‘When I went out to shoot, I could see people were panicking’

SLAIN PHOTOJOURNALIST Danish Siddiqui is among four Indians honoured with the prestigious Pulitzer Prize-2022 in the feature photography category, announced late Monday night.

The team from Reuters news agency — Adnan Abidi, Amit Dave, Sanna Irshad Mattoo and Siddiqui — won for “images of COVID’s toll in India that balanced intimacy and devastation, while offering viewers a heightened sense of place”, according to the Pulitzer Prize website.

Dedicating the award to Siddiqui, Delhi-based Abidi recalled how the pandemic was an “invisible danger” that “no one in the world was prepared for”. Associated with Reuters since 2005, his photographs in the Pulitzer package reflected the death and suffering seen during Covid-19 — from family members embracing each other in PPE suits to mourn the death of a relative in Delhi in April 2021, to a girl pressing the chest of her father who was finding it difficult to breathe after falling unconscious while receiving oxygen support at a gurudwara in Ghaziabad, UP.

“I have covered difficult situations, but seeing terrible things in your hometown is very different,” Abidi, 42, said. “During the second wave in Delhi, I was taking care of my family, including my bed-ridden father, and working at the same time. When I went out to shoot, I could see people were panicking — many were desperate for oxygen. It was heartbreaking but I tried to control my emotions because in panic one tends to make mistakes.”

Sometimes, he said, people say these photographs are beautiful. “But I just wanted to show what was happening. It’s not about showing how good a photographer you are; what matters is how well your pictures can convey the message that it’s not safe out there and people need to be more cautious.”

Abidi started his career in 1997 as a darkroom assistant; this was his third Pulitzer. In 2020, he was part of the Reuters team that won in the breaking news photography category for the coverage of 2019-20 Hong Kong protests.

Along with Siddiqui, he was also part of the Reuters team that won 2018 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for images of the Rohingya refugee crisis.

Siddiqui, 38, who was killed in July 2021 while covering a clash between Afghan security forces and Taliban forces in Spin Boldak district of Kandahar, had caught the world’s attention with his photographs of funeral pyres during mass cremations of Covid-19 victims in Delhi last year. His father, Mohammad Akhtar Siddiqui, recalled how Danish travelled to different cities, including Haridwar and Bhagalpur, when the pandemic was raging across India.

“He carried out this work in the most difficult circumstances and was going deep into the wards and coming close to people suffering from Covid-19,” Akhtar said. “He would share people’s pain and suffering. A workaholic, he was extremely professionally committed. While he was not worried for himself, he would take all precautions to ensure that he should not pass any infection to his family.

“He always celebrated Eid with family, but that year he did not visit us, as he did not want to risk us catching any virus from him.”

Apart from the photograph that went viral, the Pulitzer website displays Siddiqui’s image of a Naga sadhu wearing a mask before entering the Ganga during the traditional shahi snan at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in April last year. In another frame, a son fans his mother with a handkerchief on the backseat of a vehicle, as she receives oxygen in the parking lot of a gurudwara.

During the peak of the pandemic, when many died alone, Siddiqui also photographed urns containing ashes collected after the final rites of people, awaiting immersion due to a national lockdown, at a crematorium in Delhi in May 2021.

“He faced all kinds of pressures from people who did not want the reality to be uncovered but he was fearless,” Mohammad Akhtar said.

A 2021 Magnum Foundation Photography and Social Justice fellow, Mattoo, 28, documented the pandemic in Kashmir. The Pulitzer website has her photograph of a shepherd receiving the Covishield vaccine at Lidderwat in Kashmir’s Anantnag district in June 2021.

For Ahmedabad-based Dave, 53, photography was a passion he inherited from his father, who also collected cameras. Having previously covered the 2002 Gujarat riots and the devastation caused by the 2004 tsunami in Tamil Nadu for Reuters, in 2021, as the Delta wave of the pandemic swept India, Dave was photographing across Gujarat. His image on the Pulitzer website has a healthcare worker checking the temperature of a woman inside her hut during a coronavirus vaccination drive for workers at a brick kiln in Kavitha village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in April 2021.

“It is an honour to receive the Pulitzer award… I also hope that with regard to Covid, the worst is now behind us,” Dave said.

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