Skye Arundhati Thomas on Danish Siddiqui (1983–2021)
THIS APRIL, Danish Siddiqui flew a drone over New Delhi’s Seemapuri neighborhood. A second wave of Covid-19 was sweeping through India, and the capital had emerged as the epicenter. At first, the available information was sparse, the scale of devastation unknown. This was until Siddiqui’s drone footage flashed across social media, showing hundreds of makeshift pyres burning in an empty plot of land. Later, when the central government denied—in parliament and court—that the country was facing a lethal shortage of oxygen, Siddiqui’s photographs from hospital wings and parking lots demonstrated otherwise: multiple patients hooked up to single cylinders, community-led oxygen drives at Gurudwaras. When the first national lockdown was announced in March 2020, leading to an exodus of day laborers from cities, the state contested the fact that their sudden displacement had resulted in deaths, absolving itself of mismanagement. Along highways and railway tracks, he photographed people walking hundreds of miles back to their villages, famished under the summer sun.
Siddiqui died on July 16 while on assignment in Spin Boldak, southern Kandahar, covering the fight between the Taliban and the Afghan National Army for control of the nearby border with Pakistan. Conflicting accounts have emerged of his death, but it appears that he was singled out and identified by the Taliban and shot, his body later mutilated. He was brought back to India in a coffin lined with cotton wool and buried at the qabristan at Jamia Millia University, his alma mater. “It felt personal,” reads an Instagram caption from the vigil held at the Press Club of India, where slim white candles flickered in the twilight. It felt personal because without him the gaps in our knowledge would be jarring: Siddiqui had held his camera squarely in the face of some of the most brutal moments in contemporary South Asian history. He had photographed the aftermath of the Kathmandu earthquake of 2015 and visited Rohingya refugee camps (his work there won him a Pulitzer in 2018). He gathered evidence of the intensified military occupation of Kashmir after the Indian government rescinded the region’s constitutional protection in 2019, and a year later, witnessed the groundbreaking of a Hindu temple on the disputed site in Ayodhya, where the Babri Masjid once stood. He marched with students and activists during the protest movement against the 2019 anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act and photographed the violence that raged through northeastern New Delhi in its aftermath. He shot the farmer’s protest of 2021 and the pandemic. Through a whirlwind of catastrophe, Siddiqui placed himself right in the storm’s eye.
“No one who saw the photo thought I would survive,” said Mohammad Zubair, describing an image, taken by Siddiqui, which came to define last year’s anti-Muslim pogrom in New Delhi. Zubair was beaten by a mob of Hindu men, many wearing bike helmets. “It was like a war zone,” Siddiqui said, recounting how he had walked over the rubble of broken bricks and batons. He stood about a yard away from the group, his mask flecked with Zubair’s blood. He was spotted, and the attackers paused, looking right at his camera. Siddiqui fled just as Zubair lost consciousness. A group of young Muslim boys found Zubair and asked the neighborhood doctor to perform emergency stitches on his head wounds. Siddiqui looked for him later, relieved to find him alive in a local hospital. He made a portrait against the pale blue wall of the intensive treatment wing, Zubair’s head wrapped in gauze, eyes bruised and swollen. Siddiqui often said that he photographed “the human face of a breaking story.”
Siddiqui braved the virus, tear gas, and open rounds of gunfire to bring evidence of a reality utterly disconnected from the mainstream telling of it. In India, news media is consolidated among a small number of conglomerates, who consistently push the agenda of Narendra Modi’s ruling party, the BJP, with propagandistic zeal. Siddiqui was a rare photographer: While images of violence have grown to be everyday occurrences in contemporary India, Siddiqui didn’t overlook the quieter details. In images from the 2019 protests, he attempts to capture the calm, steadfast way in which students and residents of northeast New Delhi resisted the unchecked police brutality they were met with every day. In one photo, protestors can be seen locked in a tight space between yellow barricade grills, as police wearing riot gear press in. A young student firmly grasps the end of a long stick just as it lands on them. They appear to be looking right in the officer’s eye, undeterred by the attack. As a photojournalist, Siddiqui kept pace with the mercurial news cycle. “My biggest lesson so far,” he said, “has been to adapt myself as quickly as possible when the story changes.” But in a media landscape inundated with explosive, sensational images, Siddiqui slowed down scenes of chaos.
Siddiqui was a Muslim photographer working during a time in India when Islamophobia is sanctioned by the political party in power, and, as the new citizenship laws show, even carries parliamentary support. Right-wing trolls slammed him almost daily with Islamophobic abuse. “My kindergarten teacher like many other Indians passed away in a car as her family searched for oxygen,” Siddiqui tweeted in June, despite the online bullying he received after his Covid coverage went viral.
In one of the last dispatches before he died, Siddiqui photographed an Afghan special forces soldier kneeling on a shawl by the side of the road. He has slipped off his automatic rifle and set aside his helmet and shoes before starting afternoon prayer. The soldier clutches at his knees, dressed in full military combat gear and fingerless gloves. An image from April 2020 depicts a healthcare worker in a sky-blue hazmat suit, slumped over from exhaustion on a heat-soaked cremation ground. In a photo from 2010, a man performs devotional ablutions in the Yamuna river surrounded by a thick layer of toxic phosphorous foam, frothy and white. Siddiqui’s work shows how violence permeates the everyday, giving the abstraction of political crisis a tender clarity. Hundreds of students, family members, colleagues, and friends gathered at Jamia Millia university for Siddiqui’s burial. Their fingers brushed across the coffin, as if to grasp him one final time.
Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer based in Goa, India. She is editor of The White Review.