Danish Siddiqui, photographer who shared the Pulitzer Prize for his work during the Rohingya crisis – obituary

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Danish Siddiqui, a week before his death - Mohammad Ismail/Reuters
Danish Siddiqui, a week before his death - Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

Danish Siddiqui, who has died aged 38, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and journalist; he was killed in crossfire between Afghan special forces and Taliban fighters.

Siddiqui, who was employed by the Reuters news agency and had been embedded with the Afghans for a week, was reporting on a battalion’s attempt to retake the market area of Spin Boldak, a town close to the Pakistani border.

Three days before his death he had come under fire when he accompanied a mission to extract a captured policeman.

“Gunfire appeared to be coming from all around; from a cemetery to the left and the heavy cover of Eucalyptus trees to the right,” he wrote. “A volley of bullets ricocheted off the Humvees’ metal armour. Gunners atop the Humvees swivelled wildly, aiming fire at suspected Taliban fighters who were hard to see.”

A Rohingya refugee pulls a child ashore after crossing the Bay of Bengal from Myanmar into Bangladesh in 2017 - Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
A Rohingya refugee pulls a child ashore after crossing the Bay of Bengal from Myanmar into Bangladesh in 2017 - Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

For all the action sequences, Siddiqui – a veteran of wars in Iraq, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and unrest in India – zeroed in on the human details of war, however fleeting. “Beside the road, a bystander – a young boy – ducked for cover” he wrote in his last dispatch.

It was a skill that won him a share of the Pulitzer in 2018 for Reuters’ coverage of the Rohingya refugee crisis. An image by Siddiqui, taken in 2017, was singled out. It shows an exhausted woman crawling on to a beach in Bangladesh, having escaped from Myanmar on a rickety boat which is seen being unloaded in the distance.

Siddiqui had spent three weeks waiting to get the shot, having first discovered that the remoteness of this particular beach made it an attractive option for people smugglers. “I photographed her just for a very few moments, and then left her to the sound of the waves. I didn’t want her to hear my camera shutter, I just wanted her to feel at peace before another fight for survival at the refugee camps,” he told the audience of a 2020 Tedx talk.

Siddiqui helps a flood victim at Govindghat in India in 2013 - Rafiq Maqbool/AP
Siddiqui helps a flood victim at Govindghat in India in 2013 - Rafiq Maqbool/AP

For all the woman’s evident desperation and relief, in Siddiqui’s photograph the eye is drawn to a simple silver bracelet, seemingly her sole possession. “When they can’t pay, the smugglers loot them of their remaining belongings,” he said.

Ahmad Danish Siddiqui was born on May 19 1983 in New Delhi. His father, Akhtar Siddiqui, was a professor at Jamia Millia Islamia Faculty of Education. Having graduated in Economics from the same university, Danish returned to take a Masters in Mass Communications, graduating in 2007.

He worked at the Hindustan Times before moving to the TV Today channel as a correspondent. He had taught himself photography during his studies, and in 2010 he secured a position with Reuters as a photographer. His previous journalistic experience came in useful, and he would often provide the agency with video and written dispatches.

Hindu nationalists beat a Muslim man, Mohammad Zubair, during protests in New Delhi in February 2020: Siddiqui, who was forced to flee the situation, later tracked the man down to apologise for leaving him to his fate - Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
Hindu nationalists beat a Muslim man, Mohammad Zubair, during protests in New Delhi in February 2020: Siddiqui, who was forced to flee the situation, later tracked the man down to apologise for leaving him to his fate - Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

A keen motorcyclist, he liked to film from moving vehicles: the dusty roads and wartorn streets caught at speed from the confined space of a military vehicle demonstrated the claustrophobia of conflict zones.

For all the grimness of the situations in which he frequently found himself, with his dry sense of humour and his penchant for Islamic turns of phrase he also documented the rare lighter moments of war. In 2012 he was embedded with an American platoon in Afghanistan, capturing not just skirmishes but the day-to-day life of the soldiers: when the Taliban bombardments stopped, the GIs would practice their golf swings.

There, too, he visited Kabul’s remaining seven cinemas, packed with Afghan men. “The biggest hurdle was the smoke,” he recalled. “I had to take a break every 15 minutes because there were too many hash-smoking men.” One of his photographs shows a young man in a tan jacket using a hollowed-out apple as a bong.

A Human Rights Day march in Hong Kong in 2019 - Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
A Human Rights Day march in Hong Kong in 2019 - Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

In 2015 he covered the start of the Rohingya refugee crisis and the Nepal earthquake. In 2016 he was sent to Mosul to photograph attempts by Iraqi and international forces to retake the city from Islamic State. Two years later he travelled to North Korea to chronicle the country’s 70th anniversary celebrations, and in 2019 he was back and forth from Hong Kong to report on the student protests.

That year he was briefly arrested in Sri Lanka for trespass while following up on the victims of the country’s Easter Sunday bombings. Last year, closer to home, he covered the devastating effect of the Covid-19 pandemic in India, as well as the Delhi riots.

For the latter, the Muslim Siddiqui went undercover, pretending to be sympathetic to the cause of a Hindutva nationalist gang. As he began to take photographs of a Muslim man, Mohammad Zubair, being beaten by a frenzied mob, his hosts became suspicious, demanding to see his identification. With the help of a Hindu colleague and some fast running, Siddiqui escaped. “I never push my luck to the limit,” he said. “I always keep a buffer which helps me walk out with the pictures which tell the story.” He regretted, however, leaving the victim of the attack to his fate, and later tracked him down to apologise.

Danish Siddiqui is survived by his wife Rike, and by two children.

Danish Siddiqui, born May 19 1983, died July 16 2021

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