As one of photography’s most classic forms, the black and white image has been used for over a century to convey both harsh and vulnerable components of important stories across countless genres, from portraiture to photojournalism. The most striking features of the monochrome medium are grounded in its ability to emote through contrast. Subjects are pared down to their most essential qualities, so that settings and stories are represented through light and shadow.
In the work of Camillo Pasquarelli, black and white images are the entry point into the larger story he is trying to tell—the first impression that hooks each viewer in, compelling them to read on about his subjects. In his series The Valley of Shadows, his portraits are posed and cinematic, but the story is far from fiction. The project is about the militarized Valley of Kashmir, and a group of individuals who have literally been caught in a militaristic crossfire. In 2010, the Indian government provided security forces with a new weapon: shotgun shells filled with hundreds of small lead pellets. Defined as “non-lethal,” the pellet guns are used to keep urban protests under control.
The guns are meant to be aimed at the lower part of the body, but as the stories of Pasquarelli’s subjects demonstrate, this restriction is not closely regulated, if at all. “According to a UN report released in 2018, the new weapon is responsible for blinding around 1000 people and killing dozens more,” Pasquarelli explains. “Many of the victims were not involved in the clashes with security forces. Those who were hit during the protests tend to avoid speaking about it openly, fearing retaliation by the police.”
Security in the region intensified on July 8, 2016, when the guerrilla group Hizbul-e-Mujahideen’s young commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with the Indian army. “He was especially popular among the youth thanks to his use of social networks to spread his message,” Pasquarelli explains. “So his martyrdom was the spark that lit up the entire valley. The government imposed a four month-long curfew on the local population, while separatist leaders called for a continuous strike. Hundreds of young boys filled the streets of Kashmir, protesting against the Indian occupation, throwing stones at the army and the Kashmiri police. Security forces have since responded by extensively using pellet guns.”
The Valley of Shadows is an interesting experiment with the black and white medium, specifically because it incorporates monochrome x-rays of the photographer’s subjects—passersby who were randomly targeted and blinded by security forces. These x-rays show the ghostly dispersal of lead in each victim’s brain. One subject in particular, Shabkal Nazir Waseem, received 100 pellets on the upper side of his body, depicted in his adjacent x-ray like an impossible constellation suspended beneath his skin. The contrasted portrait alongside the medical record sets an ominous tone, and Pasquarelli is careful to include full explanatory quotes from his subjects to accompany his artistic interpretations of their strife.
These stories are dark, which is why the photographer’s choice to set the series in monochrome stylings feels apt. The black and white images contribute to the intense subject matter, highlighting their faces and alluding to the darkness they have faced. “Carrying dozens of pellets in their bodies, victims face unknown long term health consequences,” Pasqualleri explains. “They speak of the darkness descended upon their lives. The only things left to see are the faint shadows that surround them.”