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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

In The Valley Of Kashmir

John Isaac puts the exotic world of Kashmir into a universal perspective

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kashmir A fisherman at dusk in his shikara with the Hazratbal Mosque in the background.
In 2008, photographer John Isaac published a book, The Vale of Kashmir. Its 160 images are the product of five years of dedicated photography, encompassing 11 trips to the troubled region—a valley straddling the border of India and Pakistan. The images provide a glimpse into life in Kashmir, both from the intimate perspective of its people and the broader landscape that shapes the culture. The book was a daunting undertaking, especially for a retired photographer.

After a 30-year career, including 20 years photographing for the United Nations in some of the most turbulent regions of the world, Isaac wanted to get away from photojournalism. Kashmir drew him back.

At 66, Isaac attributes the project’s success in large part to digital technology—namely, the fact that the cameras he used incorporate the Four Thirds sensor, making the whole system smaller, lighter and easier for travel.

“I’ve been working with Olympus closely for the last 10 years,” says Isaac, “and it’s very convenient for me because their cameras are much smaller. The whole Kashmir book I did with the Olympus E-1, which was a 5-megapixel camera. So all my double-page spreads, all that was shot with 5 megapixels. I wanted to prove a point that if you’re careful in your cropping and the way you shoot, you can make a coffee-table book with a 5-megapixel camera. So I’m proud, and Olympus was very proud, too.”

Koranic school in a Tibetan Muslim home in Srinigar.

In 2007, Indian-born Isaac became a naturalized citizen after 40 years in the U.S. Though he has traveled the globe for decades, he had only seen Kashmir in pictures. Its troubled history includes a recent label as a center of terrorism—a misrepresentation, according to Isaac, who attributes such strife to outside forces.

“When I went in 2003,” Isaac says, “I went with an open mind to see who these people are. The picture I saw was completely different, not like what everybody said. It was a very contradictory thing, so that’s why I started to explore. The hardest part for me was to show Kashmir in its reality, which is that they’re basically peaceful people, but there are some elements that come and disrupt. I did about 11 trips totally in the last five years, and I never had a threat to my life, even once. One time there was a bombing not too far, but nobody ever captured me or threatened me. That has happened to me elsewhere. But here they’re basically simple people; they’re truly caught between a rock and a hard place. They don’t know what to do. They’re struggling. Some terrorist movement has come in, infiltrated, and they’ve been doing things. But then basically everybody blames the Kashmiris for it.

“The people of Kashmir,” says Isaac, “they asked me, ‘Don’t show us as a terrorist state. We need tourism to come and we want people to come back.’ I was criticized by some people who didn’t like the idea that I made this more like everyday people because they wanted to show the little sporadic bad activities that took place. So to prove a point, I took 17 photographers last November and we had a wonderful trip. I’m very happy that the book came out the way I wanted it to, and the way the people of Kashmir wanted it to.”


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