My encounter with sincere genius
This personal account is based on a conversation between Danish Siddiqui and me during a 2018 flight when we were seated alongside each other. It was in fact at the height of the Rohingya refugee crisis where thousands of Rohingya were fleeing from a massacre being perpetrated by the Burmese military against them. Danish, an award winning and prolific photo journalist, had in fact just been on the ground in Bangladesh, capturing on camera, what he called ‘Human Face of the story’. As soon as we took our seats on the flight, I introduced myself to this calm, magnetic personality sitting next to me (very unlike of me to introduce myself to co-passengers). He had on trekking boots, muddy from rigorous field work and was refreshingly keen to engage in a conversation with me. Danish introduced himself as a photojournalist with Reuters – this was modest in the least since at a young age, he was already one of the most respected exponents of his craft but wasn’t one to boast about his stellar reputation.
I had heard many stories about the misery, suffering and hopelessness experienced by the Rohingyas who were escaping the brutality of the Burmese military during my trip and was willing albeit a bit apprehensive to listen to more about it from Danish who had witnessed this awful humanitarian crisis firsthand. Danish told me that the situation was appalling to say the least. He showed me some of his work, freshly captured on his camera, which was heart wrenching. His fearless and relentless fieldwork in a potentially fatal situation, photographing the Rohingya exodus even as the threat of Burmese military ambush loomed, eventually led to Danish winning tremendous global acclaim and praise, culminating in the Pulitzer, the media equivalent of the Nobel prize – the highest honour in modern journalism. During our engaging conversation, I got a sense of Danish’s vast experience of covering war and conflict zones extensively without a shred of fear. I was fascinated by how he was able to speak about his experiences both as someone emotionally attached to them and at the same time, detach himself from his personal emotions about the experiences and give an objective view on the crisis. That was the sign of a man who was so totally in love with what he was doing and at the same time was a thorough professional who saw both sides of the story.
It only took a few minutes of conversation with Danish and my interest and intrigue with regard to his work was at its height. Danish shared about the time when he had been embedded with the US special forces in Iraq as they fought Al-Qaeda and how during one of the ambushes planned by US Special Forces, they (including himself) were nearly killed. The US Special forces raided a building that they thought, housed terrorists and were then trapped in the same house, while Al-Qaeda fighters went on the offensive. The US special Force commander managed to remotely deploy an unmanned drone that ‘neutralized’ an armoured suicide bombing tanker which was advancing towards the house that US special forces and Danish were pinned down in. With his vivid and heartfelt narration, Danish had managed to transport me literally into a war zone and momentarily feel his experience of real conflict. That near death story filled me with a little bit of fear but a whole lot of awe and admiration for this man of great conviction and achievement and yet such disarming humility.
I instantly knew right there that Danish was a man of different mettle. I asked Danish about his family and how they coped with his hazardous and life threatening assignments and if he ever thought about giving up the beat of war and conflict journalism. Danish instantly replied that it was a choice he has made and found a lot of meaning in it. He said that these assignments were entirely voluntary and Reuters would never compulsorily depute any of their photojournalist to these assignments because of their dangerous nature. He did admit that he would only take up such assignments when he felt he was ready and adequately trained to take up the challenge. After his return from the war-torn regions, he would undergo compulsory counselling for a certain period so as to get back in the right frame of mind. “Eating your lunch in a bunker with bodies strewn around is a very unappetizing experience,” he said, introducing some dark humour to our exchange. Danish confessed to me that eventually he would like to spend some time in Germany where his wife was from and see his kids grow up. As Danish related some of his most dangerous experiences to me, I had this intense feeling of reverence, gratitude, respect and love towards Danish. That I felt this way, just three hours in a fresh acquaintance is a tribute to the personality and drive of this gentle soul. I took the opportunity to invite Danish to address a gathering of youth at MRA – IofC Panchgani during the 2018 LMAD Youth Conference. Danish gladly agreed but eventually couldn’t make it since he was nominated for the Pulitzer prize in Canada around the same time for his astonishing photography of the the Rohingya crisis. Danish was a photojournalist par excellence, a man of conviction and purpose. A higher being. As they say, everyone is on a journey but only a few are on a mission and Danish was certainly on one when he was martyred in July this year in Afghanistan. I feel privileged and grateful to have connected with this remarkable and fearless man. Danish is no more. His sincere genius though will endure and forever inspire.
-- Manek Gupta