'There's no plan for this sort of photography': PTI's Atul Yadav on the migrant crisis' most defining image so far

PTI chief photo correspondent Atul Yadav's photograph of Rampukar Pandit is the defining image of the coronavirus-induced migrant crisis in India

Karan Pradhan May 15, 2020 13:27:20 IST
'There's no plan for this sort of photography': PTI's Atul Yadav on the migrant crisis' most defining image so far

"His name was Rampukar — but he didn't tell me that. I only found out a few days later in a newspaper report. At the time, I couldn't even ask him his name," recalls Press Trust of India's chief photo correspondent Atul Yadav, "He was unable to say very much beyond 'udhar (there)' — which is where he was trying to go."

On Monday, Yadav was driving through Delhi's Nizamuddin area, when he spotted Rampukar Pandit (as identified by Hindi daily Hindustan) barely able to hold his phone to his ear. "It was at around 5.15 pm when I saw him sitting by the side of the road a little before the Yamuna bridge. I stopped my car and pulled over near him," he tells Firstpost, adding, "I then rolled down my window and photographed the man before getting out to go and check on him."

Theres no plan for this sort of photography PTIs Atul Yadav on the migrant crisis most defining image so far

Atul Yadav's photograph of Rampukar Pandit. PTI

Moved by the heart-wrenching visual he had just captured on his Nikon D4s camera, Yadav went over to enquire after the distraught man's situation. "His son had passed away and he was unable to go to him. When I asked him where it was he had to go, he repeatedly pointed in the general direction of the Yamuna bridge, saying 'udhar'," explains Yadav, who recollects Rampukar later indicating that he had to go somewhere in Uttar Pradesh.

"While I was talking to him, some policemen came over and asked what was happening," says Yadav, "I explained and offered to take him across the state border, but was told not to let him into my car. The cops told me to be on my way and that they would make sure he got home." It would later transpire that udhar was in fact, Bariarpur in Bihar's Begusarai. As per the Hindustan report, Rampukar used to work in Delhi's Nawada and upon hearing of his son's death, tried to make his way home. Unfortunately, he had been stopped at the UP Gate for three days before being allowed to make the journey home.

As per a report by Jignasa Sinha of The Indian Express, Rampukar boarded a train home on Thursday, but he missed the funeral of his son.

He was finally taken back home on a bicycle on 19 May after he was discharged from a block hospital at Begusarai's Khodawandpur, according to a PTI report.

"My test (for coronavirus) came out negative and I was told I could go home but only if someone from my family could accompany me. So, I called my wife. Since no means of conveyance was available, she left home on foot for the Khodawandpur block hospital," he told the agency.

Rampukar's wife Bimal Devi had walked about three or four kilometres towards the hospital on Monday when their nephew, on his way to buy ration on a bicycle, saw her and instead of going to a shop offered her a ride to the hospital.

"My nephew, who is about 15 years old, called up another relative who also reached the hospital riding a bicycle. After being discharged in the evening, my wife sat on the back of the nephew's bicycle and I on the back of my cousin's bicycle, and it took us about 1.5 hours to reach home," he said.

Photographing tragedy

When it comes to the documenting human suffering and hopelessness, such photographs as Nick Ut's The Terror of War, Richard Drew's The Falling Man, Raghu Rai's Burial of an Unknown Child and Arko Datta's photograph of Qutubuddin Ansari come instantly to mind. It's for good reason, after all, that these haunting images have come to define the tragedies with which they are associated: Vietnam War, 11 September terror attacks, Bhopal gas tragedy and the Godhra riots respectively.

Yadav's image from four days ago is no different. "There's no plan for this sort of photography," explains the PTI photojournalist when asked if concepts like composition, framing and lighting come to mind while trying to capture tragedy. "I just pulled over, shot a quick burst of images and then got out of the car," he adds, "I couldn't bring myself to even lift the camera while talking to him, never mind taking any more pictures of him."

The photo of Rampukar is far from Yadav's only visual documentation of the migrant crisis thus far.

"I took a picture of this heavily pregnant woman walking with her family along the side of the road," he says about the image above, "She had stopped to rest because she was clearly exhausted, but so too was her young son, who was crying for her to carry him." But hers isn't an isolated case, he points out. "One night, I was driving down the highway and came across a group of people — some of whom were barefoot — making their way home in a line on the side of the road in the dark."

When it comes to poignant images, here's one that needs no elaboration:

'Never seen anything like this'

Over the course of his career, Yadav has been on assignment all over the world and is no stranger to covering tragedies and disasters. "I covered the 2004 tsunami in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, the 2005 earthquake in Jammu and Kashmir and the floods in the region a little under a decade later," he says, "But I've never seen anything like this [ongoing coronavirus crisis] before; it's a very different sort of challenge."

The disasters of the past were different for two key reasons, he states. "First, in all the tragedies in years gone by, while there was a great deal of suffering, people knew it would come to an end after a while and it did. Second, whether during an earthquake or a flood, people were always chipping in to help out in whatever way they could." That no one has any idea about when the coronavirus pandemic will end and when life can begin returning to normal is a major divergence from the past.

"This leads to the buildup of a lot of fear because no one knows what to do or what will happen the next day," he reasons, adding, "And while it's painful to see people suffering, you are simply not allowed to help on a number of occasions." Referring to the need for social distancing and avoiding contact, he says, "Even if you want to give someone a packet of biscuits, you have to place them on the ground and step back so that s/he can come and pick it up. It's heartbreaking."

You'll be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate word to describe the ongoing crisis encapsulated in the photo of Rampukar.

With inputs from PTI

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