by Dilpreet BhullarJan 22, 2022
The surge of images unleashed on the digital platforms acts to reify truth in the mainstream narrative. The consumption and dissemination of images as the chief motives of the digital age have overridden the act of ‘reflection’, where the viewer considers a photograph is produced from the vantage point of a difficult truth. Antithetical to the mobility of images in the age of tab and navigation, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Indian photojournalist, Danish Siddiqui (1983-2021), successfully invited a viewer’s gaze into the scale and magnitude of the scene framed within his photographs. The set of photographs by Siddiqui is a rare event that seizes one’s attention away from the evanescent, yet the endless act of scrolling. Siddiqui’s photographs unfold a plane of contemplation: they access the “margins of excess”, to borrow Christopher Pinney’s words, in an effort to open the visual field for the viewers to experience the unvarnished reality of the political upheaval.
Siddiqui was embedded with the Afghan Special Forces, reporting on their operations against the Taliban in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, when he was killed on July 16, 2021. Siddiqui headed the India multimedia team of Reuters. His profile on the Reuters’ website, ‘The Wider Image’, quotes him, “While I enjoy covering news stories – from business to politics to sports – what I enjoy most is capturing the human face of a breaking story.” The human presence, wrestling with the struggles of the political conflict, sectarian persecution, majoritarian politics, pandemic crisis, in Siddiqui’s photographs are the embodiment of both political erudition and creative imagination. In addition, the sheer sweep of terrain that Siddiqui, a photographer-witness, covered – from global to regional crises – is a means to express that his representations are not simplistic visual fragments or slivers of time extracted from events, but render a face to the history-in-making for activating critical reflection.
Siddiqui had been to multiple war zones including those in Afghanistan and Iraq. The photograph diluted in the hues of red with a member of the Afghan Special Forces driving a humvee with a windscreen cracked by a bullet hole is one of the last few photographs Siddiqui took on his last assignment in Kandahar. The two soldiers, part of the US-trained Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, in a photograph taken in 2017 by Siddiqui during the war, are seen using a bedsheet as a curtain while keeping a close eye on Islamic State snipers in the area of Mosul, Iraq. The frame does not let the sense of self-possession, even though transient, escape. Having witnessed the turmoil of the battlefield at close quarters, Siddiqui if indeed documented the everyday actions undertaken by the security officers, also shared equal importance in his work to the brief moments of breather even within the conflict.
In another photo, a Rohingya refugee woman caresses the sand on the shore of Shah Porir Dwip, after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat. The photograph with the shoreline in the background subtly evokes the smells of wet sand and the sound of waves to visually narrate the space of liminality – between what was and what will be home. When the Myanmar Army attacked the Rohingya Muslims in August 2017, thousands of them escaped the Arakan region to find a safe haven. The precarious journeys they undertook by sea or on foot turned into a spectacle for photojournalists to document the refugee crisis in making. With the onset of the crisis, once more, the images of refugees rendered in a black and white palette with simulated deep wrinkles floated around on social media. In opposition to these works which were created as an extension of the hyperreality around the crisis, Siddiqui’s photograph is composed at eye-level, bridging the distance between the photojournalist and subject to let the viewer forge a human contact with the latter. In popular public discourse, where refugees are often reduced to an external threat, the photographic representation of the subjects of war and destitution needs to break through the apathy created by the spatial distance: a practice espoused by Siddiqui. In recognition of this feat that Siddiqui’s photograph achieved, he and his team won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018, for their work on the Rohingya refugee crisis.
The democratic ideals which are interwoven into the political, social and legal fabric of India have been persistently challenged in the past, and quite regularly for close to two years now. Rising to record every event of protest against majoritarian politics, Siddiqui intensely documented expressions of dissent against the government, not just in India, but also in Hong Kong when citizens initiated pro-democracy protests against the mainland Chinese government in 2019. The August 2019 lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir, in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, which used to confer special status for Jammu and Kashmir, saw a complete blockage of the communication network. To strategically stifle the voices of dissent and further the motives of media blackout, the region remained deprived of internet services for more than 150 days. Siddiqui’s photographs around the region of Anchar in Kashmir during the events surrounding the revocation of the abovementioned Articles is a walkthrough in the neighbourhood dotted with steel barricades and razor wire to prevent the entry of the military forces.
At the end of the same year, 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was pushed through the Indian Parliament, under the current regime. This Act aimed to fast-track Indian citizenship for minorities, barring Muslims, from three countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. At several places across India, the protests were organised against what was (and continues to be) seen as the discriminatory nature of the CAA. In the national capital New Delhi, Siddiqui extensively captured the sites of protest – especially where the students of his alma mater, Jamia Millia Islamia University, led these demonstrations. Sooner, the protest took the shape of communal riots, and violent clashes in the northeast region of Delhi remained unabated. Siddiqui’s February 2020 image of a mob thrashing a lone Muslim man was selected as one of the defining photographs of the year 2020 by Reuters.
Then the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were put in place. When India was regaining normalcy after the first wave of the global pandemic, in September 2020, new farm laws were introduced which farmers protested as being in favour of big conglomerates. Again, the agitation, anchored by the farmers against the government, began to demand repealing of the three reform laws. Scores of the farmers are gathered at the borders of Delhi as well as in a variety of towns in the state of Punjab to call for support for their demands. Siddiqui’s photographs of the mass of cultivators-protestors gathered in Barnala, Punjab, contributed to the visual magnanimity synonymous with his works to import amplitude of the movement.
As the second wave of the pandemic raged through India, the already fragile healthcare system collapsed with the overwhelming request for hospital beds, medicines, oxygen and ventilator. To save the face of the failure of state machinery, the statistics on the deaths due to COVID were mercilessly manipulated. The drone photograph by Siddiqui, of the makeshift cremation facility in a parking lot adjacent to the crematorium at Seemapuri in Delhi, incisively defied the obfuscation of the data of dead by the government. It was one of the most widely circulated images on social media on April 22, 2021. Grappling with the pandemic, bereaved families struggled to locate the places to cremate or bury the departed. The disquiet of the crematoriums, as articulated visually in the photographs of Siddiqui, focussed a spotlight on the expanse of deaths, spread far and wide. The anonymity with which the state functioned was countered by the grim reality of Siddiqui’s work which operated as a means to renew the contract to recognise, remember and respect the dead.
The body of work produced by Siddiqui is anything but apolitical. To present an alternative face to the dynamics of high politics, the photographer could erroneously slip into a state of detachment: at once removed from the point of the original moment of decisiveness to be encapsulated in the visual lexicon. Between the astute critical distance maintained by Siddiqui and the critical perspective exuded by his work and experienced by the viewers lies sublimity. What makes the oeuvre of Siddiqui possess a singular sensibility is a seamless act of threading together inquisitivity and aesthetics. If the photographs by Siddiqui, punctuated with human faces, swell and swirl in the memory of viewers, they respond to the queries of responsible citizens, otherwise blatantly dubbed as the faceless consumers of simulated images. In the photographic event, the photographer and photographed extend the onus of apprehending their lopsided situation towards the viewers. The act of looking, to take a cue from Ariella Azoulay’s work on the citizenry of photography, is not limited to the zone of emotional uneasiness, but embodies a civic responsibility of solidarity amongst communities against divisive politics.
Akin to the reception of Siddiqui’s photographs, which mediate camaraderie across spatial and temporal axes, the news of his infelicitous death has been received as a personal loss by the communities of people: known, unknown and beyond. The collective grieving over his death, in the times when the noises of individualism obliterate collectivism, reassures that humanity is not yet forgotten. Siddiqui’s photographs persist to enunciate:
Let the incessant journeys endured by the displaced before reaching the place in-between home be not forgotten,
Let the voices of collectivism and solidarity be not forgotten,
Let the waft of ashes and smell of fresh graves be not forgotten,
Let the insurmountable ignominy to which loved ones succumbed be not forgotten.
Let the suffering, the dead be remembered.
The camera in the hands of Siddiqui gave a face to every corner of the society, irrespective of its size, which bears a brunt of the political and social change.