Danish Siddiqui: A journalist with a penetrating eye captured “raw truth”

Danish Siddiqui: A journalist with a penetrating eye captured “raw truth”

An unidentified man brandishes a gun during a protest against a new citizenship law outside the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi, India, January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

A Penetrating Eye

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The photograph is sharp as a scalpel. A young man in a black jacket advances towards unarmed protestors with a pistol aimed in an outstretched hand and eyebrows raised into a threatening look. A cohort of Indian police stand watching the man with casual ease at the far back.

Danish Siddiqui, the Reuters photographer who took the shot, was late to the assignment that afternoon on Jan. 30, 2020, near New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University. Students at the Muslim-majority school had been protesting for over a month against a new law they viewed as discriminatory to Muslims. Over a dozen news photographers were positioned and ready, expecting a clash between protestors and the riot police.

Danish parked his car on the side of the street, took out his camera, and was just about to take position when the gunman appeared. “You want freedom? I’ll give you freedom!” the man screamed at the protestors, brandishing the pistol at them, recalled Karma Bhutia, a freelance photojournalist present at the scene.

“The gunman appeared suddenly near his side, and he had the perfect shot,” said Bhutia. “He later came up and showed us the photograph, grinning. He was like, ‘It’s all luck, man.’”

Many of those who knew Danish, however, knew it was much more than luck that drove his work. “I saw (Danish) pushing the shutter button when the gun was pointed at him,” a younger journalist, Shaheen Abdullah, wrote in a recent Twitter post. “I don’t know how he did that.”

Undeterred by the police, the gunman managed to fire a shot and injure a protester that day. The photograph became the defining image of the protest movement, creating a stir similar to that in the United States over Jonathan Bachman’s 2016 photograph of the lone woman facing riot police during a Black Lives Matter protest.

Like much of Danish’s work in India and beyond, that single photo laid bare what was happening in the country, making it hard for the truth to be muddled, dismissed, or ignored. He said so himself about his images.

“I want to expose you to the raw truth, and make you a witness to it,” he said during a TED talk in 2020. “You can look away, or stand up and ask for change.”

Pictures such as this help explain why Danish’s sudden death in July, on assignment in Afghanistan, felt so personal and tragic to many in India. Memorials and prayers have been held in several cities. Across national dailies and on social media, there was a wave of tributes and condolence messages.

“I want to expose you to the raw truth, and make you a witness to it. You can look away, or stand up and ask for change.”

Danish Siddiqui during a TED talk in 2020

“At a time of organized untruths and digital manipulation of the media, the photojournalist’s work has a powerful authenticity – and heart,” a leading daily, The Indian Express, said in an editorial. “In the best pictures Danish Siddiqui made, the velocity of breaking news slowed down to yield the human story.”

Amid intense challenges for journalism, from rising financial pressures to mounting efforts by governments to thwart press freedom, Danish’s work inspired many around him in the profession to keep going. And that included me, his colleague at Reuters.

When I met Danish in the Mumbai bureau in 2014, he was already an award-winning photographer, having made a name for himself through photo features: from cinema-obsessed Afghans in Kabul, to a hostel in a holy Indian city where the elderly went to die - and were asked to leave if they didn’t pass away in the stipulated two weeks. For one of his stories in Mumbai, Danish followed a father and son as they went around the dark corners of the city killing rats at night in exchange for payment per kill from the local government.

Although Danish and I shared a common last name, we weren’t related and our lives didn’t intersect beyond work, except the one time my mother intervened.

He and I had to travel together to Thailand in mid-2018 for hostile-environment training organized by Reuters. Surrendering to my mother’s paranoia, I had shared Danish’s phone number with her, since she insisted on having an emergency contact. A few days before our trip, she called Danish.

She told him I have a bad allergy, and asked him to make sure I don’t eat any food I’m allergic to while out there. Danish politely heard her out and reassured her I’d be fine. Then - fair enough - he proceeded to make fun of me in the office. “Your mother thinks all the Siddiquis of the world are responsible for each other.”

In late 2017, Danish and I overlapped while covering the refugee camps in Bangladesh, witnessing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing a violent military crackdown in Myanmar. Danish’s Pulitzer-winning photograph of an exhausted Rohingya woman reaching the safety of the shore in Bangladesh after a perilous journey once again forced viewers to pay attention.

I moved to Delhi in 2019, a few months after Danish did, and he greeted me in the office, joking, “Stop stalking me.” That year took us to cover conflict and violence from the valleys of Kashmir to the streets outside Danish’s own neighbourhood near the Jamia university in Delhi.

As the government revoked Kashmir’s autonomy in a shock move later in the year, Danish was among the first few photojournalists from Delhi to make his way into the region, which was under a strict lockdown. His searing photos of hundreds of Kashmiris protesting on the streets came at a time when the government was saying the region was calm and that locals supported its policy. In one of those photos, an elderly woman in a headscarf is seen raising a fist over her head in anger as she screams a protest slogan out loud, an army of women behind her.

Danish had been a news reporter before switching to photojournalism. On the field together, he and I often had disagreements, each believing we understood the story better than the other. But I respected his commitment to doing justice to the story.

Weeks into the first wave of the pandemic, he spoke to me from inside the COVID ward of a hospital, machines beeping over patients on ventilators around him.

“There are Winnie-the-Pooh posters on the walls,” he said. He had confirmed with hospital staff that the room used to be a children’s ward and urged me to include that detail. I did.

In the last few weeks of 2019, amid mass anti-government protests in India, I spent many hours around the Jamia university campus, speaking to young men and women protesting a new citizenship law. The law fast-tracks the process of gaining Indian citizenship for religious minorities from neighbouring countries - except for Muslims. The protesters denounced it as discriminatory. The government denies any bias and says the law was aimed at protecting besieged minorities.

Danish himself had attended the Jamia university. His father used to be a professor and dean there, and their family home was nearby. This is the district where Danish took his now-famous photograph of the gunman.

It didn’t show the protesting students, their boiling anger, their passionate sloganeering. But it captured their truth, their opposition to a Hindu-nationalist government that they felt was too extreme. The gunman, who had made fiery declarations on Facebook about “liberating Hindus” before the shooting, is awaiting trial on charges related to hate speech and attempted murder, and couldn’t be reached for comment.

“In his photos, he often told stories better than we could in print.”

A young reporter working in India

On the evening of Danish’s funeral prayers, the street outside his family home near the university was teeming with hundreds of people. Some journalists had travelled from other cities to pay their respects. Several climbed up a tree and a boundary wall in the graveyard to photograph the burial. In the frenzied movements of the crowd there seemed a desperate need to ascertain whether Danish was gone indeed.

A few days later I went to Danish’s house to meet his family. I walked into a living room adorned with signs of Danish’s achievements: golden trophies glimmering on a corner cabinet and certificates framed on the walls. Danish’s absence loomed large. And amid it, sat his father dressed in white, his legs crossed over a wooden chair as he stared down at his wrinkled feet while hearing me and two colleagues speak about Danish. “Your memories make my pain bigger, the loss heavier,” he said, looking up, gently. “I have lost something so precious.”

At a memorial for Danish one evening on a street outside the Jamia university, I met a younger reporter working for a newspaper. She told me about the struggles she faced in her work, about how much she sees on the field and how little she is able to say in her reports, clinging to the job because it pays, and because there are few places in the country anymore that would allow her to report as freely as she is able to now.

Like many other reporters, she was proud of Danish’s work. “In his photos, he often told stories better than we could in print,” she said. She had financial responsibilities, she continued, and she had decided to leave journalism after this year.

She said Danish’s death had made her reconsider. “It makes you question if you’ve done enough. You want to honour his legacy, take his work forward.”

A Penetrating Eye

By Zeba Siddiqui

Art direction: John Emerson

Edited by Euan Rocha, Kevin Krolicki and Bill Rigby