Shoot At Sight

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Parvaiz Bukhari reports on photographer Rafiq Maqbool’s brush with Pulitzer glory

AT A chaotic hospital inside the American military base in Bagram, a badly wounded soldier shouted, “Allow him to come inside, let him take his shot.”

Rafiq Maqbool took his shot that would take him to the 2010 Pulitzer jury. He is perhaps the only photographer to have captured a wounded American soldier being treated inside a field base hospital in Afghanistan. Maqbool, a Kashmiri photographer working with the Associated Press, had never imagined competing for the prestigious prize. He finally emerged the runner-up. It was a strange mixture of luck and diligence.

Up close Maqbool’s Pulitzer-nominated photo of American soldier Anthony Vandegrift
Up close Maqbool’s Pulitzer-nominated photo of American soldier Anthony Vandegrift

Maqbool knew the soldier. He had first clicked Anthony Vandegrift playing a guitar during one of the numerous times the photographer was embedded with the US forces. His training in Kashmir had taught him what it takes to gain access at critical times covering an armed conflict. Anthony called the officer in-charge to be the witness and stamped his signature with a fractured hand. “You’ve been good company. I am doing it for a friend,” Anthony told the photographer. And the paper authorised Maqbool to leave the base hospital with the picture.

For those who do not fully comprehend how the American war in Afghanistan plays out in the global media, the photograph would appear as ordinary as it did initially to Maqbool himself. The picture, taken on June 1, 2009, shows US medical personnel treating Anthony in the emergency room after he was wounded in a roadside bombing. “It may not have been a great shot. I have taken much better pictures,” says Maqbool, now based in Mumbai. But this one was shortlisted by the Pulitzer jury as one of the “unforgettable images that take viewers to the frontlines of America’s war in Afghanistan”.

Maqbool, 33, grew up in Srinagar, the urban hub of Kashmir’s bloody insurgency. He studied science but could not complete his graduation. “I could not deal with college and what was happening around me,” says Maqbool. “For the absence of anything better to do,” he started shooting what affected him for a local newspaper, making his way to the AP in 2001. He once had a close brush with death when a grenade exploded just a few feet away from him while covering a fidayeen attack in Srinagar. Amidst the sound of gunfire, he saw a vehicle emerging through a cloud of smoke and dust. He recalls: “Instinctively, I reached for my camera and started taking pictures. It was only then I realised I couldn’t possibly be dead.” Later, doctors in a Delhi hospital found shrapnel close to his brain.

Apart from Afghanistan, Maqbool has covered war in Sri Lanka and nature’s fury in Bangladesh. But he took his award-winning pictures in Kashmir’s Himalayas and Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush. He also won the 2005 World Press Photo award for the Kashmir earthquake.

The ‘conflict photographer’, as many of his citations title him, says he dreams of an assignment in Kashmir when “I don’t have to frame guns and trauma”.

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