In 2013, on a Friday, Seperatist leader , Syed Ali Shah Geelani, had come to North Kashmir's Sopore district , to lead the Friday prayers at the Jamia Masjid Sopore. After the Friday prayers , a large gathering of people led by the separatist leader, took a rally from Jamia Masjid to the main chowk Sopore , which is at the walking distance from Jamia Masjid. I too was a part of protest in which people were raising the pro-freedom slogans along the other people. During the rally, I saw the women weeping and youth clash with security forces. The tear gas fired by security forces choked my breath and I ran away towards a building , where I saw two masked youth covering their faces and holding a camera in their hands and pointing their cameras towards the people who were protesting. At that time, I didn’t know the device they were holding in their hands is called a camera and I wondered what are these guys doing there !
While violent clashes were going on , I somehow managed to reach my home. While I was still thinking about those two guys , my cousin asked ,”why are you so confused ?”. During the protests, I saw two young men , holding something in their hands with their faces covered. I replied. Oh my dear brother, they were two photojournalists who were shooting protests and clashes by their cameras . The photographs you see daily in the newspapers are shot by those photojournalists. I was in my 12th class and I didn’t know about camera and this was the first time I heard about the word ”camera”.
I heard about this device for the very first time and I didn’t know destiny had written that I will be spending the rest of my life by holding this device in my hand . So, my love for the device started to grow up and I started to capture photos with my basic android Smartphone. I wondered, why don’t the media cover the protests and clashes from our side and why they only highlight the Srinagar city. While I continued to cover protests and unrest with my phone, I started to distance myself from my studies and it resulted in failure in my 12th class board exams. I could not pass my accountancy paper . People living around me started to taunt me as I failed in my boards exam. I was discouraged, my own family members were disappointed with me. Many people told me to shun your mobile photography otherwise you won’t be able to pass your subject. I kept following my passion and I didn’t stop covering protest, rallies. One day, I was going through a daily local newspaper and I came across many photographs of protests, clashes published . I had been clicking photos from past 3 years but my photos were not published yet and then I decided to mail my photos to a local daily newspaper and on the next day I saw my photos published on the newspaper .At the first, I didn’t believe that it was my name. I thought this might be a person with the same name “JUNAID BHAT”. So, I decided to mail more photos to a different newspaper, Greater Kashmir, which is considered to be Kashmir’s largest circulated local English daily newspaper. It was like a dream come true when I saw myself getting featured in Greater Kashmir . I continued to shoot and kept sending the photos to different news agencies and they kept posting my photos but none of them paid me. I was new to this profession and had very little knowledge about the projects and earnings. During this period, I got a chance to meet a famous photojournalist, name withheld , who suggested me to go to Delhi for higher studies in photojournalism and filmmaking. It was not an easy deal as my family showed very little interest in this . Finally, I went to Delhi just a couple of months before the devastating floods hit the Kashmir in 2014. I spent 3 years in Delhi in which I completed filmmaking and attended many workshops and photo-competitions . I met a lot of professional people during this period of time which proved very successful to my career. I was encouraged by many senior photojournalists for my skills and passion towards my work during workshops.
On 8th July 2016, Hizbul Mujahideen’s militant Commander, Burhan wani, who was carrying a bounty of Rs 1 million, was killed in a brief encounter with Indian Security forces in South Kashmir’s Anantnag. His killing sparked the violent protest and clashes across the Kashmir. The violent protests swept across Kashmir which resulted in the killing of many youngsters. The shutdown called by All Parties Hurriyat Conference lasted for almost six months. Mobile and internet services were snapped across Kashmir. I had started to work with Greater Kashmir and I covered all the major protests, rallies in North Kashmir’s Sopore. I came across many injuries while shooting the violent clashes and I once felt unconscious due to the tear gas and pepper shellings . I had borrowed a camera from a local shopkeeper and used to shoot with that. I wasn’t financially enough sound to buy a camera of my own.
I had worked very hard during this turmoil but most of my work could not get published due to communication blackout. I kept working with many agencies including Greater Kashmir but my earnings were not handsome . I struggled a lot and tried to save some of my earnings to buy myself a camera. I remain away from my family for a long time . I had stopped to go to my home because my family could not afford to bring a camera for me. My mother used to cry and used to tell my friends that I should return my home. Finally, I managed to buy a camera for myself and later a drone camera as well .
In 2017, National Investigation Authority (NIA) , arrested one of my close friend , Kamran Yousuf, who is also a photojournalist. He was also working with Greater Kashmir but when NIA arrested him on stone-pelting charges , the newspaper authorities said that no doubt we have used his pictures in many stories but he is not our employee. To protest this , I resigned from Greater Kashmir . I got a lot of support from people and I saw my name making headlines in various top newspapers. This bold move kicked my career into a high gear . I opened an instagram account and started to share all of my work on this. The social media is a hungry beast and it needs constant feeding . So, I kept publishing photos and people loved my content but it is never easy to be a photo-journalist in Kashmir. Sometimes, people would threaten and abuse me while covering the funerals of militants and sometimes security forces would threaten and snatch my camera along with my recordings.I have been arrested, abused many times by security forces. To shoot funerals and encounters, I have walked as many as 20 kilometers on foot and that too many times .My camera and its parts got damaged many a times while covering the protest and clashes. I have suffered various losses during the unrest and violence. I was hit by pellets many times and a bullet once as well. My family was also targeted many times. My father was threatened by both people and security forces.
The growth was visible as number of followers grew up tremendously on social media. Currently, my Instagram account has more than 38K followers. I am currently working as a freelance photojournalist. I have worked for both national and international news agencies like BBC, Aljazeera, Getty images , Newsclick, The Wire.
I regularly conduct workshops, events in North Kashmir’s Sopore where I give photography tips to those students who find their future in photography and have limited resources.
In an entrance exam held in a local school, where students were asked to answer the question, “What do you want to be in your life ?”
I want to become a photojournalist like “Junaid Bhat”. A student had answered.
Since the centre abrogated the special status of Jammu and Kashmir . I am amongst the few photojournalists who have been reporting the news and covering the protests. I was threatened not to cover the protests but despite of this I have reportedl fearlessly . I have to go out of the Kashmir just to send my work to international agencies since the blanket ban on communication. It is very difficult to report these days but I promise I will continue to report the truth fearlessly for my people and my land .
This story is about the life of a kashmiri photojournalist, Junaid bhat .
Written by : Faizan bukhari
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