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Photojournalists are at the forefront when it comes to covering war, earthquakes, disasters and bomb blasts. But they usually pay an emotional price for this exclusive access
Even though Arko Datta, 37, of Reuters covered the recent bomb blasts at Mumbai, what remains etched in his memory is this image from the 2002 Gujarat riots: At Gulmarg society, where more than 40 people were burnt to death, as he was led into the building he almost stepped on something and pulled back. “When I looked closely, I realised it was the hand of a baby,” he says. “It had tiny fingers and had been chopped and burnt.” Despite covering so many deaths in wars and disasters all over the world, this was a completely new experience for him: “Out here, right in the heart of Ahmedabad, in a residential complex, people who were living next to each other had become enemies.”
There were more horrors ahead: He was led towards a room, and when the door was opened, he saw a pile of bodies of women and children, all burnt to death. The people told him what had happened: “They had locked themselves in,” he says. “The rioters stood outside. Instead of breaking down the door, they played a little game. They poured water under the door and then slipped in live, electric wires. They tried to electrocute the victims before killing and burning them.” Later, when he enquired about Ehsan Jaffry, the former MP, who lived in the building, he was led back to the road towards some ash on the ground, near a skull and said, “This is Jaffry saab.”
For Manoj Patil, chief photographer of the Hindustan Times, the most vivid image was the bodies lying on top of each other in the first class bogie at Mahim station. “I had reached there within ten minutes of the blast,” he says. “There were dead people lying on the tracks, a couple of bodies were jammed in the wheels of the bogie and there were a few on the platform.” He was in a dilemma: how to shoot while people were helping those who were injured.
Aijaz Rahi, 33, of the Associated Press has a different image that remains vividly in his mind. He was standing outside the morgue of the Bhabha hospital on that Tuesday night. “There were people coming in with hope on their faces,” he says. “They really did not want their relatives to be found inside the morgue.” They had to wait in a queue to go inside. When some of them came out without identifying anybody, there was a sort of insecurity while at the same time, there was a sense of satisfaction, that maybe, their relative might have survived. “And then I saw people coming out after identifying a family member and breaking down,” he says. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
On a sunny afternoon, I meet Arko Datta at the Barista outlet at Phoenix Mills. He has just been back after covering two months of cricket in the Caribbean, and looks weather-beaten, with a mop of hair and a straggly beard, which is a mix of black and grey. Famous in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, for winning the World Press Photo 2004, for a picture of a grieving woman at Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu after the tsunami, and of Qutubuddin Ansari, who was the face of the Gujarat riots, he is not as well known in India.
Photojournalists, like their counterparts in Indian television, are regarded as foot soldiers. Yet, they play a vital role when natural disasters, earthquakes, riots and bomb blasts take place. They are nearly the first to arrive and it is their documentation of the event that shapes the sensibilities of people worldwide.
The emotional cost
So, do they get affected by all what they see? Sebastian D’Souza, 54, of the Agence France Presse, says he has no such problems. “I pray for the victims. And because I am so tired after a long day of shooting, I have a peaceful sleep.” D’Souza, in his 17th year with AFP, seems to have gained a measure of tranquillity, thanks to all those years of experience. But, for the younger photojournalists, it has been hard. “I know I will never forget these gory images, but life has to go on,” says Patil.
Datta, who has covered the Kargil war, says, “After I returned from Kargil, if someone closed the door hard or there was a loud sound, I would jump from the bed and hit the ground. The Kargil experience kept reappearing in my dreams for almost a month. I won’t say I was disturbed, but the images kept coming back.”
Datta takes a sip of his coffee, and as I watch a pretty blonde play with her daughter at a nearby table, he comes up with an eloquent explanation: “In the early part of your career, the camera acts like a wall and the victims are on the other side. But, over time, the wall tends to disappear completely and you become emotionally vulnerable because you tend to relate more.”
Because of this empathy, Rahi, who is a Kashmiri, and has covered more than a hundred bomb blasts during his seven-year stint in Srinagar, has occasionally suffered from trauma. “I could not go to sleep,” he says. “In my dreams, I would see all those horrible images.”
As to whether the trauma has affected his relationship with his family, Rahi agrees readily. “If you have witnessed a gory incident, you are not going to go home happy or cheerful,” he says. “You might shout at your wife, you might not want to eat dinner, you might not want to talk. For example, if my wife asks me something, I might react in an aggressive manner.”
Rahi, however, does not give the impression that he can blow a fuse. He is wearing a green Wrangler T-shirt and loose cargo jeans and sandals and looks at peace in the quiet, air-conditioned office of the Associated Press at Churchgate.
As for Datta, he says he gets his emotional sustenance from his wife, Jyothi, 34, and that helps him tide over the difficult times. “My wife gives me unstinted support and strength, even though it’s hard for her: In the last ten months, I have been home for only 20 days.”
So what do the wives feel about the situation? When I phone Jyothi, she says, “Being a journalist myself, at one level, I can understand the importance of his work. But, on the other hand, as a wife, companion and friend, it has been very difficult.”
Rahi’s wife, Iram, 26 admits her husband would get upset after he returned from covering the bomb blasts. “Once in a while, he would tell me about some of the images he saw,” she says. “To tackle this sort of situation, what a wife needs to show is understanding.”
Don’t get carried away
Despite their sufferings, most of them have a deep appreciation of life. Datta tells me that one evening, after returning home after covering the recent blasts, he just hugged his wife and said, with deep feeling, “We are alive!” All of them have seen life, in its extreme manifestations, sans illusions or blinkers, in so many different environments. And because of intense careers they have the experience of veterans. So what is their advice to those who are starting out?
“Don’t blindly rush in only thinking about your pictures,” says Datta. “Don’t be swayed by your ambition.” Rahi feels young photographers should be taught how to protect their lives, how to cover the incident and how to help people out.
A few years ago, his office sent him to do a week’s training in England by a group of former British Army officers. “They gave us the basic knowledge of first aid, arms and ammunition, booby traps and how to work in a hostile environment,” he says. “It was helpful and all news organisations in India should send their photographers for similar training.”
D’Souza says he has noticed a disturbing trend these days: the public readily beat up photographers and TV cameramen when they arrive at the scene of a tragedy. But he has an explanation for this. “As soon as these young photojournalists arrive at the site, they whip out their cameras and start shooting,” he says. “That is why the public gets angry.”
The method, he says, is to go in and mingle with the crowd. “You should enquire about what has happened,” he says. “You should also try to help. It is only after that, you should start clicking.”
James Nachtwey, one of the world’s leading photographers, when it comes to covering wars and disasters in the past twenty years, says the same thing. “When I approach people, I do it with respect and with deference,” he says, in an interview with American web site, salon.com. “I do it slowly and gently and I think about the way I move, the way I speak and the way I use the camera. I let them know I respect them and what they are going through. I could not take my pictures without their acceptance and participation.”
So what’s the future going to be like? Will there be any more blasts in the city and the country? The wise D’Souza says, “In India, the politician has brought religion into politics and divided the people. The poison has seeped deep into society. What is happening today is revenge and nothing else.” The Muslims, he says, have a lot of resentments, built up over the years and it is not necessarily because of the Gujarat riots. “The Pakistanis may be giving a helping hand, but the community feels very alienated today. The grudge has gone too deep. I am afraid it will never end.”