At a time when we have gotten so used to hearing the stories of loss and tragedy, there are still some things that shock us. One such news came on Friday when Afghan media announced the death of Danish Siddiqui, a photojournalist of Reuters, who was covering the conflict in Afghanistan. My heart sank. Shocked, I couldn’t believe it. Not because I knew him personally, I never even met the man, but because I had gotten so used to the stories he told us through his lens.
As subscribers to Reuters photo services, publications across the world have access to a rich depository of the work their photojournalists do. Every day, we sort through hundreds of photos sent by the agency to find one perfect photo that fits our story. For India, and for the neighbourhood, that story was often brought alive by a photo of Danish Siddiqui. Photojournalists often remain anonymous to readers. Of the dozens of photos they take daily, even one of them rarely makes it to the pages of the newspapers. Some of those photos indeed go viral on social media, but they usually appear without due credit to the photographer. Although less celebrated, their job is as dangerous as any TV reporter that we see on our TV screen or any print reporter whose name appears as a byline on the stories published in the newspapers. The rather thankless and anonymous nature of the work doesn’t deter these photojournalists from doing their job for they don’t do it for money or glory, they do it for the love of storytelling. As Danish once said: “What I enjoy most is capturing the human face of a breaking story.”
I knew Danish only through his work, never met him or interacted with him, but the loss today feels personal. He was a fellow Jamian, an alumnus of the Jamia Millia Islamia’s renowned Anwar Jamal Kidwai Mass Communication Research Centre (AJK MCRC) from where he graduated in 2007, six years before I set foot in the halls of the department. While there, I did not hear his name as he was just one of the hundreds who worked across the world after graduating from MCRC. Although I regularly saw his name accompanied with the pictures sent by Reuters when I started working in 2014, I did not know until 2018 that he was an MCRC graduate. He was a member of the Reuters photography team that won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for documenting the horrors Rohingya refugees faced in fleeing Myanmar. His photos put a face to the stories of loss and grief that Rohingyas were subjected to in Myanmar.
This was not the first time that he documented state-sanctioned terror against minorities, neither was it the last. During the Delhi riots in February 2020, a photo clicked by him became the representational image of the violence unleashed upon the Muslims of Northeast Delhi by Hindutva fanatics. Before that, he documented the anti-CAA protests at Jamia Millia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh. When a man opened fire at the students protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), he was there to catch him through the lens of his camera. When the police used teargas, lathis and bullets against unarmed protesting students, he was there documenting it. His pictures of police brutality against students donned almost every newspaper and digital publication. When students of the university tried to tell their stories, Danish Siddiqui was there to put a face to those stories, as a Jamian, as a journalist, as a Muslim.
When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, his lens captured the faces of migrants walking home. When the second wave of COVID-19 tore through Delhi, his photos of burning funeral pyres told the stories of thousands dying due to lack of oxygen and medicine. He told us the stories of the living, he told us the stories of the dead. He told us the stories of those who could talk, of those who fell silent. His pictures did not just speak, they screamed, loud and clear, at the injustices, apathy and brutality.
Danish was not just an outstanding journalist but also a gem of a person, people who knew him would testify. My Twitter feed is full of posts about his contribution to journalism and his friendship. I don’t have a personal story to share. I wish I did. I last saw him atop a barricade during Jamia protests, aiming his camera towards a posse of cops lobbing tear gas shells at students. Although I wish I had met him, it didn’t matter at the time. He was his work and I was familiar with it, and the rest didn’t matter.
I didn’t know Danish personally, but the loss seems personal. Maybe because I have used so many of his pictures over the years, or maybe because he was a fellow Jamian, or simply because he was a hero and we are supposed to mourn our heroes. However, I am confident that he would disagree if he could read our tributes to him, as he didn’t think there is anything heroic about doing our duty as journalists to document what is happening around us.
(Ahamad Fuwad is a journalist and a former Assistant News Editor at the Free Press Journal)