Danish Siddiqui, one of the finest photojournalists in the world, was killed while embedded with Afghan security forces during conflict with the Taliban in Kandahar last week. Those who hadn’t known his name certainly knew his work. He captured images that that immediately became iconic (or by today’s measure, viral), including powerful photographs of the coronavirus pandemic in North India and the January 2020 pogrom in Delhi.
One of the signature elements of his work was the way he took care to conceal faces. Voyeuristic photojournalism dehumanises by clearing identifying people in moments when they may be unable to give consent, and broadcasting the same in a way that crystallises terrible moments. But Siddiqui had a sense for shadow, light, fabric and motion and used these to great effect. The image of a Rohingya refugee bending to touch the wet shore, the boat she escaped on still behind her; the image of a family of three holding each other upon hearing of the death of their spouse/parent; the image of a man with his arms over his head, being beaten bloody by a mob – you cannot identify a single vulnerable face in any of these (perpetrators are not vulnerable). Thus, larger stories are evoked and memorialised. Siddiqui captured the big picture. He created historical documents.
This is not to say that he didn’t create any work at all that didn’t fall into tropes of exploiting emotion, only that he had quite evidently begun to perfect an idiom in which one didn’t have to utilise those tropes any longer. Siddiqui’s untimely demise is a great loss to photojournalism as a medium that helps uphold democracy and justice through recording and disseminating truth. The medium’s use in this way is often a lofty ideal, but he demonstrated it in practice.
I distinctly remember the anger I felt upon seeing press photos immediately after the Easter 2019 bombings in Sri Lanka, which captured people’s confusion and anguish as they looked for their loved ones. There was one woman in particular who was recognisable across different images, perhaps not even taken by the same photographer. By contrast, Siddique’s photo essay showed the spaces the victims had lived in, and objects from their daily lives. Eschewing shock value, this technique thoughtfully rendered the pain inflicted on these communities. A sewing machine, a Jesus statue still wrapped in plastic, a schoolbag – these simple items evoke the depth of loss. They do so without inflicting further violence – the violence of insensitive documentation – on either the deceased or those who mourn them. While creating this work, Siddiqui was briefly arrested in Negombo, one of the locations of the concurrent blasts. Incidentally, his arrest was on World Press Freedom Day.
Tellingly, Siddiqui’s death has been celebrated by those who want the truth obscured. While his life and career have been curtailed, the impact of his work remains, and will continue to teach. Here’s to the emergence of more photojournalists who provide dignity to their subjects, and who brave the perils spawned by human evil so as to provide mirrors that show society exactly what we are – and shame and inspire us to do better.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 22nd 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.