‘No picture worth more than life’ caution professionals
SOPORE: The recent counter-insurgency operation in the forests near Halmatpora village in Kupwara – in which five foreign militants, three army soldiers and two policemen lost their lives in a long and fierce gunfight – saw a video emerge of photojournalists escaping bullets that went viral on social media minutes after it was uploaded. The video was able to reveal a grim, shocking side of Kashmir journalism in which photojournalists risk their lives covering encounters between government forces and militants without any protective policy umbrella over them.
In the 51-second-long video, taken by freelancer Mohammad Abu Bakar, most of the photojournalists were seen without bulletproof vests, running to a safer spot as bullets were shot at them from the dense forests. The video received thousands of likes, comments and shares, in which many were seen criticising the photojournalists and many others endorsed their bravery. But the question arises and needs to be asked: is a news story worth more than a life in Kashmir?
In one comment, a viewer quotes Alexander Pope to say: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread which means inexperienced or rash people attempting things that more experienced people avoid”, while another comment endorses the photojournalists’ effort by quoting Henry Anatole Grunwald: “Journalism can never be silent: That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.”
The lensman behind the video, Mohammad Bakar, is a Sopore resident and an undergraduate journalism student who has been working for the last year as a freelancer in north Kashmir. As he told Kashmir Reader, “Whenever I come to know that an encounter has started in any area of north Kashmir, I immediately reach the spot to cover it. That’s what photojournalists have to do, right?”
“In the Kupwara encounter, we were almost one kilometre away from the encounter site, but suddenly a volley of bullets was shot from dense forests in our direction, as we could tell, seeing bullets hitting a wall just next to us. My camera was on and when we all ran for a safer position, I was able to capture that moment; the reason for uploading this video on social media was to show the people the reality behind the scenes.”
This reporter asked whether Bakar – a newcomer to his field without either bulletproof vest or insurance cover, as he was not working for any particular organisation – can see that getting a picture or a video by putting his life at stake is not sensible or brave, he replied, “I know nothing is more important than life, but living in a place where death dances in the streets, you cannot be safe anywhere. The fear of death should not stop us from working.”
Another photojournalist from the viral video whom this reporter spoke with was Peerzada Waseem, also a Sopore resident and a freelance photojournalist for the last four years. He told Kashmir Reader that an announcement was made that militants have been killed, “so we tried to move closer to get better pictures, but police stopped us and sent us back. Suddenly several bullets were shot into the steel wall where we were positioned; everybody ran, but I fell to the ground as I was carrying three cameras on my shoulders. I literally felt bullets crossing over me as I took refuge behind a small wall while friends shouted at me to not raise my head. I was very scared; I truly escaped death that day.”
When asked why he put his life at risk when he, like Bakar, doesn’t belong to any organisation nor was he wearing a bulletproof vest, Waseem replied, “We are taking these extreme level of risks in the field while covering encounters to get better pictures, so that they will get published and people will start recognising our hard work and start hiring us.”
Farooq Javed Khan, president of the Kashmir Press Photographers Association told Kashmir Reader, “First and foremost, it is important for news organisations in Kashmir to have insurance cover and safety gear for their photographers. If somebody is a freelancer or is not working with any organisation but still goes to cover encounters and street battles… if something happens to him, who will help him or take responsibility for him? I don’t think it’s sensible at all.
“I don’t know why newcomers think that encounters and street clashes are the only things to make their profile strong. They are important to some extent as we are living in Kashmir where encounters took place on daily basis these days, but there are various other things which they can capture and show to the world and make their profiles strong and visible,” Farooq Javed added.
Dar Yasin, a senior photojournalist of Kashmir working with the Associated Press (AP), a not-for-profit US news agency, based in New York city, told Kashmir Reader in a recent videophone call from Kupwara that “freelancers and newcomers have no insurance cover or safety equipment like we seniors do, so getting a news or picture is not everything to get yourself proved. There are other offbeat stories where they can prove themselves.
“In my more-than-15 years of experience in Kashmir, a conflict-torn state, where you need to be brave to show the reality and truth to the world, but there is no news or picture that is worth more than a life. It’s an advice to newcomers and freelancers,” Dar Yasin said.
“We photojournalists need to take care of ourselves because an organisation for which we are working or sending news will not care if we are not there, as others can fill the position immediately after someone is gone. So we need to take our safety first and give it important priority while working in the field,” Dar Yasin suggested.
It is pertinent to mention that since the armed conflict erupted in Kashmir in 1990, 21 journalists have lost their lives in targeted killings or because of being caught in crossfire.