Who's afraid of the Pulitzer?

Updated: May 11, 2020, 07:05 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

Much to the ire of hardliners, award-winning photos of life in Kashmir, both pre- and post-August 5, 2019, give a searing commentary on life there and shatter the facade of 'normalcy'

One of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, clicked by Dar Yasin, of a Kashmiri protester jumping on the bonnet of an armoured police vehicle as he threw stones at it during a protest in Srinagar, Kashmir on May 31, 2019. Pic courtesy: pulitzer.org
One of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, clicked by Dar Yasin, of a Kashmiri protester jumping on the bonnet of an armoured police vehicle as he threw stones at it during a protest in Srinagar, Kashmir on May 31, 2019. Pic courtesy: pulitzer.org

Ajaz AshrafThe Pulitzer Centre's citation bestowing its 2020 award for Feature Photography on Channi Anand, Mukhtar Khan and Dar Yasin, the three Kashmiri photographers of the Associated Press, states, "For striking images captured during a communications blackout in Kashmir depicting life in the contested territory after India stripped it of its semi-autonomy." Yet nine out of the 20 photographs of Kashmir displayed as Winning Work on the Pulitzer website predate August 5, the day on which Article 370 was read down and Kashmir's special status terminated.

Hardliners on Kashmir have quibbled over the imprecise language of the citation to express outrage against the Pulitzer. Their rage, in fact, is a manifestation of their own diffidence – they want the world to endorse India's policies in Kashmir, but they fear the Pulitzer has undermined Delhi's efforts in this regard.

The inclusion of pre-August 5 photographs in the winning work, at variance with the citation, turns these, even more tellingly, into a searing commentary on what living meant in Kashmir in 2019. People protested against the Indian state before Article 370 was read down. They continued to do so even after August 5. The peace in Kashmir is the peace of desolation, captured in one photograph, dated December 13, that depicts a solitary man walking down a footbridge covered under snow.

Photo captions guide us through the Kashmir of 2019. When a girl in a madrasa stares into the camera and two of her mates do not, it seems she is the only one who has overcome her fear to look at an unexpected arrival. Who is that person? Clicked on May 7, you would assume it was her teacher. But your reading is challenged as a photo dated May 14 shows uniformed men smashing motorcycles. What explains their fury? Does the answer lie in the May 31 frame of a masked protestor, with a stone in hand, jumping on the bonnet of an armoured vehicle? Power always retaliates against the defiant.

Photographs are about the cameraperson's skills. Yet news photographs are not possible without the performance of their subjects. They are, in a way, the creators of their own images that the camera captures for eternity. In awarding the photographers, the Pulitzer Centre has also honoured the people in the frames of the winning work. Who are these people? The photos with dates after August 5 include one of masked men protesting; another of an all-women crowd shouting slogans against the police; and a frame of arms aloft, index fingers pointing to the sky, and a hand holding a placard that says, "We dream of an independent Kashmir."

Those angry with the Pulitzer do not seem to draw solace from the superiority of uniformed men depicted in some of the frames. A man with his jacket flung open before a security guard unambiguously conveys who is the master. The police are present even when not in the frames, of which an example is the composition showing a barbed wire stretched across the street and no one in sight.

Such images of Kashmir were celebrated outside the State last year. Yet the same have stoked the ire of the hardliners, who know that the Pulitzer photos cannot be mistaken for normalcy in Kashmir. They know they cannot rationalise the photo of six-year-old Muneefa Nazir, whose right eye, as its caption informs, "was hit by a marble shot allegedly by Indian paramilitary soldiers on August 12."

The hardliners are interested in spinning Kashmir's reality, of which another picture contrary to theirs emerges from the Pulitzer photos. Infuriated, they ask: Will the Pulitzer award photos of families mourning those, including soldiers, killed by militants? These images, too, constitute Kashmir's grim reality, but the hardliners forget that journalism's first principle is to interrogate the state.

This principle informs the Pulitzer's choices. I categorised the subjects that won the Pulitzer for Feature Photography between 2000 and 2019. Eight related to war or civilian-state conflicts, and the ensuing refugee problems. A majority of these implicate the United States, the Pulitzer Centre's home. Take the 2006 winner, which shows the funerals of marines who had died in Iraq in 2005. By then, the tide had turned against the war in Iraq, and the funeral pictures become a withering criticism against the American state.

Four winning entries pertained to families coping with terminal illnesses; two to either famine or epidemic, one each to the theme of child abuse, migration, terrorism and gang violence. The only exception in the Pulitzer's misery gallery was the award for photos of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, which was historic for shaking the foundation of race politics.

All this is unlikely to dissuade the shriekers from believing that the Pulitzer for the Kashmiris is a global conspiracy to defame India. Weaned over the last six years on spins, the shriekers had presumed they could convince the world with their false narrative on Kashmir. The Pulitzer challenges their presumption and, therefore, they are outraged.

The writer is a senior journalist

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