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Wanted to show the plight of the Rohingyas: Pulitzer-winning photographer Adnan Abidi

Adnan Abidi, the first Indian photojournalist along with Danish Siddiqui to win the Pulitzer Prize, talks to us about his award-winning coverage of the Rohingya crisis

delhi Updated: Apr 29, 2018 17:57 IST
Jasjeet Plaha
Jasjeet Plaha
Hindustan Times
Pulitzer Prize,Adnan Abidi,Feature Photography
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Adnan Abidi(Jasjeet Plaha/HT Photo)

Adnan Abidi started off as a darkroom assistant in 1997, the first level in the days of film. “I bought my first camera with my father’s pension fund and later joined a national wire (PTI) after a few years stint with local wire agencies,” says the Delhi-based photojournalist, who is now a proud recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. Adnan and Danish Siddiqui (both from Reuters) are the first Indians to bag the prestigious award in feature photography for documenting the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Both of them along with other five photojournalists represented the international wire as a team that won the award.

Mohammed Shoaib, 7, who was shot in his chest before crossing the border from Myanmar in August, is held by his father outside a medical centre near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh ( Adnan Abidi/REUTERS )

Has the feeling sunk in? “It’s indeed a great honour, and I am grateful… I’m actually now more on my toes and giving much greater attention to the details of every story I’ve been assigned post that one,” says Adnan, who has more than two decades of experience in photojournalism, and has captured many other challenging incidents such as IC-814 hijack, 2004 Tsunami, Nepal earthquake, Cyclone Phailin in Orissa, the Maldives coupe and Dhaka terrorist attack on his lens.

Rohingya siblings fleeing violence hold one another as they cross the Naf River along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Palong Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh ( Adnan Abidi/ REUTERS )

We get talking to the man about his winning shot for the wire, where he has been employed for years now. “Reuters gave me the opportunity to shoot for them in the year 2005 and I joined as a stringer and later moved to a staff position and rest is history,” he says.


Tell us more about your journey of capturing the Rohingyas’ fate through your lens. What made you choose this subject?

As a wire photographer and being based in this region, I knew it was a big story but had to await my turn to be on the spot. I didn’t choose the story; the story chose me and I did my part. As for the coverage, I didn’t have a detailed plan, but I had a narrative in my mind and that’s what I followed. Upon reaching there, I found myself searching for emotions that portray the larger picture of such a mass exodus. I may be lucky but I was able to capture two boys going back to the other side in search of [their] parents as opposed to what most have them crossing over to Bangladesh.

The experience must have affected you emotionally? Any learning you’d like to share?

Yes, it was exhausting both physically and emotionally, I did break down once, but hats off to their resilience and optimism. I didn’t feel unwelcome and I noticed, these people (Rohingyas) did want media to show what is/was happening to them. There were many instances wherein they helped me climb out of the muddy river and paddy fields.

While covering a sensitive issue like this, do you keep anything specific in mind? Do’s and don’ts?

The thing to bear in mind is to be understanding and compassionate about the situation and gel with the surroundings by not letting our comfort zones rule us. One needs to mix with people as much as possible and not pose as a person benefitting from their misery. Although different situations demand different preparations, and there are no set of rules, only one’s experience and intuition help him sail through.

Who or what inspired you to become a photojournalist?

No one physically guided me to this profession. At a younger age, I was inspired by a picture that I saw in a book of the legendary photographer S Paul and I was quite intrigued, not just by that picture but also how a daily mundane activity can be captured on film so creatively. As luck had it I found myself lugged with a film Fm 2 camera wandering on the Delhi streets

Whose photography do you admire the most?

I have a list of people whom I look forward to, some were field seniors and colleagues based in other regions. I adore Goran Tomasevic’s (from Reuters) simplicity of capturing amazing unguarded moments in conflict zones.

Any message for budding photojournalists?

I feel that one must not proceed to win an award but enjoy the journey of making pictures. For me, an award is an unexpected bonus but what really matters is the love for the job, and the ‘job’ here is quite exciting — it’s a new assignment every day, provoking various emotions in oneself, and exploring one’s creativity.

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First Published: Apr 29, 2018 17:55 IST