Bearing witness and book design

Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016 / Nine Photographers

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design

“There is a lot of grace in this compendium of photojournalism about Kashmir, and there is much despair as well. This book about the region, the product of nine photojournalists working over three decades, merits the title Witness. The photographers are not outsiders visiting on assignment. They are all Kashmiri—from Meraj Ud Din (born in 1959) to Azaan Shah (born in 1997)—and the impact of their familiarity with and emotional commitment to the place shows. Put together by the New Delhi-based Yaarbal press, the book is an exceedingly beautiful art object, despite its grim contents.” – Teju Cole writing about Witness in the New York Times about the 10 best photobooks of 2017.

Notes on the design of Witness from Itu Chaudhuri Design – A photobook that questions the established image of Kashmir, seen through the lens of nine photojournalistsBackground

As a photobook, Witness collects the work of nine photojournalists whose work spans the three tumultuous decades that have made Kashmir—known as ‘Paradise on Earth’—just as famous as a disputed area, a theater of war and a site of protest framed in its aspiration of ‘azaadi’ (independence).

Curated by a documentary filmmaker, himself a Kashmiri, the project rests on his interest in uncovering the work of these photojournalists, engaging with a conflict zone that they call home, yet being professional ‘witnesses’—giving the book its title.

Objective

Conceptualized during Kashmir’s unrest of 2016 (the aftermath of the killing of a militant commander by the armed forces), this book was an opportunity to depart from the expected Kashmir photobook, and reflect Kashmir’s complex and agitated state.

Unlike a news publication where these recurring images of violence appear individually and transiently, the challenge for the book was to create a cohesive narrative of Kashmir.

Structure

For the reader, this book intends to be a document compiling fragments of the lives of the Kashmiri people, that disturbs, moves and informs.

A careful edit of the images was done to reveal the ‘new normals’ of unrest in Kashmir that is hidden from daily news, but is important to the story of resilience and sustained conflict.

As a document that gathers pieces of the personal as well as the collective memory of Kashmir and its people, the design had to be evocative but not stray into becoming overtly sentimental, distracting from the journalism aspect of the images.

Design and layout

The physical form of the book suggests a casefile, as if to collect and preserve for memory a bundle of evidence of the conflict, over the decades of 1986–2016. The design of the book as an object physically engages the reader, making him a part of the volatile and all-consuming nature of life in a conflict. Gatefolds, postcards and foldouts form peaks of surprise, shock and unease within the level flow of the narrative. Varying formats, crops of images, and sub-narratives pace the narrative and in a cinematic manner, draw the reader closer or avert them.

A reference section, on yellow paper, offers detailed captions for each image. They are chronologically arranged and also refer to certain repetitive yet sustained subjects of Kashmir’s conflict like counterinsurgency, elections and disappearances.

Witness won the Best in Culture, Art & Design Books Kyoorius Blue Elephant Award for 2017 and, The CII Design Excellence Award 2017 for Best Visual Communication Publication.

Bearing witness is not an easy business. In fact it’s no business at all. A compendium enclosed by raw grey boards engraved with bold type and riddled with grooves that could have been made by bullets and tied up like a pothi. Sanjay Kak’s conversations with the photographers and the photographic narrative of 30 years succeed in opening our eyes to a contemporary reality that makes us feel hopelessly inadequate. The issues are difficult – unnecessary mass suffering and authentic freedom. A challenging and engaging mixture of artefact, document, memory and manifesto presented with amazing grace. – Editor

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