The War Photographers of India

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...and the battlefront tales they lived to tell

An assignment is an assignment. In April this year, when fighting in Libya intensified, Altaf Qadri was asked by his employer Associated Press  (AP) to go to the rebel areas. He left Delhi as soon as he could. Once there, Altaf established a routine. Along with other photojournalists, he would drive from Benghazi to Ajdabiya, the last town taken over by anti-Gaddafi rebels. The frontline would move from day to day, and most photojournalists would position themselves just out of range of the actual fighting to take pictures.

Altaf, keen to get closer to the action by travelling alongside a rebel group, got lucky one day. A rebel vehicle took him aboard. Soon, he was in the thick of it. Driving barely 300 metres ahead, the rebels fired a round of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) at government forces. By the time they reloaded for round two, though, they were under heavy return fire themselves. Panic broke loose.

The other journalists, a little way behind, scurried to their vehicles and retreated to safety. In the heat of the melee, Altaf was thrown out of the rebel vehicle, and he ran for cover to an abandoned petrol station. He hid in a room at the back, only to have Gaddafi forces make their way there, hunting for rebels. Altaf was sure they’d sooner shoot him than ask for identification. “There I was, crouched in the stinkiest, darkest hole on earth for the whole day, while armed men smoked and laughed the hours away outside,” he recounts, “My satellite phone was with my colleague, my cellphone had no network. All my gear, including my laptop, was in the car we took from Benghazi.”

It was hours before they left and Altaf could get out. He thought of making his way back to the hotel in the cover of darkness, but that seemed even more foolhardy since he could be mistaken for an enemy by either of the two sides. Instead, he sneaked into an empty house nearby, and found a room with an empty pack of cigarettes, empty water bottle and a mattress. “It was the coldest, hungriest and most desolate night of my life.”

With dawn came new dangers. He could hear aircraft overhead, and that could only mean one thing—Nato-led bombing. It began before the sky could brighten much. Most of the smoke visible was from central Ajdabiya. This was disheartening, because if that town had been re-taken by Gaddafi, then he’d have to stay in hiding; the Libyan leader was in no mood then to entertain the foreign press, least of all photojournalists.

By afternoon, it calmed down. “Around 5 pm, I could see vehicles—with rebel flags flying high—approach the gas station again,” says Altaf, “A pickup stopped outside the house, and I was by then more than ready to come out—hands up and cameras clearly visible. I was made to sit in the vehicle and escorted back to Benghazi. I saw the effects of Nato bombardment on the way back. If it weren’t for Nato, I would be Gaddafi’s not-so-welcome guest right now.” Altaf counts this as the narrowest escape of his life.

An assignement is an assignment. Or is it? For the past few months, conflict photography has been a raging topic of discussion on photography websites and photojournalism blogs, in newspaper articles and at press club bars. Some of the flashpoints evok­ing all this:

1.    In October last year, Joao Silva, a renowned photojournalist who wrote The Bang-Bang Club, was critically wounded by a landmine while covering the war in Afghanistan. He lost both his legs and sustained other serious injuries.

2.    In March this year, four New York Times journalists, including photo­journalists Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario, were captured by Gaddafi’s forc­es in Libya. They were brutalised for four days before being freed.

3.    On 20 April, two well-known photojournalists, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, also covering the Libyan conflict, were killed by a mortar attack in Misrata.

War photography is a lonely pursuit, practised by less than a dozen in India. They all represent international agen­cies, and hop from frontline to frontline, chasing the very worst that humans are capable of doing to one another.

Their careers have taken roughly the same trajectory. They began by covering conflict zones within India—such as Kashmir. Tauseef Mustafa, for example, a 39-year-old photojournalist with Agence France Presse (AFP) who single-handedly covered the Kargil War of 1999 for AFP with his Nikon FM2 film camera, began his career in the Valley in the early 1990s. He nearly gave up, though, stunned by an explosion at a Srinagar vegetable market.

Tauseef reached the spot a few minutes after the blast, and started taking pictures of the carnage almost on autopilot. Within his lens, he caught an elderly man who was sorting out limbs and corpses for burial, gently picking one up, calmly turning the other over. Tauseef kept clicking—until he saw the man’s face contort in a soundless scream of ag­ony, his aged frame doubling over. “It was almost as if an unseen, unheard bullet had hit him in the chest…,” he says, “It was his son’s body [he’d found].”

Tauseef’s feel for his job turned numb. “I couldn’t shoot anymore.” For days af­terwards, he had to drag himself to work. And he is still haunted by that image. “Sometimes, in the stillness of the night, I can still hear the father scream.”

Arko Datta, 42, who began working in 2001 with Thomson Reuters and has just quit his job to freelance and coach young aspirants, also had his first brush with danger within India.

It was 1997 or 1998, he doesn’t remem­ber, and was looking out for rumoured underage voters in the local polls he was covering in Howrah. He spotted the chil­dren after dark at a polling station, watched over by goons who got wind of his intentions and threatened him. Arko was undeterred. Crouching low at a dis­tance, he waited for the right moment to take his shot. “I had to use my flash, I took a calculated risk.”

Given away by the flash, Arko was caught. He was being dragged across the street by the goons, when he suddenly saw a car speed its way up, its driver pop out, swear angrily at him, grab him by his collar, shove him in the car, and drive off with him—all in a matter of seconds.

“It was the car and driver I had hired for the assignment,” says Arko of his road­side abduction, “Waiting for me to re­turn, he saw me get into trouble. He act­ed on the spur of the moment. He saved my life that day.” The pictures he took made the front pages. “The polls were cancelled, a wrong was put right.”

At the frontline, long-held opinions of­ten go for a toss. Like many others, Arko had been incensed by America’s unpro­voked invasion of Iraq. So, in 2007, when Reuters asked him to go there, he was re­luctant to be ‘embedded’ with Allied troops. Once he took up the assignment, though, he saw “the other side of the sto­ry”. The US Army was full of teenagers as young as 16 and 17, some of them from the country’s poorest families, only try­ing to get a better chance in life than their parents did. “They were so scared. Most of them had never set foot outside their own hometown or training centre,” he says, of the kids he saw, kids who “were playing video games at home one day and were on the frontline the next”.

“The war was their video game come to life,” says Arko, who also got to roam the streets of Iraq unembedded, shooting whatever he found. By then, he had already learnt the value of caution. Once, while travelling with a video team, he had to yell at them to put the camera down and turn off the lights as an American army convoy approached. “Scared kids with nervous fingers on the trigger are more likely to shoot first and ask questions later,” he says.

Iraq made Arko question a lot of his assumptions. “Am I doing justice to the whole story? Is my picture the whole truth? Obviously not. But it is part of the whole truth, and my responsibility is to tell my part honestly. I truly believe that were it not for the camera, Nato and the UN would never be in half the places they are today, and major chunks of history would never be recorded.”

That need, the need to record history, is what makes the trauma of conflict photography bearable. “War and misery eat away your soul,” says Arko, “When you are in your 20s, you are cocksure and ambitious. A few days of taking pictures of grieving widows, maimed children and dead youth can age you overnight. What you see through your lens leaves its mark on your heart and soul.” The only balm for that, he adds, is the difference such pictures can make.

Rafiq Maqbool, 33, an AP photojournalist whose photo was part of an AP team package that was runner-up for a Pulitzer prize in 2010, has been at the receiving end of a lathi charge, a grenade blast and other perils. His Pulitzer-acclaimed photo has an interesting story to it. In March-April 2009, Rafiq was on an embedded assignment with the US Army in Wardak province of Afghanistan. “This soldier was playing his guitar while having breakfast. I took some pictures, and the next day they made the front page of newspapers in his hometown back in the US.” Lots of other soldiers—“a very nice group of very young boys”—walked up, asking for similar exposure.

A couple of weeks later, in May 2009, he was on another medivac embed at Bagram Airfield Hospital. One evening, they got news of soldiers injured in an IED blast being brought in.

Taking pictures of the injured being taken off a helicopter, Rafiq saw one soldier turn to him on a stretcher and yell something he couldn’t quite catch because of the wind and noise. Rafiq followed him into the emergency room. At one point, the soldier motioned for him to come closer. “Hey man, what’s up?” he asked, “Remember me? I’m Anthony, the guitar guy.”

“It was like meeting an old friend,” says Rafiq, “He insisted I continue taking pictures and signed all the necessary paperwork. The next morning, when I went to check on him, he was sitting up in bed waiting for me. He said he wanted to smoke a cigar with me to celebrate being alive. I got him into a wheelchair and we stepped out to share a cigar. We have kept in touch since. He’s back home in the US, recovering.”

Rafiq, born a Kashmiri, began as a photojournalist with a local paper called Kashmir Times, where he discovered the power of an image. In 1997, he and other lensmen were stopped by the Indian Army from taking pictures at the site of a crackdown in a locality near Bakshi Stadium in Srinagar. However, as was his professional habit, he had already taken a few ‘blind shots’ as soon as he’d reached. So he returned to his office and developed the roll. His newspaper published a few of his pictures the next day.

A few days later, a fellow photographer turned up for copies, as a couple he knew were looking for their son whose face resembled one of those in one picture that had appeared. Rafiq helped the couple identify their missing son, and the picture was presented in court. The Army, which had been denying having picked anyone up, had to release their son. “It taught me never to take my responsibility lightly,” says Rafiq, “Since then, I’ve always picked up the camera in the belief that a picture can make a difference to at least one life. That gets me through the good days and bad.”

Being able to laugh off the dangers of the job also helps. In December 2010, Rafiq was embedded with the 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company 2-327 Infantry, in the Kunar province of Afghanistan. It was a hilly war zone near the Pakistan border, with frequent attacks by insurgents. Once, while on foot patrol, they found themselves overwhelmed by IEDs, RPGs and machine gun fire.

Rafiq ran for cover like everyone else. Suddenly, an RPG whizzed over their heads. The platoon commander, First Lieutenant Benjamin Amsler, yelled at his sergeant to hit the ground and stay low. Since Rafiq was right behind the sergeant, he too ducked on instinct, as shrapnel and dust flew around. All survived unhurt and made their way gingerly back to the safety of their vehicle.

Later, back at the camp in the evening, Rafiq wondered aloud about Benjamin’s yelling only for his sergeant to take cover when they were under enemy attack. After all, he too had been in danger. “He laughed and said he had completely forgotten I was with them, and that my ‘embed’ was obviously going really well,” recalls Rafiq, “I’d managed to become a fly on the wall.”

Rafiq perhaps has more embedded experience than any other Indian photojournalist. “I still remember my first time in Afghanistan,” he says, “It was 2003, and I had never been away from home before. I remember stepping onto the Bagram military base and thinking ‘There’s been some mistake—they’ve sent me to a movie set’. It was quite an experience. In many, many ways, the real story of Afghanistan is about the fighting on the ground. Most pictures in the newspapers are about international troops hugging local village elders and having tea with them. This is a very biased view of the war. The other side of this war is beyond imagination—the collateral damage, the human cost. This is the reality that needs to be seen so that we can collectively bring an end to this war. Sadly, this is exactly what politicians don’t want the public at large to see.”

Covering a war also means dismal living conditions. All one can do is get used to it. In 2004, for example, Tauseef found himself sleeping in the oddest of places in Fallujah, Iraq, embedded with US Marines. “They stay in abandoned homes and always carry rations and water with them,” he says, “It was my first trip outside Kashmir, where even in the worst of situations, we always had plenty to eat and drink. In Iraq, I was eating paltry rations out of a plastic packet and thinking ‘Kashmir is heaven on earth’.”

Yet, war photography is hard to quit. “The action sucks you in,” says Tauseef, “I have been to Afghanistan five times. Recently, my office asked me to go back there for an assignment, but I refused. I have a feeling that I have been five times lucky, and just don’t want to push my luck anymore.”

Arko says that if he wanted to make money, there would be many other professions he could take up. “I would be lying if I said the awards, fame, and, most importantly, frontpage bylines weren’t motivations,” he says, “But more than anything else, what motivates me is the possibility of making a difference. Not every picture I take may change a life. But the possibility of it is enough.”

Altaf doesn’t necessarily want to shoot conflict for the rest of his life, but that’s a decision for later. “I would love to shoot wildlife,” he says, “For now, though, I feel like I can do something to show others what war is really like. I think it goes back to where I come from. In Kashmir, when I was very young and the insurgency was very volatile, I was used as a human shield once. I saw brutality and injustice all around. I want to show people what happens in conflict… who pays the price. Maybe someday once wars are over and politicians become better people, I will shoot something happier.”

For Rafiq, outside the danger zone, war is like a perpetual hangover. “While there, you are on the road constantly,” he says, “travelling in trucks, planes, helicopters, buses, even Humvees. You wonder if you will ever sleep in your own bed again. And then soon enough, you are home, having a hot meal, enjoying the love and attention of your family. You lie down in your own warm bed. But you can’t sleep. You toss and turn, wondering what is happening in Kabul, in Kunar province, in Bagram, in Herat. You think about the guys in Bravo Company, in the Special Forces, in the Afghan National Army. You get up and write a mail to your office, saying you are ready to get back on the road again. This is the life of a war photographer.”