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Masrat Zahra acceptance speech

My name is Masrat Zahra and I am deeply honoured to be the recipient of this year’s Peter Mackler Award for ethical and courageous journalism. The recognition this award gives to my work is extremely gratifying as the values this award stands for resonate with me on a personal level. The ideas of truth, fairness and accuracy are something that I strive to achieve through my work. I appreciate the award’s special nod to those who continue to work hard to get important stories out under exceptional circumstances. 

Coming from Kashmir where the working conditions for media persons have become increasingly hostile due to state scrutiny, this award is an encouragement not just for myself but for everyone whose main incentive to work in this field is to tell the truth of one’s place and people.

I was born and raised in Srinagar’s old town- a place that has witnessed incidents of violence in the last few decades and I grew up witnessing first-hand the devastating consequences of the conflict and its impact on women and children. Consequently, I came across journalists roaming the streets with their cameras; following a protest march, capturing various devastating realities of the world I lived in. I would often imagine myself in that role, clicking pictures and documenting events. 

Despite all odds I pursued journalism in Central University of Kashmir and subsequently started my work as a photojournalist in 2016, right after I started my degree. In the early days of my career I realised that there is a lack of young Kashmiri women in the field of photojournalism. From my personal experiences I believe that it happens because of the nature of Kashmiri society which discourages and in certain cases bars women from undertaking roles which bring them in the public sphere.

In a militarized zone where there is a constant crackdown on dissent and a threat to free press, one has to navigate these spaces with a constant sense of unpredictability and anxiety. This anxiety is only multiplied by factors that are always a part of me, my identities of being a woman, especially a Shia woman. All of this became apparent to me, in my early career when I became a target for the state and social media trolls alike. But I was determined to continue the work I was doing because I sensed the urgency of speaking about the situation in the valley. I have had to overcome personal and professional difficulties constantly to be able produce the work that I am doing.

With each of these difficulties, I have grown and evolved as a person and a photojournalist. I have had the opportunity to develop an understanding of how to operate within hostile environments. I have learnt with the support of people around me to keep a calm head on my shoulders. Most importantly, working in a place of conflict for 4 years has exposed me to sensitivities and ethics taught beyond the classroom.

The lives of people here are endlessly militarized. The political turmoil is the main story of the people- it is something that affects every aspect of people’s lives. I do my work with a sense of responsibility towards my people. Ultimately this is my own story as well- and this commitment comes from a very personal place. My identity as a Kashmiri and a woman- informs my approach as an independent photojournalist working in one of the most difficult regions in the world. My pictures offer a glimpse of people’s, particularly women’s everyday struggles. For me, it’s important to position my work from a perspective of solidarity and empathy so that it gives voice to the otherwise silenced victims of this unabated conflict.

I therefore, wish to extend my regards to the Mackler family, who continue to shine a light on critical journalistic work across the globe. I am humbled to join the esteemed list of awardees before me who have made exemplary contributions to the field. 

Thank you.

Srinagar, Kashmir, over zoom, September 24, 2020