The Wire:In Fond Memory of Danish Siddiqui, My Argumentative, Loving and Pulitzer Prize-Winning Friend
A personal tribute to an old buddy who brought empathy and understanding to his memorable work.
I try to remember my first meeting with Danish at the A.J.K. Mass Communication Research Centre of Jamia Millia Islamia, as freshly enrolled film school students in the summer of 2005.
All I have is a hazy memory of a tall fellow in a pistachio coloured, half-sleeved shirt tucked inside his jeans and a maroon backpack on his left shoulder. And oh, that he smoked and would later go on to proudly count his many sutta-converts (converts to cigarette smoking), who would join him on the terrace canteen of MCRC between training and theory classes.
Danish was energetic, fun and hot-headed and I think everyone wanted to work on their student films with him. To have him in the crew meant one could focus more as a director on the day of the shoot. Unless of course, you had gotten on his wrong side and he decided to not cooperate. But even then, I have a feeling he would return to the shoot within an hour of the scheduled start, making some generous comment about the ‘director’ and get to work. If you were lucky to be his friend, then he would be there for your shoot even if he was not in your official film crew.
I cannot remember any film that I made as a student without Danish. Our final graduation film Rihhaiish (Residence, 2007) was filmed in and around Jamia Nagar in New Delhi, with a crew that consisted of our mothers, relatives and friends. In this part-autobiographic, part-political film, we poured our hearts, lives and tussles of growing up a middle-class religious minority in an increasingly majoritarian, right-wing climate in India.
My 15-year-long friendship with Danish unfolded against each of us trying to make sense of the threat of violence that hovered over our abstracted lives. Until I joined Jamia as a postgraduate student, I dealt with my identity as an Indian Muslim woman by denying it as much as possible or limiting it to a very personal arena of family.
Danish, on the other hand, embraced his identity fully, wore it like a badge of honour and his jokes were peppered with tongue-in-cheek Islamic utterances. I too became more comfortable with myself and my history around him.
We, of course, had many arguments during and after our shoots, as we led high voltage lives in Delhi, our bodies and minds confused and consumed by the world that unfolded around us after 9/11. It bothered me even then that viral objects shot in lands faraway had started making their appearances in our phones. While we were studying how to make media and make meaning of media, as 21-year-olds we were also encountering instantaneous atrocity in the form of videos from Iraq and Afghanistan where the United States was fighting their ‘war on terror.’
I protected myself from these captures, while the ‘boys’ watched and shared. On a couple of occasions, I also preached some half-baked media effects theory about how instead of sensitising to human life and misery, these unreliable viral videos on our low-grade Nokia phones in 2005-06 were making us resilient to violent content. I must have been really annoying for we argued hard, fought loudly and then went to our respective partners to calm down.
But we soon made up, for it was hard to stay cross with Danish for long and he always promised company that was joyful, comforting and fast-paced.
After Jamia, my friendship with Danish became less argumentative and more affectionate. We made another short film in 2009. His lens drew unanticipated sensitivity and tenderness from an otherwise stern and restrained Dr. David Baker, the protagonist of the film.
Around this time, Danish moved to Mumbai and I occasionally crashed at his pad, envious of his plucky freedom and grateful for his friendship. I moved to the UK to pursue my PhD and we met every year either in Mumbai or Delhi.
He had joined Reuters as a photo journalist and was travelling frequently for high-risk assignments. In over ten years with Reuters, he captured many images of human conflict and resilience. My favourites remain the series on Kabul’s silver screens, the migrant labourers during COVID-lockdown in India, and the Rohingya exhaustion, which won him the prestigious Pulitzer prize.
What was unique about Danish’s work was his desire to follow his subjects beyond the frame of iconic photographs and into the ebb of each crisis. He visited labourer Dayaram in a Bundelkhand village and was relieved to find Zubair of Delhi riots convalescing in a local hospital. Danish cared enough to see that people were more than iconic photographs and fearlessly sought to represent human lives in as ethical a manner as is possible in these moments of crisis.
It was Danish’s strong attachment to his lived community in Jamia and an imagined one in India and beyond, that made him take up many risky assignments. The dialectic of Muslim terror and Muslim persecution suffused his work and thought. His courage was a quest, a drive to dive deep into the heart of the problem of sectarian violence, if such a heart can ever be located.
We met for the last time in March 2020, right after his coverage of the Delhi riots. I was visiting for a few weeks and he was ‘lying low’ after receiving unending umbrage from the online right-wing trolls. He described how he got that iconic photo of a man being beaten to near-death by Hindutva mobsters. It involved subterfuge, pretending to be a newsperson sympathetic to the mobsters who invited him to join them on their rampage.
When he started clicking photos that they did not wish to be captured, the mob got suspicious. They demanded his photo ID and it was his Hindu colleague who managed to lead him out of the tangle, which also involved a good amount of fast running to escape the situation.