” It seems that unique talent can bloom in most unlikely of places with the right hands nurturing it. Showkat’s father is a retired school headmaster and his mother is a homemaker.

As both his brothers work on the family business Showkat admits that the only reason he has not joined them is because he “thinks with his heart, not with his mind.” “My father had immense faith in me,” he says “He seemed to always know that I would do something great. He is a humble man and we had a very normal childhood. I still believe that I became who I am because of the endless bedtime stories my mom recited to me. They instilled a lot of values in me and made me realize that we have come into this world for a purpose. What I do is my purpose.” To this day, with oodles of experience and accolades to boast of, Showkat Nanda believes that his best work dwelled and will continue to emerge in Kashmir.

In the way that he is fastened to the valley, in all its glory and bloodshed, his photographs are bound to him. “I have grown up in a conflict zone and that has played a huge role in my personality. My decision to be a conflict photographer stems from the place I come from. Photos are easier that words,” states Showkat “I have a connection with this place, I can understand its fragility, its pain which I cannot do anywhere else. I identify with the person, which is why I am able to put my feelings into my work.” As evidenced by the Facebook pages of young boys and girls’ photography which now come by the dozen, Showkat Nanda remedies the chaos for people who want to look out for expertise.

“Owning a Nikon does not make you a photographer. It just makes you someone who owns a Nikon,” states Showkat “It is the eye behind the lense that makes the photograph. People often do not identify the person in their pictures. I believe that a photographer must know his subject more than a reporter would. There are not many learned photographers in Kashmir. They may be snap shooters. But photographs must actually be a means of communication.”

Finally, Showkat Nanda describes his experience in the USA as “wonderful. People there are so nice and they respect your decisions. We suffer from a misconception of the West when we say that they work against our freedom. Most the people there are peace loving and actively support the freedom of Kashmir.” On the lookout for his future, Showkat elaborates that he is “in one sense happy that people are understanding photography but I feel that photojournalism is winding up. Organizations are now looking for multitasking but not for skillful photojournalism. Traditional photography is out the door.”

Showkat’s favorite photograph remains a simple portrait from the year of 2008 when two young boys were killed at an army camp whose place had been taken by a football field. There, kids playing football showed the photographer a victory sign and amongst them stood a beaming 4 year old, smiling the smile of innocence, of hope, of freedom. That is the power of the eye behind the lense.

The Story was published in the Kashmir Observer's 'YOUNG KASHMIR' - Kashmir's first Supplement for young adults and teens

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