|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.”
A Gujar home in Nara Nag.
Isaac’s work reveals both the exotic nature of Kashmir and the commonalities with other peoples. The universal human condition appealed strongly to Isaac, so he worked to show it in these pictures.
“This man told me,” recounts Isaac, “he said, ‘You live in New York. I don’t know what New York is like, but I bet you have a normal life in the evening with your wife and your children and your family. You have dinner and the next day you go to work. We basically do the same thing. It so happens that in the last few years we’ve had some problems and fighting, so we’re fed up with being labeled as a terrorist state and so you have to treat us the way you have your friends and your family.’ So that’s what I tried to do.”
Isaac’s view of Kashmir may be innocent, but the photographer says that makes it no less true. His experience, as his photos show, was one of beauty and simplicity. This appealed to British and European tourists in the past, and with travelogues like Isaac’s, it’s sure to regain popularity.
Buying firewood on Dal Lake
“I must tell you,” he says, “I’ve traveled to more than 100 countries in my life working as a photojournalist, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as pretty as Kashmir. It’s spectacular. And that’s the part I wanted to bring out. It’s more like a pictorial coffee-table book, more like a travel book. You have the glaciers, the villagers, the mountains, everyday life, farming, grass harvesting. It’s also inside family life, how they live inside their houses.”
Capturing intimate views of family life requires a photographer with a special sensitivity. Not only was he welcomed into their homes with a camera in hand, but Isaac invested such care in these interactions that the photographs seem especially authentic. Rather than capturing poses, he provides glimpses of real life in this picturesque place.
Kashmir’s sheer beauty is what first appealed to Isaac, along with the exotic nature of an ancient culture that seemed to transport one back in time. Weather was also a draw, as the region’s four seasons offered a changing environment on every trip. Still, it wasn’t so much the region’s differences that provided his favorite images; it was the universal.
“I have a picture of a mother with a baby on her lap sleeping,” he says, “and she’s cooking dinner. It was supper, just like in my house or your house, it’s the same thing. There’s one of a father and son, almost like in the U.S. Some of the portraits I did, a father holding a baby....”
A father holds his newborn son in Atnar village near Pahalgam.
The striking portrait of father and child Isaac describes was made with window light. Isaac made every image in the book with only available illumination.
“A lot of the pictures were shot at 1⁄15 sec. handheld,” he says. “I have a pretty steady hand. I shoot everything handheld. My new camera has three stabilizers—an X, a Y, and both. That’s the way I shot even before, when I was shooting film. I was always very steady.”
Steadiness is key in natural-light photography, particularly when the light is changing with the weather. Fog around Dal Lake, the major body of water that dominates the landscape in many images, makes for some of the most memorable photographs in the book. Isaac attributes his training as a painter for influencing the appeal and execution of such images.
“I studied watercolor painting,” says Isaac, “so in Kashmir all the lake scenes are very much like a watercolor painting. That’s the way I wanted to shoot—like the very misty mornings or when it’s foggy. There’s a nice picture of a man selling flowers in a fog. A lot of people have used that; it’s a favorite picture because a lot of people identify with it.”
Challenging lighting makes for interesting images, but Isaac still provides his RAW files with additional assistance. Though he’s proficient with postprocessing, he isn’t trying to reinvent his images in the computer. He’s simply applying his hard-won darkroom skills in a new medium for the same effect as always—making a photograph communicate clearer.
A flower vendor in the early morning on Dal Lake.
“I’m a good technician,” he says. “I don’t change anything, but I emphasize. I make my pictures look good. I do a lot of burning and dodging. I teach a course at the Maine Media Workshops every summer; my emphasis is basically what I learned when I did my black-and-white—it’s all burning and dodging. I came to a conclusion that burning and dodging is the most important thing.
“Photography is an illusion,” Isaac concludes. “You can create that illusion by meticulously burning and dodging. It took me a long time to understand this part. If you use it correctly, you can burn and dodge highlight, midtone and shadow areas selectively in small percentages. Just as much as shooting, I love printing. That’s why I can’t wait to bring my pictures home and correct them and make them look good. All this is why I think in some ways I’m still surviving and learning the new tools I had to learn in the last 10 years. I never used a computer before in my life; at age 55, I got my first computer. My learning curve is slow. I do things a little slower, but I enjoy it.” OP
To see more of John Isaac’s photography, visit www.johnisaac.com.