In memoriam: Danish Siddiqui made us see the raw side of the world through his stunning photographs

He knew he was living on the edge, be it covering the Rohingyas’ exodus in Bangladesh, which won the Reuters team the Pulitzer Prize in 2018, or covering Syria conflict, among his many daring projects

In memoriam: Danish Siddiqui made us see the raw side of the world through his stunning photographs

Sohail Akbar

On April 10 this year, as we were all bracing up to face the COVID second wave, I took the chance of writing to Danish Siddiqui, requesting him to have a virtual interaction with students of AJK MCRC Jamia. I was aware of his love for his alma mater, but conscious that his work would be keeping him very busy, I was unsure about the response.

There was no reply for a week. Then around April 20, I received an apologetic mail from him. He said he understood how frustrated students were sitting at home not doing much and promised to conduct a short interactive session after April 24. We fixed the event for April 26.

The students’ excitement knew no bounds. His aerial image taken through a drone of the mass cremation of COVID victims had gone viral just then.

When the day arrived, I tried to abate my students’ excitement as I knew that a Reuters photojournalist’s schedule can change by the minute. We had fixed the session for 12 noon. I got a message from him that he was running late by half an hour. We waited and Danish logged in at 12:30.

He told me that his little son had tested positive for COVID in the morning! I was amazed at the ease with which he said that and got ready to face these 20 or so students of journalism. In his very unassuming style, he started recounting how being a photojournalist was his destiny. He told us that he was born in Iraq at the centre of the conflict, where his father had gone to teach. He mentioned how he had started independently covering photo stories because of his interest in photography and storytelling.

On one such excursion to a city in Uttar Pradesh, he bumped into a Reuters photojournalist who gave him a lift back to Delhi in his car as Danish was travelling by bus. That was to get him his break with one of the foremost news agencies of the world.

At Reuters he indeed proved his worth and rose well and fast through the ranks, covering stories across Asia. He told the students that he knew the dangers of the situations he would be in but always followed procedures, both mental and physical, and that he was given rigorous training by his agency.

Among other aspects of his training, he was also a licensed drone pilot and had used those skills to make the cremation ground image by which he has recently left an immense impact.

Danish always told the students that while clicking people for a sensitive story, one must be conscious about maintaining a distance and yet create an emotional connect with the subject. His last story on the COVID pandemic, which one can see on the Reuters website, is of the tragic demise of a young mother of three from rural Uttarakhand. The anguish, helplessness and pain of Pramila Devi and her family gets conveyed in a series of images that Danish captured while making a photo essay of her journey from home to a meagre health center in the difficult terrain of the Himalayas, the lack of oxygen and final departure to the cremation on the banks of the Ganges.

Another story on which he spent more than twenty-four hours was when he followed a junior doctor’s medical shift at Delhi’s Holy Family Hospital at the peak of the pandemic, which showed us his sensitivity towards the sufferers as well as the caregivers who had forsaken all to save lives that were on the edge.

Here, one got a sense of his position, in his own words, ‘not too close to intrude and yet wide enough to give the viewers a sense of scale’.

As soon as the news of Danish’s death spread, messages from students started pouring in to say how lucky they were to have interacted with a photographer of his stature and how his work had inspired them.

Bhumika Sarasvati, a final semester student, said, “I confess he has shaped my morals in very many ways. Not just his images but the person he was, his approach, his intent has taught me a lot”.

The alumnus group of journalism students in a statement have appreciated the guidance and support they have received from Danish Siddiqui whenever they asked, whether at an interaction in the university or outside.

I think he knew he was living on the edge, be it covering the Rohingyas’ exodus in Bangladesh, a feature that won the Reuters team the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 2018, or getting into the thick of a marauding mob battering a youth in the Delhi riots of 2020, or covering the brutal conflict in Syria, just to name a few of his many remarkably daring forays in photojournalism.

Go gently friend, you made us see the raw side of the world, a loss irreparable to the media community. I know you will be an inspiration to many aspiring photographers.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Still Photography, AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)

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Published: 17 Jul 2021, 7:18 PM