Danish Siddiqui And The Superpower Of Indian Photojournalism
The woman touches the wet sand reverentially, relieved to be on land again, her fatigue visible in the curved squat of her body. Behind her, are other troubled souls who journeyed with her to Bangladesh from Myanmar, and the boat that brought them here. Beyond them is the Bay of Bengal and, in the distance, the smoke that rises from the place they once called home.
This award-winning 2017 photo of Rohingya refugees by Reuters photographer Danish Siddiqui who died in Afghanistan last week is a masterclass in composition, but it’s likely so powerful because of another rule that Siddiqui followed: Be involved, know the story and why it is happening.
“Only if you know the why can you take a better picture,” he said in an interview to Wion after winning the Pulitzer Prize.
Sure, composition counts but like any good photojournalist, Siddiqui was everywhere, following his own first rule of photojournalism: “…be there to capture the moment.”
When The Hindu asked India’s first woman photojournalist if her husband taught her about composition, Homai Vyarawalla replied that nobody could teach composition or angles. “There are 15 people taking a photograph at the same time; each has his own style. But there’s only one who gets the right moment and the right angle.”
Homai Vyarawalla and other photojournalists, with Indira Gandhi. (Photograph: Indian National Congress)
Siddiqui’s was invariably the most empathetic angle.
His photos dragged you to the spot, so much so that one of his subjects said recently, “I can’t bear to look at my photograph, my legs shiver with pain.” It was hard for all of us to look at that photograph of Mohammad Zubair, clad in all white, crouched on the ground, bleeding as he is being beaten viciously by a Hindu mob in February 2020.
In an India where the Prime Minister shuns press conferences; television deliberately misleads you; and reportage and opinion in mainstream newspapers and magazines are routinely censored, the need to record the first draft of history truthfully is more important than ever. In this scenario, the power of the still image gains more currency as was amply demonstrated during the second Covid wave.
As governments insisted all was well, Indian photojournalists across the country, many of them functioning on barely-subsistence wages, kept a vigil outside crematoria and hospitals and produced a never-ending supply of devastating photographs that disproved the official narrative. They documented the overwhelming suffering, death—and the tragedy that continued in the aftermath of losing a loved one to the virus. Siddiqui’s photographs of a Delhi crematorium working overtime inspired many of these photographers. We owe them a debt for recording the real picture.
It’s risky to place bets in a country where a new tragedy unfolds every day, but I’m convinced the burning pyres of India’s uncounted Covid deaths will be our most representative photo of 2021.
Social media users often juxtapose Vyarawalla’s famous photo of our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru doing an impeccable headstand clad just in a pair of black shorts, his every muscle working, with the self-released image of Narendra Modi lying back on a rock, his arms outstretched, clad in all black. This may be a frivolous example but it makes an important point about photographs of the people who govern us.
Photojournalist Prashant Panjiar, who shot the unforgettable images of the Babri Masjid demolition, and many other images that are markers in our modern history, says all the definitive images of Modi (for example Modi at the Patel statue) attempt to cast and perpetuate an image of what he represents. “It’s all set up, doctored, manicured, meant for a purpose,” says Panjiar. “This is true for many political figures across the board.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 'Statue of Unity', in Kevadiya, Gujarat, on Oct. 30, 2018. (Photograph: Narendra Modi/Facebook)
An altruistic version of this was true for Nehru and Gandhi too, when photographs were used to drum up support for and debate about the anti-colonial struggle. “Photographs of nationalist leaders grew in public visibility and spread through their wide circulation and created an aura around their subjects, thus creating a nationalist iconography,” write Sonam Joshi and Aditya Arya in their introduction to History In The Making: The Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy. Later, they say, photographs helped visualise the character of the new nation.
Jawaharlal Nehru and MK Gandhi, in Mumbai, on July 6, 1946. (Photograph: AICC/AP)
Panjiar attempted to pin down public memory in the 2003 book In India: The Definitive Images: 1858 to the Present. He hunted down those visuals that are forever seared in a nation’s memory and attempted to answer that perennial riddle: What makes a photograph famous?
Some images that made it to the book included the cut-and-paste mass-produced image of Roop Kanwar ready to be burned at the pyre, smiling with the body of her dead husband. Arko Datta’s image of Qutubuddin Ansari, begging for mercy during the 2002 Gujarat Riots. And, most famously, Raghu Rai’s Bhopal Gas Tragedy image in 1984 titled Burial of an Unknown Child. Many readers probably won’t have to click on the hyperlinks to remember these images.
“It was not enough that the images represent a record of our history, but the chosen remembered photographs should also be able to transcend the ‘moment’ when they were made,” Panjiar wrote in the book, adding that still photographs force us to concentrate, contemplate. “Which is why they leave a lasting imprint in our memory.”
Jehanabad Bihar 1998. Mass funeral of 58 Dalits massacred by Ranveer Sena at Laxmanpur-Bathe. Photo Prashant Panjiar pic.twitter.com/Vv9hX0YwWK— Kavita Krishnan (@kavita_krishnan) October 15, 2013
In a world short on empathy, photojournalists do their bit to rouse us. When Kashmiri photographer Dar Yasin and two colleagues won a Pulitzer for “striking images of life” in the aftermath of Aug. 5, 2019, Yasin told The Wire the work had personal meaning. “It’s not the story of the people I am shooting, only, but it is my story.”
Whether it’s Sunil Janah’s Bengal Famine images, Sudharak Olwe’s documentation of manual scavengers, or Yasin’s Kashmir, photojournalists immortalise our sufferings, allowing future generations an uncensored glimpse of their nation’s history of pain. We need them now, more than ever.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.