Altaf has often chosen to speak publicly about an incident that nudged him into thinking about the place of photography in his life. In 1996, as a 20-year-old, he was returning home after prayers at the neighbourhood mosque in Rainawari, Srinagar. There had been a grenade attack at Shiraz, a nearby cinema hall that had been converted into a camp of the Border Security Force (BSF). Shiraz also doubled up as a notorious ‘interrogation’ centre for suspected militants and anybody else who ran afoul of the counterinsurgency apparatus. Just as Altaf was about to step into the narrow lane that led to his home, he was stopped by a group of BSF soldiers. The men dragged him off to the mouth of the street, where they then made him stand as a human shield, a cover for their own protection.
The whole episode probably didn’t last more than an hour, but the fear, humiliation and helplessness has stayed with him. “Maybe if I had had a camera, I could have recorded it,” he remembers thinking afterwards.
As the only son amongst seven siblings, the incident was enough to push Altaf’s worried family into sending him to Calcutta, and out of harm’s way. He came back only a year later, having used his time to finish a course in Computer Applications, and became a part-time instructor at a small computer institute at Barbarshah, in downtown Srinagar. A chance encounter with a khatib, an Urdu language calligraphist, brought him to the attention of the editor of Srinagar Times, Sofi Ghulam Mohammad. The newspaper was planning the shift to computer software for setting the Urdu language text of its pages, replacing the old hand-lettered calligraphy of their khatib. “I think I may have been the first person to introduce Urdu software in Kashmir!” he told me with a grin.
Altaf had barely finished with school at the time. The job as an Urdu language DTP operator meant getting home late every night, after a 6 pm to 11 pm shift. The coveted ‘Press card’ helped negotiate the multiple check-posts on deserted night streets, and he had quickly warmed up to its modest security. When Altaf later moved on to the Kashmir Observer he remembers the excitement of figuring out the layout, especially of the front page, but the even greater thrill of the ‘curfew pass’ obtained for him by his paper. In Kashmir, journalists seemed to be treated better than ordinary people, Altaf figured, the memory of the human shield perhaps never too far away.
For a few years Altaf shuttled between college in Srinagar (which he attended only to take the examinations, he admits) and New Delhi, where he had signed on to do a diploma in Advanced Computing. As a proficient, multilingual DTP operator, he soon got a job creating educational materials for an international company, and worked his way to the position of a Systems Administrator. It also inevitably led him to the emerging social universe of the internet: his first encounter with the early chat-room culture kept him awake the whole night, he recalls, and it was in a Yahoo chat room that he made a friend who was to change his life in a critical way.
Yuhanis Lockman was an ‘Internet’ friend, Altaf told me, an older woman from Indonesia, and he had often spoken to her about his very tentative ambitions for photography. One day, a casual query to Yuhanis about what the price of a good camera would be in Indonesia led her to offer to buy him one. “You can pay me back whenever,” she had said.
Altaf soon had a film camera, a Nikon F65, and an ambition. Walking into every news organisation in Delhi, and asking for work, had not been productive. Then one night, not far from where he lived in New Delhi, he heard multiple sirens going off. Following the fire engines, Altaf located a chemical factory that was on fire in the Okhla Industrial Area. He shot through the night as if his life depended on it, he remembers, four rolls, all the way from 8 pm to 4 am. The next morning he processed the film and walked into The Times of India office, where he was lucky enough to bump into Harish Tyagi, a senior photographer at the newspaper. Tyagi couldn’t use the images – they were already yesterday’s news – but they exchanged numbers, and promised to stay in touch.
Only a few months after the meeting, Altaf got a call from Tyagi: he had taken over the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA) operations in India, and wanted Altaf to be their person in Kashmir. Altaf was already back in Srinagar by then, determined to make his way into journalism: in the day he took photographs for several small start-up publications, and the nights he worked as a DTP operator making up newspaper pages.
The work with EPA was to be his first proper job in photography, and a first exposure to a professional environment. It was an important learning space – “no advice, no suggestions, no interruptions” is how he gratefully remembers it. “When I look back at some of the work I did back then, I feel embarrassed,” Altaf told me about those early years, “I’m much more thoughtful about the images now. It’s not simply how much hard work you’ve put into the image… Just because I’m witness to something important does not mean that the viewer will understand what I want to show…”
For the next five years Altaf covered Kashmir for EPA. A downside to working for them was that it had no subscribers in Kashmir, or even in the entire region, so you never got to see your pictures in the papers. The anonymity bothered him, and perhaps to make up for the lack of a direct connection with his audience, Altaf started entering photo competitions. Between 2004 and 2007 he won more than a dozen awards, including the prestigious Picture of the Year International and the All Roads Photography program of the National Geographic Society. Flush with prizes, he decided it was time to pay back his Indonesian friend for the camera. But she declined. “You’ve repaid me,” Yuhanis told him when she came down to attend Altaf’s wedding in 2005. “The prizes you have won are reward enough,” she said.