I did not know Danish Siddiqui. And yet, like countless Indians, I knew him. A reason perhaps why his death seems personal as another unfortunate chapter has been added to Kandahar’s identity for Indians.
The Pulitzer award winning photojournalist was embedded with the Afghan Special Forces when he was killed in a Taliban ambush.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In a country where words are meaningless unless they serve a personal narrative exaggerated by self-imposed wounds, he showed us the mirror, time and time again.
There was compassion in his work, those who interpreted it any differently have only to blame their own failing.
Chronicler of our times
Danish’s Pulitzer winning coverage of the Rohingya crisis was an awakening but his images of the COVID-19 crisis in India will haunt forever.
How do you ‘like’ such searing pictures, I had often wondered, stills that leave you battered, stunned and with the realisation that reality could only be worse and yet inescapable. Indians who turned away from these images in distaste are also part of a humanitarian crisis.
A family consoling each other outside a hospital, a woman standing helplessly as her husband lies on a stretcher, a doctor breaking down- each photograph that Danish took during the relentless second wave was a revelation of how deep our tragedy- both personal and collective was.
A country was lost and counting its losses and his one defining image of hundreds of burning pyres reminded us that Indians- people across all divides who were numbed overnight- may be not have come together in the good times, but at least in grief were united.
Those moments of community togetherness have seldom been seen in the recent past and will give hope when the future seems shaky again.
Danish made those untouched by sorrow, uncomfortable. They were upset- it doesn’t take much to get people agitated these days anyway- that his images especially of the cremations exposed in front of the world.
Dignity of thousands dying, and dead had already been stripped but that was inconsequential. Image was and is, everything but not the one Danish was clicking.
At the height of the second wave a friend went to cremate his father. There were many pyres burning simultaneously and his PPE suit stuck with heat while his glasses cracked. Such was the intensity of death those days.
A daughter barely in her teens saw several bodies piled on top of that of her father in an ambulance. This was the only truth and by giving a face to the tragedy, Danish offered families respect, something the authorities had failed in doing.
A courageous man
Through his camera, the photojournalist put the spotlight on how people were slipping through the cracks during the peak reign of the pandemic. The subsequent outrage over his photos had the desired impact, forcing authorities to wake up and procure basic medical supplies the common man was struggling to get access to. Some owe him their lives.
One of Danish’s most defining images before the pandemic had been of a man staring down a pistol at anti- Citizenship Act protesters in Delhi while riot police stood quietly behind him. The young man was arrested only recently but for a different crime. Yet we know that Danish’s camera never lied.
And yet, he and his grieving family have been repaid by taunts and gloating that once again expose a society in free fall. How do you define people who make a mockery of someone’s death? They have fathers, wives and children just like Danish did.
Is this then the India for our children- the one that trivialises loss, laughs at it, while all the time emphasising parampara (tradition) and sabyata (culture)? Indifference to each other would have been better.
I wonder if all this- the consuming angst and bitterness has always been inside us waiting for the right moment to be leveraged and finding that moment seven years ago?
Since then, a storm has been brewing, building to a crescendo that barges through windows left open erasing history, inclusiveness and our very fabric. Those who are watching through closed windows know the storm will leave destruction as it did after Danish’s death, they can only hope that someday, it will pass.
For the longest time- during most of my school years in fact, I didn’t know religion or even whether someone was a Bengali or Assamese. And I was the richer for it.
Today fragile egos are teaching our children that only religion matters, the battered trail of hatred and individualism surrounds them but through his photographs- whether while covering floods or a boy on a lonely stretch in Afghanistan- his last assignment, the journalist was constantly reminding us of how small these feelings were in the face of global human suffering.
Danish leaves behind a powerful legacy- images of social conscience and awakening, of conflict and despair, of journalism the way it was meant to be.
His camera never shied from the uncomfortable and it will always remind our children that truth may not be always palatable, but it is absolute. And that sometimes, words are superfluous.