The heritage city of Srinagar is fast losing its iconic addresses and identities due to changing lifestyles and tastes. The change is now rendering many celebrated cults, like prominent photographers, as redundant now.
Behind a timeworn photocopy machine and a dusty desktop, Mohammad Ayyub Hakroo is engrossed in an editing session. The sexagenarian snapper—a skinny man wearing thick glasses and a white shirt—seems withdrawn from the bustling ecosystem frequented by eager sightseers from plains. His astute appearance makes him an old-timer struggling to keep pace with the changing picture around.
While he edits photographs, a voice breaks his concentration. “Ayyub soub, kati sa chukh? (Mr. Ayyub! Where are you?),” enquires a middle-aged customer, sporting a loose shirt and white pants. He has come to click a passport-size photograph.
“You go inside the room,” says Hakroo, pointing towards a small room, “I’ll get my camera.”
As the customer walks into the blue-painted room, the cameraman follows suit.
Making the man pose for photograph, Hakroo looks through the viewfinder and clicks some quick snaps. He shows them to the customer on his camera’s LCD screen. The man selects one picture and asks the seasoned snapper to get it printed in ‘half an hour’.
The portrayal might read like an ordinary lensman’s introduction, but this is how Kashmir’s “undisputed king” of analog photography is surviving in the digital age where smartphone-armoured citizenry is lock, stock and barrel of camerawork.
But unlike the selfie-driven commoners, Hakroo once held a sway over classes and masses—crowding his shop for some memorable photo-albums. The analog-to-digital shift, however, proved a tough ride for his old tribe.
“Big government officials used to call me for photo-sessions,” the photographer recalls with his ‘hangover’ eyes. “But now, we’ve lost the trade as well as the genius of it.”
In a bid to validate his bygone brilliance, the cameraman picks a black bag, undusts it and places it in middle of the room. While unzipping it, he pauses and smiles. The smile makes his eyes tearful.
Inside the bag are some dusty lenses and cameras — the tools of his prominent past. “There was a time when photography was considered as an art,” says Hakroo picking up a lens in his hand, “but nowadays everyone with a camera calls himself a photographer.”
As a signpost of classic camerawork, Hakroo’s Bombay Studio—tucked in Dalgate’s benighted bazar—is a fading address of Kashmir’s analog photography.
The old displayed photos give a vintage vibe to the studio. The tourists often make an abrupt halt in front of the shop to look at their predecessors of sixties and seventies — making merry in Kashmiri cultural attire. The photos of popular Bollywood actors are equally captive in their appeal.
For decades, especially the time when obsession for the filmy-style monochromes would grip the romantics of the vale, Bombay Studio served as a one-stop shop. Later, when the craze for colour pictures overtook Kashmir of eighties, Hakroo had his hands full. But with the advent of nineties, much of that colour faded in the din of death and destruction.
The explosive strife would curtail the local passion for pictures and cripple the tourist footfall. The transition made Hakroo’s once thriving shop a no-go zone. The rise of strife-snappers during this period captured the new reality—the deadly images regularly appearing on Frontpages—of the valley.
The yesteryears’ romantics—some of whom clicked live and lively by Hakroo in different gardens of the valley—were now dead faces of Kashmir’s churning news mill. Later, the advent of digital cameras came as a final blow to the valley’s vintage photography.
Barely some meters from Bombay Studio, Mohammad Yousuf is seated in a low-lit shop called “Nikon – mimic color lab”. The man is capturing Kashmir’s colour and contrast from last five decades now.
“I miss the golden period of photography,” Yousuf begins on a sombre note. “It would take us weeks to develop a film of 36 photos in darkroom [a place where analog films were developed into photographs].”
With the era of analog photography long over, Yousuf has made changes in his darkroom. It no longer houses old machines. He has scrapped them as junk and installed new printing machines for tackling the new market demand.
At Bombay Studio, Hakroo shifts his focus back to the present picture.
“I’ve archived all my analog cameras in my house now,” says Hakroo, walking towards his editing table. “They’re just pieces of trash now.”
Before this anguish fuelled by the apathy for the antiquated art, tourists from all over the world would come to click ‘Kashmir dress photo’ at Bombay Studio. Now whoever visits the valley, says the snapper, carries a digital camera with him.
“Only tourists from Kerala and Mumbai still love analog photography,” Hakroo says. “Sometimes foreigners visit my shop to buy analog cameras, as they love these vintage items as compared to our own people.”
Clearly, as the images of these analog photographers have blurred, the essence of their darkroom photography is also obscuring.
“Working with chemicals is not easy,” says Yousuf, placing hands over a glass counter. “It literally affected our eyesight.”
Today, these camera cults aren’t only grappling with their lost living, but also struggling with their diminished light.
Hakroo widens his pupils to show spots in his eyes. “It was because of working in darkroom,” he says. “The chemicals would also burn our skin and clothes.”
The digital shift might’ve curtailed these dangers now, but it has already devoured livelihood of their workforce.
Hakroo’s five-member team has long dispersed, while Yousuf’s staffers have switched over to new means of living now.
The anguish of these analog photographers is real, so is the reality that the ‘golden period’ of photography is already over.
“But despite everything, photography as an art will flourish with patience and passion,” Yousuf says. “The art never dies, though the methods might eventually run their course.”
Inside Bombay Studio, as Hakroo sits for another engrossing editing session, his monochrome world seemingly shines with his sanguine spirit.
“This is an ever-growing field which requires loyalty for sustenance,” he remarks. “As long as it takes, I’m here to guard it…”
The ace lensman cuts his own compelling speech as another customer arrives for passport photo.
From landmark landscapes to mere mugshots, the analog photographers of Kashmir have indeed come a long way in their struggling life.