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Asia, South Asia
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Pakistan, India, Kashmir, conflict, technology
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#shaheed is a study of the war in Kashmir, the men fighting in it, and the changing relationship between technology and the representation of conflict.
Nathaniel Brunt

2016 — student winner

“Wars are not fought with guns, Altaf, they are fought with cameras.”?(Mission Kashmir, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 2000) 

On a hot day last summer I watched the lifeless body of Talib Ahmed Shah being carried through the streets of the village of Kakapora in northern India’s Kashmir Valley. Talib, who was 21, had been killed the evening before during an encounter between Indian security forces and the small group of Islamic extremists to which he belonged, the Lashkar-e-Taiba militants. Now, thousands of people from surrounding communities gathered for the funeral procession, a collective spectacle of mourning, solidarity and respect for the young man and his newly acquired status of shaheed -- martyr. Talib’s corpse, still in bloodied and soiled clothes and strewn with the flower petals that mark a shaheed’s funeral, or a groom’s wedding ceremony, was thronged by a sea of spectators hoping to glimpse or perhaps touch his now venerated mortal remains.   

Over the next few days people shared images of Talib on a variety of social networking sites. The young man was one of a new breed of well-educated Kashmiri youths who have joined the militancy in the last three years. In 2014, during a trip to the region, I learned about the new proliferation in production and distribution of militants’ photographs on mobile phones and social media pages. These images of the conflict, taken by locals and often the militants themselves, revealed a unique and often inaccessible view of the war and the lives and deaths of the young men fighting it. As I sought to understand the region’s complexity and its conflict I realized that this story was too complicated for my own photographic voice and that these visual ‘fragments’ were critical elements of my documentary practice.    

For the next two years, while I produced my own images of the conflict, I began to collect those other images from phones and from social media sources. The culmination of this process is #Shaheed, an ongoing study of the 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 my own photographs.   

#Shaheed seeks to complicate the homogeneity of contemporary western understandings of extremism in the Islamic world. My goal is to create an uncomfortable intimacy between the viewer and those depicted through the process of deconstructing and making visible the various layers of representation in order to provoke difficult questions about the complex motives, commonality and humanity of these young men. These are themes that extend well beyond the Kashmir Valley, as shown by recent attacks by Islamic militant groups in other settings, and governments’ reactions to them. As we wait to see the way in which these terrible events will shape our world, the need for investigations that can expand our understanding of these extremist groups and the individuals in them, such as #Shaheed, is all the more pressing. The disturbing nature of the subject can discourage exploration but deepening our understanding of who these young men are is crucial to informed responses such as policy-making.   

I am therefore asking The Alexia Foundation for support to return to Kashmir this year to continue my work and to help deliver this important but under-documented story to new audiences internationally.

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Clippings from the dailies. 2013- 2016. Nathaniel Brunt
The 'Line of Control' separating India and Pakistan. (Summer 2014) Nathaniel Brunt
Children play cricket in the Lolab Valley (Fall 2013). Nathaniel Brunt
A group of men gather for a procession in Sopore after the release of separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani  who had spent 236 days under house arrest. (Fall 2013) Nathaniel Brunt
Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) recruits train during early morning exercises in Srinagar. (Summer 2014) Nathaniel Brunt
Drummers at a wedding ceremony in Chittybandi.  (Spring 2013) Nathaniel Brunt
Abandoned pandit (Kashmiri Hindu) homes in the town of Hall. Many pandit families left the Valley due to fear of inter-communal violence during the war in the early 1990s and have never returned.  (Spring 2013) Nathaniel Brunt
The Ahmed family at their home In Chittybandi. (Spring 2013) Nathaniel Brunt
Thousands of people gather in Kakapora, Kashmir for the funeral of 21 year old Talib Ahmed Shah, a Kashmiri Lashkar-e-Taiba militant. (Summer 2015) Nathaniel Brunt
Saeed Firdous  Shah, the brother of slain Lashkar-e-Taiba Talib Ahmed Shah, kisses his brother for the last time before he is lowered into his grave. (Summer 2015) Nathaniel Brunt