Saturday, March 2, 2024

“Somebody has to show the mirror”

With rue, I remember all the things I wanted to ask Danish sir that I shelved. He would have listened and helped. We lost him abruptly. I wanted to show him my photos, seek his guidance, follow his journey. Today he was killed when he was on duty for Reuters in Afghanistan.

Two days ago, when he posted his work in Afghanistan, I shared my hope he was safe. A friend replied with a critical remark undermining my prayers being selective to him. Indeed, it was a special prayer for my mentor, unanswered.

Siddiqui took our first-year orientation session in Jamia Millia Islamia, days after his Pulitzer Prize. He showed his work. Photos stayed on screen for minutes in silence. He told us he never wants to see such tragedy. We idolized him.

In our circles, we would share the news of his new photos, talk in length about the details of his work, and dream of such skill. Danish, due to his relationship with our school, became an in-house hero. We would compare his work with Altaf Qadri or Adnan Abidi. May it all not make sense to you, but these were our celebrities.

One thing that mesmerized us was where he would be standing when he clicked the picture. Later, watching him in the field, you see him walk composed amidst the chaos, away from groups, clicking, and then vanishing. It was intruding to see how he does it.

His experimentation of showing the absence of victims of the Srilankan bomb blast, later his photo collage of frontline workers who lost their lives due to COVID-19, follow up on the migrant labourer, among others are testaments of how brilliant a visual narrator he was.

A week after Jamia police violence, Siddiqui messaged to extend his support for our fight. Unlike others swamping for interviews and contacts, he needed no favours. He just reached out. It was exciting and validating.

In the first week of January that winter, I met Siddiqui in Muzzaffarnagar, documenting the police violence. It was reassuring to see him as not many had covered the violence and I struggled to unveil the intensity of the brutality. If Danish was at a place, the world is going to know the truth.

He was a humble person with welcoming smiles and greetings. My classmates and I will be among many who looked up to him and tried to learn every time he shares his work. When the Hindutva worker charged towards the protesting crowd outside my campus, I watched him hit the shutter button when everyone stood in shock. The courage was unparalleled. He stood at gunpoint and yet made sure he took the perfect picture. Moments later, he smiled at my worried face.

The same day, Danish would rush to me, keeping his camera away to give his water bottle as I carry an unconscious protestor injured in police action. Every encounter with him lifted his status, as I would go back to our circles to tell another praise-worthy story.

One of the reasons Danish evolved in our lives was that he was covering stories very personal to us. His pictures from the Delhi pogrom depicted the enormous violence faced by Muslims during the carnage without any gruesome graphics. He valued the dignity of his subject. Identified them and went back to see and did follow up stories.

When asked about how he clicked the iconic photo of the Delhi pogrom, he said he was “showing a mirror to society”. “But how?” we pressed. He pointed to the sky, smiled and walked away.

From conflicts to protest, Siddiqui marked history not only for India but all of South Asia. He won dozens of other prestigious awards for his stellar photos.

Without Danish, there will be a shadow on truth. I hope people will fill in his role in journalism. But he will remain an unforgettable figure to many of us, who stepping into visual narration following his work very closely. From the brief personal acquaintance, the loss becomes even more painful. He was our messenger to the world during the hardest days of our lives. His gestures of humanity earned him a brotherly status. We will repeat our decision about how it would have been covered by Danish sir, for at least some more years. But remember him, always.

Shaheen Abdulla
Shaheen Abdulla
Shaheen Abdulla, an award-winning journalist, is the Deputy Editor of Maktoob.
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