Yesterday, on 16 July, 2021, we received the news of the death of Danish Siddiqui. He lost his life in the line of duty. He was with Afghan security forces in southern Kandahar, documenting the country's fight against the Taliban, when he was killed in an ambush. Reuters first broke the news, citing an Afghan commander. Afghan special forces had been fighting to retake the main market area of Spin Boldak when Siddiqui and a senior Afghan officer were killed in what was described as Taliban crossfire.
For us, as a part of the community, it was not just sad 'news', or incidental, or questionable. It was more akin to a slap in the face. It was tragic, and heartbreaking. He was a fellow photographer and a friend. He was just 41. He was dedicated to his job. Ask any good photojournalist what that job entails, and they will tell you that it is a commitment unlike any other. But he also leaves a family behind. A lot of us felt numb, and could not react. Outpourings of grief trickled in through the day, both from those who knew him personally and from those who knew of him.
Danish Siddiqui was an excellent photojournalist. I have been following his work for a while, and the fact that he tried hard, to be photographically adept while recording reality, is easily visible in his frames. But more than this, he was a humanist with a sense of purpose to showcase the truth of humanity to the world at large. He photographed without a self-aggrandising moralistic stance, cleanly, and with an unusual dedication to the job. To produce moving images comes with its own costs. A good photojournalist cannot but be emotionally involved, if he is to connect with his subjects, but he must also maintain an objective clarity. This is particularly difficult.
Danish's photography shows both humanity and objectivity clearly.
He had joined Reuters as an intern in 2010, and through grit and work, rose up the ranks to become Reuters' chief photographer in India. Over the span of his career, he photographed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the agitations in Kong Kong, and numerous assignments across India, from festivals to protests. More recently, he produced some of the world's most viewed images of India's farmer protests, and memorably, of the COVID-19 crises. Of funeral pyres against a darkened city, burning round-the-clock, and of corpses. He faced criticism, from sections of the intelligentsia, but what he photographed was also the truth.
Very significantly, he was part of a Reuters team that won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography, for work about the Rohingya refugees who were fleeing Myanmar. The judges opined... "shocking photographs that exposed the world to the violence" faced by the minority group. But in my personal view, Danish's photographs were not just documentation, but the work of someone who went down to eye-level, as they say in photographic parlance. "I don't want to break the trust of the people who treat me as their representative, to record their history. In the end, I am a historian. I record what I see," Danish has stated in Better Photography magazine, in an article on the Rohingya crises. Here was someone who wanted the world to not just look, but to see.
Photojournalism is one of those professions and identities worn on the sleeve, with a sort of hidden pride. That he was the chief photographer with a reputed agency is perhaps not as important as the fact that he was a photojournalist. Being able to speak and record truths in a language that cannot be misunderstood by anyone, anywhere across the world, regardless of religion and race, is something very special and potent, and certainly the need of the hour. It requires unusual courage of conviction, clarity of intent, desire for truth, and a joy for the job to be an excellent photojournalist. Danish Siddiqui was all of that.
He paid the price. And we paid the price. And often, I can't but help think that the price for truth is so incredibly high.
Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.
RIP Danish. We will remember you.
K Madhavan Pillai is the Chief Editor of Better Photography, the leading journal in the subject in South Asia.