The Vale of Kashmir

by John Isaac


Review by Sarah Coleman

[John Isaac's Kashmir photography was featured in the June 2005 issue of TheScreamOnline.]

In 1979, when John Isaac was a young photojournalist with the United Nations (U.N.), he visited the Malaysian island of Palau Bidong, where thousands of Vietnamese refugees were living in a squalid camp. “A little boy came up to me, and he asked, Are you going to stay here for 15 minutes like all the other photographers?” Isaac recalls. Moved, Isaac told his bosses at the U.N. that he’d stay on the island for four days. “They weren’t happy, but they had to accept it. And the coverage was much better for it.”

In his latest project, a book called The Vale of Kashmir (W.W.Norton, 2008), Isaac has carried with him the lesson he learned that day: that investing more time leads to better images. Over the last five years, Isaac has made ten trips to Kashmir, staying each time for up to six weeks. “Sometimes I’d cancel my return flight and take another one, because I wanted to take my time,” he says. “You have to be patient, and become part of the scene.”

Having spent so much time in Kashmir, Isaac wanted to do justice to a region he calls “my most favorite place for photography.” That’s a high compliment from a man who has visited more than 100 countries throughout his career. “Switzerland is probably as beautiful as Kashmir, but in a much more sanitized way,” he says. “Istanbul is an amazing city to photograph. But Kashmir is even better.”

Craggy mountains, glassy-smooth lakes and bountiful wildlife might not be the first things people imagine when they hear the word “Kashmir.” More likely, they’ll think about the violence that has engulfed the region in past decades, as an insurgency by Muslim separatists has met with strong opposition from the Indian government. Continuing today, the violence has left a once-vibrant tourist economy in shambles.

Isaac’s book doesn’t dwell on the violence, though—and that’s a very deliberate choice. “I wanted to show people the beauty of the place and people there, to inspire them to make peace,” he says. He adds, “I could have taken the Indian side and shown Kashmiri Muslims as terrorists, or taken the Muslim side and shown the Indian government as an oppressor, but I didn’t want to do that.”

Instead, The Vale of Kashmir is full of sumptuous landscapes, along with portraits of a people Isaac calls “incredibly friendly, cultured and very poor.” People like Mariam (pictured above), a beautiful young mother living in a small mountain hut, who made tea for Isaac and confided her fears for the future of Kashmir. “She was putting her baby to sleep as I photographed her, and she started saying she didn’t know what kind of future her child would have,” Isaac recalls. With its soft window light and Mariam’s melancholy smile, Isaac’s portrait recalls a Vermeer painting.

Like many poor Kashmiris, Mariam and her family live in conditions that haven’t changed much in centuries. “Going there is like being in a time warp,” Isaac says. “In Srinagar you see Internet cafes and cell phones, but in other places there’s no electricity, and people live in tiny huts or as nomads.” As in times past, the pace of life is decidedly leisurely. “People have time to stop and talk,” says Isaac. “Even if a man is on his way work, he’s willing to stop and have a conversation.”

Kashmir’s lack of development wasn’t always charming, especially on Isaac’s winter visits, when he’d have to sleep under eight blankets in unheated rooms. On one trip, Isaac and his guide hiked up a steep path to Sheshnag, famous for a beautiful lake that freezes over until June each year. “At night, we huddled inside a tent and it was freezing cold,” Isaac says. “I was so numb that I asked if we could bring some of the mules into the tent with us." He lets out a quick, rumbling laugh as he recalls, "None of the others liked that suggestion very much.”

Luckily, there were plenty of compensations. Among the highlights Isaac cites is the annual saffron harvest, where villagers walk through fields carpeted with vibrant purple crocuses. The flowers’ dried and crushed stigmas make saffron, but it takes over 4,500 flowers to yield an ounce of the pungent spice. “It’s beautiful, like another world,” says Isaac of the harvest, whose rituals haven’t changed in 2,000 years.

There were also the days Isaac spent observing wildlife on serene Dal Lake, staying in a Victorian houseboat whose former residents included Beatle George Harrison and prize-winning war photographer James Nachtwey. “In the mornings, I’d often take a ride with a boatman: there’d be birds singing and Sufi music playing, and it was amazingly peaceful,” says Isaac. One of his images from the lake features two swallows in flight fighting over a dragonfly. “I call it India and Pakistan fighting over Kashmir,” he says with a smile.

Whether photographing landscapes, portraits or wildlife, Isaac found his Olympus E-series cameras yielded great results. He now uses the E-3, but completed the book using its predecessor, the E-1. “Olympus has the best optics on the market; it’s the only camera company that completely retooled all its lenses for digital capture,” he says. He also liked the fact that the Zuiko 50-200mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 100mm-400mm zoom in a 35mm film camera) could be used without a tripod. “When you want to work discreetly in a foreign place, that’s a big plus,” he says.

Now that The Vale of Kashmir has been published, Isaac will be moving on to other projects, including a book where he’ll share his knowledge of fine digital printing. But he knows, too, that he hasn’t made his last trip to Kashmir. “People ask me, Where do you want to go that you haven’t been?” he says. “And I tell them, I’d like to go back to Kashmir.” He pauses for a moment, then adds, “Even after ten trips there, it’s still not boring. To me, it’s the most beautiful place on Earth.”

With kind permission of Sarah Coleman and Olympus Cameras. First published in Photo District News. Sarah Coleman writes on photography, film, and popular culture for various publications. Her work has been published in New York Newsday, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, Paper magazine, and View Camera, among others. She is books editor of Planet magazine and produces a monthly Web site, VisionAge, for Photo District News. In twelve years of freelance writing, she's covered subjects ranging from raunchy British book covers to acapella-singing drag queens to ultra-Orthodox Jewish computer programmers. Contact her at sarahcolemanwriter.com.