‘A Heart That Has Inhaled’

Photographer Ami Vitale tells Brandon Hoops the story behind a heartening picture from Kashmir.

By / October 2012

In the shadow of the Pir Panjal mountains, the valley of Srinagar emerges as if from the imaginative strokes of an ambitious artist. First, you’re overwhelmed with vibrant colors, especially the variations of red, pink, and yellow pulled from a palette and tossed on top of tulips numbering in the thousands. Next, your eye traces carefully positioned lines, geometric patterns of plowing and seeding. Then comes your emotion, subtle and regular breaths of a heart that has inhaled refreshing air.

Every year the tulip garden in Srinagar brings in thousands of visitors, some content to just meander leisurely along paths, others who picnic among its lush lawns while sipping kava tea. The more than 20 acres are not intended for recreation but for aesthetics, a value esteemed by a well-educated populace that has a strong affinity for nature.

Some have likened it to paradise on earth, dating to the days of the Moghuls when it was a stop on the ancient Silk Road. But the territory also knows darkness. I have spent the better part of 11 years working as a photographer in India and several of those years covering the conflict between India and Pakistan that has left blood-stained fingerprints on almost every corner of the beautiful canvas of Kashmir.

Now there is fragile peace, and I’ve returned twice this year to see what sort of strokes are reshaping life in the region. It didn’t take long to recognize an underlying tension. There were still soldiers with guns and women weeping at mosques. And yet, I knew there also had to be a celebratory spirit.

So I went walking on a Sunday morning in May among Srinagar’s flora-lined corridors, eager to find people in public enjoying themselves. No one seemed as joyous as the family I found laughing underneath the outstretched arms of a lonely tree. I watched from a distance, and I couldn’t keep myself from a smile to match their exuberance when the husband lifted his unsuspecting wife in the air as their son and I played the role of the adoring paparazzi. The moment was evidence that another narrative was also going on; evidence that the human spirit always endures.

Ami Vitale has spent a decade in India telling the stories of people like Subita and her family.

In many ways it’s an embodiment of my journey as a photographer. I left the stuffy confines of a cubicle in New York City, where I edited photos for a wire service, to immerse myself in other cultures. In Kosovo for example, I worked alongside some great photographers covering the war-torn region, only for us all to leave early to file photos on deadline. We were by no means half-hearted but we were hurried, and I learned later that I wanted to go at a different pace, to see the intimate more than the immediate and sensational.

And for more than 15 years now this has been my pursuit, living with people and learning their culture and telling stories slowly so as to reveal the grace in which their stories are told to me. I’ve had my doubts and uncertainty along the way, but, more often than not, I am reassured that treading lightly tends to the humanity in us all.

Take last year in Rajasthan. I was there for the Pushkar Camel Fair. What used to be a small affair, is now a large production that attracts thousands of tourists. One morning, as the sun dawned, I huddled around a fire with one girl and her family. At no time were we alone. At least a half dozen people approached us, looking at Subita only through the lens of their cameras. They never acknowledged her and only spoke to ask me a technical question, like, “What ISO would work best in this light?” Subita would tell me later how dehumanized she felt among the eager tourists and their cameras. She said they made her feel like an animal. No one even said “namaste” or “hello” to her. They were after one thing. It was a hunt, she was the prize.

If some of the people who surrounded Subita had taken the time to spend even a few hours with her, learning a bit more about her life, they would have more than an image. Anyone can take a picture, but with a little sensitivity and respect you can enter into the story of the person on the other side of the lens. And that, I’ve found, always takes time.


— as told to Brandon Hoops