by Niall Walker
"Women are the worst victims of this conflict, yet they have also come to the forefront of the resistance."
Nawal Ali, Ufaq Fatima and Zainab Mufti are co-founders of Her Pixel Story, a female photography collective based around the captivating shores of Dal Lake in Kashmir. Living in one of the most densely militarised regions on earth, their images represent a visual counter-narrative: to the brutality of the Indian occupation, and to its highly masculinised nature.
For most of us, sharing the images of our lives has become as effortless as breathing.
Facebook, Instagram, TicToc; whatever form of social media we choose, these platforms - and access to a decent smart phone - gives us the freedom to compose galleries of our lives, share them with people around the world, all with the tap of our thumbs.
In Indian-occupied Kashmir, however, sharing your lived experiences online is both difficult and dangerous. The difficulty lies in first accessing the internet. Since 5th August 2019 after India established direct rule over the region, a communications blackout - the largest of its kind in history - has been imposed. Today, only sporadic 2G internet connection is available for a region of nearly 8 million people.
For journalists and artists, the restrictions are particularly suffocating. Nawal Ali one of the founders of Her Pixel Story, explains how the blackout impacted their work: 'For the first month or so (after the lockdown), the media were kept in a hotel in the heart of Srinagar. They were not allowed to go out and report from there. Months later, a media facilitation centre was established with one computer with 2g speed wifi".
'We had to either go to Delhi to submit the pictures, or share them on a pendrive'. Once the difficulties of uploading were navigated however, the dangers began. India-occupied Kashmir is the most heavily militarised region on earth, and surveillance extends into cyberspace.
Under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, anything considered to be a criticism of the occupation can lead to imprisonment without trial, as happened to one of Kashmir's most celebrated female photographers, Masrat Zahra.
"Artists here have shown tremendous courage by speaking against the injustice through their art" explains Ufaq Fatima. As other forms of communication have been stifled, the significance of their work has also been magnified. It functions “as a kind of alternative, to build an authentic Kashmiri narrative”, explains Nawal. “This is not just art for art’s sake”, but a “way of highlighting the real and legitimate voices and demands of Kashmiris, and the human cost of an occupation which has been distorted by the Indian media”.
Her Pixel Story formed in the aftermath of the release of a photo book called Witness, published in 2016. It included the work of 9 Kashmiri photgraphers. All of them were men. "On being questioned by Nawal as to why there were no female photographers featured in the book the editor in his defence said that he tried to look for female photographers but found it hard to reach out to any - provided the dominance and saturation of men in the field of reportage in Kashmir", says Zainab. "That was when we realised how much Kashmiri women photographers lack equal exposure, acknowledgment and recognition".
Nawal, Ufaq, Zainab and Shefali Rafiq decided to change this, and Her Pixel Story was born. Originally, it took the form of an Instagram page, where "a group of women photographers could connect and work together as a team and cover stories" in Kashmir, continues Zainab. A few weeks after being formed, the group were organising the first ever women's photowalk in the region, attended by many aspiring young Kashmiri artists.
"The primary aim of Her Pixel Story is to bring out female perspective of the conflict in Kashmir", says Ufaq. "Women are the worst victims of this conflict, yet they have also come to the forefront of the resistance, and their stories tell of the personal suffering of daily life in the region."
They also hope to bring the personal cost of the conflict to as wide an audience as possible. “Certain things that seem normal to us because we have grown up in a highly militarised zone in the world are a complete shock for the outside world”, continues Nawal, “it is only when a photo of a pellet ridden body, a road full of army trucks or a house burnt down to ashes, is shown to people that it hits them hard”.
Their images highlight the ferocity of the siege, alongside the normality of existence under occupation. Images of soldiers are interspersed with frowning grandparents and children, playing in the rubble amidst the bullet holes.
“People here are numb and shattered, but they are more resilient than before”, explains Ufaq a description which suggests something simultaneously positive and negative. Resilience indicates the expectation of future hardship; yet it is also the promise to endure, for the hope of a better tomorrow.
"What matters at the end of the day" concludes Zainab, "is whether you have sided with the oppressor or the oppressed".
To view more of Her Pixel Story's work and learn about how artists are reacting to the siege of Kashmir, read our feature. You can also follow Her Pixel Story on Instagram.
Niall Walker is the founder of the Radical Art Review