A question most of us are asked at a very young age is: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
For me, a chattery ten year old, there was but one answer. “I want to tell stories,” I said.
As I grew older, that dream grew too. Spending almost all my after-school evenings at a Crossword bookstore near my house, I’d pore over every ‘interview’ book I could find. I’d mimic the interviewer, and imagine all the other questions I would ask if I were there and all the people I’d talk to if I ever got the chance to travel and report from places far and wide.
Soon enough, my teenage years were filled with me telling my professors, friends and mother about the human stories from conflict-torn countries and places that spoke to me the loudest, showing them pictures and talking about how those were the stories I wanted to tell. “In India?,” most asked instantaneously. I wondered why I was asked that so often.
As a few more years passed, this intrinsic knack to look out for stories and my political inclinations only increased. Looking for them everywhere, I’d speak to everyone – from chatty rickshaw drivers to acquaintances on social media – for hours. And somewhere in search of such stories, I found some photographs. Photographs by Danish Siddiqui.
I grew a sense of an unbreakable connection with the photojournalist. Don’t get get me wrong, I don’t know the first thing about working a camera. But all I knew for certain was that I was scrambling for everything he clicked. From the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2017, the communication blackout in Kashmir post the scrapping of Article 370 in 2019, the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests followed by the Northeast Delhi pogrom to the sheer plight of communities unseen during the two consecutive COVID-19 waves in India.
He captured it all. With a peculiar sense of emotion and honesty, his photographs went far beyond merely ‘conflict’. They told a story I would not be able to write with words.
“If this is the biggest human tragedy of our times, then journalists have to show it, tell it, write it. There is no nationalism involved in journalism,” the photojournalist’s recent words echo in my mind. At a time when the meaning of ‘nationalism’ has become staying mum about your country, the man proved that his nationalism was being honest to it instead. That was his duty.
Last month, Siddiqui, the head of the Reuters multimedia team in India, a Pulitzer Prize awardee, and most importantly, one of my favourite storytellers, died while covering a clash between Afghan forces and the Taliban in Kandahar. As soon as the news surfaced, social media was flooded with reactions. Leaders from across the world and the United Nations expressed their grief over losing the 38-year-old photojournalist with a moral compass. Countless tributes to his relentless work echoed in the void he has left behind. Memorials were organised in Delhi, while journalists, activists and civil society members from everywhere joined hands to mourn this loss together. Indian opposition party leaders came out to express their solidarity as well.
While most were left staggered by the news of his demise, there was another section that cheered and celebrated the news. ‘#Karma’ began trending on Twitter, and tweets like ‘what goes around comes around’ appeared every time I refreshed the page.
Self-proclaimed ‘real’ nationalists collated the stories Siddiqui had narrated through his photographs to mock them. Attacking Siddiqui and accusing him of having tried to defame India with his body of work, chains of memes were shared extensively. And as they grew longer, the eerie silence of the government did not help. Popularly known for tweeting every greeting and mourning every high-profile death, this silence over the Pulitzer winner’s demise further propagated the dishonour to him and his work.
As I numbly kept scrolling through these horrid tweets, I could not help but wonder about the collective sense of insecurity we have developed as a society. An insecurity that makes us celebrate the brutal death of a man who tried showing reality to the oblivious.
An insecurity that has made us so intolerant that many wilfully deny the truth while not being able to look at lived history in the eye.
Today, as the same girl with the same dream, at a bookstore in her early-twenties, I’m scrambling for photographs clicked by the one-of-a-kind storyteller more than ever. The man I only knew through the stories he told me. The man who taught me to see the world as it was. The man who is immortal through his work.
There will certainly be a day when Twitter forgets him, but there will never be one when the history conveyed by the man with a camera and a dream will be erased.
Oishika Neogi is a human rights’ researcher at Karwan-e-Mohabbat (New Delhi).
Featured illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty/Referenced from a photo by Javed Sultan