This past April, Nathaniel Brunt was awarded the first place Student Grant for his project #shaheed. The work is a study of war in the Kashmir Valley, the young local men fighting in it, and the changing relationship between communication technologies, visual representations of conflict, and image-making at this time.
The project is comprised of collected newspaper clippings, interviews with family members of the fighters and various types of vernacular and professional photographs, including mobile phone images created by militants, and his own photographs. It to seeks to complicate the homogeneity of contemporary western understandings of extremism in the Islamic world.
In this new interview with Brunt, we speak with him about the roots of the conflict and his plans for the project.
Alexia Foundation: How long have you been working on #shaheed?
Nathaniel Brunt: I have been working on this project since 2014 but I first travelled to Kashmir in spring 2013.
Alexia Foundation: Can you briefly explain what is happening in the region?
Nathaniel Brunt: Since the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, Kashmir has been the locus of a conflict between rivals India and Pakistan and one of the most divisive political and social issues in South Asia. In the early 1990s many Kashmiris rose up in armed rebellion, with the support of Pakistan, calling for freedom from India. The subsequent insurgency and counter-insurgency, which continues to this day, has resulted in nearly 70,000 deaths.
In July this year, Burhan Wani, the top militant leader of Hizbul Mujahedeen in the Valley, was killed by Indian security. His death sparked a series of mass protest by Kashmiris calling for independence (from India) that have swept through the Valley and left over 80 protesters dead and over 10,000 wounded. These protests continue to this day.
Alexia Foundation: What is your ultimate goal for the project – what will happen to it?
Nathaniel Brunt: This autumn I started a PhD in the Communication & Culture program at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. My long-term goal is to expand the work I’ve done on #shaheed into a practice-based dissertation (book) for my PhD, and to create a touring exhibition that can be shown internationally, especially in South Asia.
My hope is to explore both the lives of those fighting in the insurgency and the experiences of police officers, soldiers, and civilians whose lives have been dramatically affected by this conflict. Like any good documentarian, I hope to capture and present a balanced and multi-dimensional view of this deeply complex conflict.
Alexia Foundation: What has been the response to the project?
Nathaniel Brunt: The response to the project has been very positive. In May I was awarded the Contact Portfolio Review Award at Contact Festival in Toronto for this body of work.
The award provides support for an exhibition at the festival’s gallery in Toronto in spring 2017, which will be the first major public exhibition of this work. With such a large South Asian community in Toronto, I hope that the exhibition provides an opportunity to provoke discussion within this community.
Alexia Foundation: Why is this work important?
Nathaniel Brunt: #shaheed is an important work because it provides a historical record of the contemporary conflict in Kashmir while simultaneously expanding our often limited and simplistic western understandings of individuals in militant groups in Islamic world.
In addition, I think that the work is also representative of much larger changes taking place in contemporary photography of conflict, notably the near ubiquitous access to camera phones with network connectivity by amateurs, both civilians and combatants, actively involved in war.
Alexia Foundation: What did winning an Alexia Grant mean to you? What did it mean for the project?
Nathaniel Brunt: Winning the Alexia Grant was a tremendous honour and an opportunity to continue and spread this body of work to a new and larger audience. With the support of the Alexia Foundation I was able to travel to Kashmir again and continue my work there.
Using the opportunity to study and work at the University of Syracuse, I hope to refine my project with the help of the university’s faculty and work towards the production of it in book form.
Alexia Foundation: Why are you a photographer?
Nathaniel Brunt: I’m a photographer because it allows me to explore and bring attention to subjects and issues I feel strongly about. While I don’t feel that photography can fundamentally change public opinion, as it may have done in the past, I do believe it can inform and expand understanding of complex issues in a uniquely immediate and humanistic manner.
See Brunt’s full project here.
Read interviews and updates with other Alexia photographers here.