He once struggled to buy a camera for himself, and today he is in the league of the world’s best photojournalists. Tasavur Mushtaq reports on Altaf Qadri’s remarkable journey of capturing moments of truth.
There was a time when he was used as a human shield by ‘security forces’ in Kashmir, his homeland. Today, he is an accomplished photojournalistreporting the reality of wars throughout the world.
In the 1990s, Altaf Qadri was living a life that would lead him to become a routine computer professional. But an incident occurred that shook him to the core. One evening in 1996, Altaf was coming back from the neighborhood mosque. All of a sudden, there was an explosion and a rapid exchange of bullets on Shiraz road.
The BSF officials spotted Altaf near the road from where militants were attacking, grabbed him and used him as an unwitting human shield, he says. “After I was kept in front, there were fortunately only a few aerial shots,” remembers Altaf. He was kept their till 10 PM, and let go only after his uncle intervened. “This made me think—had I been a journalist, I could have put facts in the right perspective,” he says.
Altaf’s family felt insecure about his future in Kashmir after his narrow escape. And so, he moved to Delhi. He pursued a post graduate diploma in computer applications, and then began working for a US-based multinational company Combit as a system administrator. In 2000, the company faced financial setbacks, and as a result Altaf lost his job, and reminded himself of his passion. “Photojournalism was my first, my last and my only interest,” says Altaf.
But at this point in life, Altaf was armed only with his passion—and nothing else. “I couldn’t ask my family to buy me a camera.” As fate would have it, Altaf had an online friend in Malaysia. He discussed his camera specifics with her, but also expressed his inability to buy one for himself. She offered to buy one for him, but he resisted. “I told her, you hardly know me. I could be a crook,” says Altaf, but she refused. Quoting her, Altaf said, “You can make your life with this, and I will be happy.” And so he finally got his first film camera—a Nikon F-65.
Altaf went around photographing every nook and corner of Delhi he could reach, in order to sharpen his skills. One evening he heard the siren of a fire brigade. He loaded his camera and simply followed the sound on his bike. The sounds led him to Okhla, and it was there that he took photographs of a chemical factory on fire from 8:30 PM to 4 AM. After a brief nap, he developed his photographs and went to the Times of India office, hoping to meet the head of the photo department.
Instead, he met his deputy, Harish. “He appreciated my photography, but told me they can’t use them now as they had already reported the incident,” he said. Harish suggested Altaf to visit magazine offices instead. Altaf tried, and was unable to get a job. And so he returned to Kashmir in 2002 and joined the Indian Times. Unsatisfied, he left the job and worked at Afaq for a while, and then Kashmir Observer. In 2003, Altaf got a phone call from Harish. Harish told him about his decision to join a newly launched international photo agency, and offered Altaf a job. “He told me, if you are interested, you can cover Kashmir. I said yes.”
The news agency European Photo Agency (EPA) started its operations from May 2003, and Altaf worked with them for a few years. “At EPA I would work on a variety of stories, but limited only to Kashmir. I thought of exploring my options,” says Altaf. He left the agency and joined Hindustan Times for a month, and then was offered a job with Associated Press (AP) in 2008. He is currently based in Amritsar.
Altaf has worked in some of the major battlefields of the world, and is regarded today as one of the best war photojournalists. He has visited Afghanistan six times since he joined AP in 2008. In 2007, he was assigned to cover the Hajj pilgrimage. Appreciating his work, Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography said Altaf had a “sophisticated eye and highly effective technique.” “He is able to turn commonplace scenes into magical, stand-alone features through his choice of angle, lens, shutter speed and aperture. His work brings wonderful richness and texture to the AP photo report.”
In a recent visit to Libya, Altaf was reported missing and had a narrow escape. He was separated from his colleagues, kept in a small room while others were found by the forces and indiscriminately fired upon. “This is my second life. I can never forget Libya,” he says.
His friend from Malaysia who helped him get his camera is always the first one to call him whenever he wins an award, or is praised in international forums for his work. Altaf has changed 20 cameras since he got his first one which is still with him.
Amongst the many awards he has received, Altaf was awarded first prize by World Press Photo this year for capturing the painful scene at a funeral procession in Palhalan, Pattan in Kashmir in which a girl is clinging to the bed carrying her brother’s dead body. “That day was horrible,” he says.