“Lucky to be safe”.
This was the caption underneath one of Danish Siddiqui’s most recent tweets from Afghanistan.
The late Pulitzer prize winner was killed on July 16 while covering the clashes between the Afghan Special Forces and the Taliban in Kandahar. A skilled and a self-taught photographer from Mumbai, Siddiqui worked for Reuters and his photographs sent shockwaves across the world. Who would have guessed that those would be his last tweets?
It feels as if the nation has lost a gleaming star. His death will leave a void that will be difficult to fill. If anyone knew how to encapsulate raw emotions in a single frame, it was Siddiqui.
The first time I came across his work was in 2018 when he covered the Rohingya crisis. His photos were all over the news back then, for which he also won the prestigious Pulitzer prize. While the Rohingya crisis was something I didn’t know too much about at that time, I vividly remember how the photographs struck a chord within me. Since then, I’ve closely followed his work – from the Jamia attack in December 2019 to the Delhi riots and the migrant crisis during the 2020 lockdown. Every time I see his work, it fills me with a sense of awe and puzzlement.
From the time the news of his demise reached the Indian heartland, condolence and grief tweets started pouring in from all over the country and across borders, paying him homage. The tweets rolled in from many of his associates, admirers and high-profile personalities.
Still, some didn’t shy away from hiding their hate for him. The spate of tweets by many trolls are a relentless reminder of the uninvited trouble that closely follows this profession. His work became a straightforward target to those seeking vengeance against him, for his lens recounted tales of truth that they didn’t want to see.
When the second wave of COVID-19 hit India in May this year, leaving lakhs battling an invincible enemy, restricting and confining people within homes, it was the work of many photojournalists that made us aware of the gut-wrenching reality. It was Siddiqui’s drone-shot photographs of fuming funeral pyres from crematoriums and the crippling healthcare system that brought to the world the devastating situation of our country’s fragile health framework. It was his photos that portrayed the harsh truth of our country’s situation that our authorities had turned a blind eye to.
So, it didn’t come as a surprise when he received hate tweets for merely doing his work, which is nothing less than a living testament to the injustices meted against various sections of the society during the pandemic. Somewhere deep down, he flared raw nerves because people knew that the photographs had uncovered the truth that they were attempting to hide.
As a result, within hours of his death, many vile tweets started pouring in.
Hitherto, condolence messages came in from the UN secretary General, the Afghan president and the US state department, national leaders and most shockingly from the Taliban themselves, while also denying the killing.
But there was no statement made by from the ruling establishment. The Indian government made no noise in this regard – which is bizarre, considering an Indian citizen was killed in a foreign country, and more so because that citizen is a laureate of an eminent prize. I had expected at least the minister of external affairs to say something condoling Siddiqui’s death, but it did not come; neither from him, nor the prime minister or any other minister. It was shocking, but somehow not entirely unexpected. Siddiqui’s work went against the very foundations that this establishment has been trying to preserve – its international image, which was shattered when full-page stories accompanied by Siddiqui’s images were published in international newspapers.
As the character assassination continues relentlessly, other journalists were also tossed into the boiling pot. Senior journalist Barkha Dutt became a Twitter trending topic, with many advising her to travel to Afghanistan. They intensely ensnared who had no ties with events that had been unfolding. Such assaults of these journalists must end.
The troll army, however, couldn’t really overpower the messages of love which poured in from different corners of the world. “It’s weird how much a few conversations can make such a lasting impression, but I was so touched by his humility, warmth and kinship,” recalls Karen Hao, American journalist and data scientist at the MIT Technology Review, recalling the first time she met the photographer.
Siddiqui was a humble man who was dedicated to his cause. To all the trolls who have been dancing over his death, you may have satisfied your injured ego, but how will you ignore the nakedness of truth and the legacy that his photographs carry?
Rest in power, Danish Siddiqui!
Hemant Thakur is an undergraduate student of Engineering at BMSCE Bangalore. He is a voracious reader with a keen interest in current and political affairs.
Featured image: A mass cremation of victims who died due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is seen at a crematorium ground in New Delhi, India, April 22, 2021. Picture taken with a drone. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui