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Farewell Danish Siddiqui, emphatic chronicler of lived history

The photojournalist dared to show an India and a world that the political rulers of his time would rather have us forget

Farewell Danish Siddiqui, emphatic chronicler of lived history

Danish Siddiqui Reuters

Natasha Badhwar

“I t feels like a part of oneself is gone,” my friend Ajmal Jami texted me hours after the news broke of the death of Danish Siddiqui — the 38-year-old Reuters photojournalist killed while covering the armed conflict between Afghanistan Special Forces and the Taliban, on assignment in Kandahar.

Jami is a decade senior to me and Danish was nearly a decade junior. In common between us is AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, where each of us had studied before embarking on our careers as photo and video journalists. “Danish’s death cuts deep,” Jami added. “We have been there, gone through that same mix of adrenalin, fear, wound up tension, exhilaration and sorrow.”

In my early years as one of the first women to be a cameraperson in a news organisation, I used to study Jami’s work, learning how to tell the story with visuals — through details of composition, light and shot breakdown. In my recent years as an independent filmmaker, I have been admiring the sharp accuracy of Danish’s photographs, as he documented moments that visualised the complexity and horror of our times. His photos reveal injustice and expose perpetrators. They dignify victims. During the anti-CAA protests and the subsequent violence in north-east Delhi, it seemed as if Danish was everywhere. Again and again we would find ourselves relying on images credited to him as we raced to document the heady events as they unfolded.

“As a photojournalist, you always get to see events from the first row. And it is an honour. You carry the responsibility of being the eyes and ears of those who are not there,” Danish had said at MCRC’s inauguration of the academic session of 2018-19, where he was felicitated as distinguished alumni. Danish had recently been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for documenting the Rohingya refugee crisis.

“If people can see their own loved ones in place of the person in the photograph, my work is done,” he said, addressing an auditorium full of students. “I see myself as the connection between my subjects and the viewer who I think can stand up and make a change for good.”

“For Danish Siddiqui, photojournalism was a social responsibility, not just a career option,” his friend and one-time colleague Bilal Zaidi has written on Facebook. Social media has been flooded with tributes, both by people who knew Danish and others who are influenced by and admire his work as well as work ethic. At the same time, there have been hateful comments targeting Danish because of his Muslim identity and the fact that his work served as evidence against Islamophobic propaganda and fake narratives.

I refused to allow organised online hate speech to contaminate my personal sense of grief at the loss of Danish, who has been a steadfast and brilliant chronicler of lived history. I went to his Facebook profile where we had been friends. I scrolled through the photos he had shared and tried to numb the sharp stab of shock by reading his words. Danish had become best known for conflict photography, but there had always been deep sensitivity and empathy in the way he framed what he witnessed. His subjects, locations and themes were diverse. He drew attention to the extraordinary in the ordinary, offering dignity and grace to those on the margins.

I turned to our common friends and mentors for solace. Sabeena Gadihoke, who is Professor, Video and TV Production at AJK MCRC, has been my teacher too. She shared that Danish had been extraordinarily gifted as a student. “It is very hard to get my head around the senseless and violent death. I have also been deeply saddened by the hate speech after his death but what no one can take away from Danish is the power of his images and what he told us about hate and suffering,” said Sabeena.

Danish had taken a class with the new batch of MA students at MCRC as recently as two months ago. He had spoken about how the photographer balances distance by being not too close to intrude, and yet wide enough to give viewers a sense of scale. “They say that journalists have to learn to be distant, but Danish was always conscious about the emotional connect of his images,” Sabeena shared.

Shohini Ghosh is Officiating Director and Professor at MCRC and has known both Danish and me as film students. “Today we are grieving for the student we taught, the warm and generous person that he was,” she said. “I see a future that will laud and treasure the work of Danish Siddiqui. Because he dared to show an India and a world that the political rulers of his time would rather have us forget.”

— The writer is a filmmaker & author. [email protected]


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