Showkat Shafi is a noted Kashmiri photojournalist currently working with Al Jazeera. He has won the best photographer award at The Drum Online Media Awards 2017. He has worked extensively in the Indian subcontinent and has also covered the refugee crisis in Europe. His stories mostly focus on human rights, culture and religion. You can follow him on twitter @ShowkatShafi
What motivated you to pursue a career in Journalism?
My family wanted me to become a doctor or an engineer but to be honest I never liked to be someone who is in this profession. Like a 10 am to 4 pm job. When I was a kid, I dreamt of being a poet. Art, poetry, paintings always attracted me. In my childhood I really thought I would be a poet one day. But I’m a photographer now. I am happy. I am here.
I am from a village, a small village. I used to watch news from the earlier days of my life and I found that it’s always the big town or the big city, which is in the mirror, not the small town, small village. When I joined the bachelor of journalism, the motivation was to tell the story of those small villages. But now, after so many years, I feel this entire world is my village and there are stories everywhere. Everybody has a story to tell. It motivates me to move on, to travel from one place to another. It hardly depends whether the person is a big, rich guy in Himalayas or a small laborer. So everyone, everyone in this world has a story to tell. There should be someone who communicates that story from one place to another place.
Was there any resistance from the family when you decided to go for Journalism?
There was a bit. There was. Definitely was. As I said, my brothers are doctors. So my family didn’t want me to go in this field and particularly in photography. They thought, ‘kya karega aage ja ke’ (What will he do in the future?) Which happens in every traditional family, ‘photographer banega? kya karega?’
But now everything is clear. They are happy. But they are happy after I continuously pursued my passion. So there are many children I think, many friends, who come under pressure and then they drop their passion and move on with their traditional life with 10 am to 4 pm job, bank job sort of. White color jobs.
How was your life at Baramulla Boys Degree College? Would you like to tell us about it a bit?
(Laughs) I have traveled half of the world now, but I think that was the best part of my life. Those three years were the best, the most memorable and truly the best part of my life. I can’t compare those three years with the rest of my life. I work for Al Jazeera now. I travel, I earn, I do things but I am telling you, those three years were the best.
What interested you into photography?
It was in college that my interest came in photography. It was one of my teachers, HOD. One day he sent us outside with our seniors to take some pictures, some random pictures, and everybody came with 2-3 of them. I also clicked three pictures. When we came back he noticed my pictures and said – ‘Hey, you have a good eye. You should try photography.’ That was the time I decided I should go for it. It was 2005. It’s not like it was my childhood dream to be a photographer. Nothing like that.
You are the first Kashmiri photojournalist to inscribe your name on the website of Al Jazeera. How did it happen?
Yes, it was back in 2011. I was the first one, then many boys started working and all. Now, I work as a staff journalist at Al Jazeera. They wanted some pictures from Kashmir and somehow I got in touch with them. So they took my pictures. It was not like I was the best photographer of Kashmir. I got the connection, that’s it.
I read somewhere that you aim to become the world’s best war photographer and that is why you choose journalism…
It was like my first day of journalism. Nothing like that now. I have a dream that I want to click a picture which will change someones life for the good. It is my dream.
In past, I still remember three pictures of mine, clicked by me, which changed some people’s life. I took the picture of a lady and her daughter. The husband of the lady is missing. There are around ten thousand people missing in Kashmir. There are no whereabouts of them. So, I took the picture. It was published by Al Jazeera and many people came forward to give donation for the girl’s education. Recently, I did a story from Rajasthan. It was on the Nata Pratha culture. There was a 5-6 year old baby, who was affected by it. When the story published, some women from America came forward to take care of her education. So, it is happening by my pictures on a small scale. But I have a dream. I want to take a picture, anywhere in the world, it’s not about Kashmir or India. Just anywhere, it can be Somalia, it can be in USA, Germany, anywhere. I want to take a picture which will change the life of some people or some village or some area or a country for the good.
What skills should a student willing to become a photographer focus on?
One thing is for sure, practice is very important in this. I’m sure practice is important for every other profession as well but in this, it is really crucial. It’s like driving a car. If you stop for some year, you will forget it. The more you click pictures, the more better your pictures will come. And one very important thing is – there is no shortcut to success. There is no shortcut in photography. People should be patient. New students should have a deeper interest, like, ‘Hey, we want to do something.’ They should forget about the heat or food. They have to go out to take pictures. It’s not like writing a story. If somewhere some incident happens a writer can sit at home and call some people and write it on his copy. But a photographer has to go there. He has to be present in the rain or heat, then only he can take pictures.
Photography is not all about journalism, it’s wildlife photography… these days, in this modern world, almost everybody has a camera. We take selfies, photography is used in weddings…photography is everywhere. It has become an integral part of our life and almost everyone is a photographer these days.
So the distinction should be there between a professional photographer and the common people. This distinction is passion, hard work, and patience. It should be there.
In your opinion, where does Indian journalism stand today?
The last time I have watched Indian TV news channel is 2009. It’s everywhere in the world. It’s not about India. But I think in India, media is not free. It is not really free. It is governed by the corporate. So they speak the corporate language and this is really sad. But if we compare TV with newspapers; newspapers are far better than the Indian TV channels. There is a kind of freedom of expression, they are a bit truthful. There is no comparison, I can say, between Indian TV channels and Indian newspapers.
What kind of difficulties a journalist has to face while working in a war zone or even Kashmir for that instance?
I have been tortured once in Kashmir. I was taking pictures. I was taken by CRPF and police forces and I was tortured; then I was hospitalized for many days. Kashmir for instance or in any other conflict zones, it is really hard to be a journalist. As we say no story is worth your life. But in these places, when a journalist goes out from his home in the morning, he never knows, if he is coming back or not. It is always..in every mode, there is a danger. It’s not only from the government’s side; it’s from every side there, for a journalist in a conflict zone like Kashmir.
Covering a war or even an encounter is not easy, it is life risking. So what keeps you going to these places?
That is passion, that is the thing when you really want people to know what’s happening. I know one’s life is more important than any story in the world. But it is also important to show the truth to the world. If you are sensitive or you are sincere to your profession, then you don’t see those risks. It’s not that we should always go to these dangerous places to report and only then we are a journalist, nothing like that. There are better journalists who never went to encounter like situations but they are still the best or better journalists. But somehow it is passion and truthfulness towards your job which takes you to these places
Would you like to share some extra ordinary event occurred while working in Kashmir?
It was on 19th of August 2011. This day is celebrated as world photography day. I was covering the protest in downtown, Srinagar. As I was clicking pictures CRPF and Police men came and they kind of arrested me, they assaulted me, there were fifteen CRPF and police men beating me at the same time with their bamboo sticks. It was very disastrous and painful for me. I was hospitalized for many days. It was really terrible. After the incident I thought for few days that I should leave journalism. But somewhere inside passion for photography was there. So I came back. But I think that was the turning point in my life. I really wanted to leave journalism at that point of time. But it took me around two months to come back to my work.
Now do you think that you will become a poet one day? As you really wanted to become in your childhood.
Not really. I don’t think so. I’m too much into photography. I think I am the picture poet now.
How would you describe your current job at Al Jazeera?
It’s the best experience, I can say. I am among the lucky one to get this job in this organization. As I said, I started working with them from my university time as a freelancer, then many years happened, I traveled around, now I got the permanent job. I feel really lucky to be there because it is really hard in these times to reach to international organisations like Al Jazeera.
People who join the security forces in our country (mostly) belong to the poor and lower middle class of the society. Likewise, the boys who pelt stones in Kashmir don’t belong to the privileged sections of the society. So, it seems only unprivileged are being affected. How do you look at it?
Nothing like it. If you check your Indian security forces, it’s fact that their constables or lower ranks, they are from the poor families but the top officers are from the rich families as well.
Yes, that is what I meant.
It is always true, I have been saying this from long time that CRPF guys from Rajasthan or any other part come to Kashmir for his job. He has poor parents at home. He is afraid of his bosses if he doesn’t go on duty and when they go on roads they are afraid of stone pelters. His life is not easy in Kashmir as compared to officials. High officials enjoy the best life. I can say that they have every facility, they have everything.
I have seen in Kashmir, if there is an encounter, if there is stone pelting, the CRPF men and constables who get killed or who get stoned. It is not a general or a brigadier who gets the stone. That’s a fact. You are right. But if we say from Kashmir side, it’s not only the poor boys throw stones. If you have seen these days protests, boys as well as girls in their school uniform pelt stones and they are not from the poor families. It’s like they are from the upper class. A poor farmer’s son and an officer’s son study in the same college in Kashmir as we don’t have private colleges there. So, they pelt stones side by side. There is a couplet in Urdu-
Ek hi saf mein khade ho gaye Mahmood-o-Ayaz
Na koi banda raha aur na koi banda-nawaz
That means when you go to prayer in a mosque, even the king and the poorest of the poor stands side by side. So the same thing is happening in the stone pelting.
Where do you see Kashmir after twenty years?
It’s very hard. I don’t know. I can’t predict anything about Kashmir because there is a saying that Kashmiris can never predict anything about the weather, and the situation of Kashmir. But somehow I feel it would be more developed but I don’t know about the situation. If we see in global terms right now, world is getting tense everyday. Right wing parties are coming into power in several countries. So it’s really hard to predict about the future of Kashmir.
What would be your message to students who dream to work with international media houses as a photojournalist?
As I said earlier, there is no shortcut to success. He/She has to get ready and get out of the house. Photography is not in the house. It is outside the house. It takes years to explore art; it is not a one-day game. So you should work hard to achieve your goals. You should be positive. You should keep trying your best. And to me hope is the solution for every problem.
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