Altaf Qadri was born in Kashmir and had a career in IT well before picking up photography as a hobby in 1999. Since then, he has won numerous photojournalism awards and worked for two major press photo agencies, including the AP, his current employer. He tells us the story of how his career in photojournalism got started, through a mixture of grit, serendipity, and a helping hand.
Being from Kashmir, I witnessed many events during my teenage years, so I always wanted to show what was happening on the ground there. But my parents wanted me to be a computer engineer. But journalism was always on my mind.
So in 1999 I started shooting as a hobby – taking pictures of flowers and landscapes and stuff like that. During those days I used to study as well as work in an IT company. During 2000 there was a huge recession in the IT market and I was left jobless. So I thought, let me try photography now.
During those days I had a chat friend from Malaysia and we used to chat on Yahoo messenger. One day I asked her if she could check the cameras; how much does this camera cost and that camera cost? She checked the rates of the cameras and then I told her, ‘ Thanks, but I can’t afford so much money to buy a camera,’ because I was out of a job. I didn’t want to ask my dad for the money because he was already sponsoring my education.
Suddenly she said, ‘Okay, I will send you a camera and you can give me back money whenever you earn something.’ I said, ‘How can you trust a guy who you just met online? You don’t know me, I could be a liar or a crook, you don’t know.’ She said, ‘I don’t mind, I don’t think you’re that kind of guy.’ So she sent me a camera and I started working.
One evening I was here in Delhi, it was around 8:30 at night. I heard sirens in a locality which was quite far from where I usually live. It sounded like there were at least a dozen trucks going to extinguish the fire. So I thought it was something huge. I picked the camera up, I took four rolls of film, and I followed the last truck which was going there. And soon I was in this industrial area and a chemical factory was on fire, a huge fire. I started shooting, even though I wasn’t shooting for anyone, just for myself.
During the day, I got the film processed and printed, and I went to the office of the Times of India, which is a big newspaper in India. I asked if I could see the chief photographer or anyone from the photo department. And the chief photographer was not there, however his deputy was in the office and he spoke to me over the phone. I told him, ‘I shot this fire last night and I wanted you to see the pictures.’ So he came to the reception and he looked at my pictures and he said, ‘They’re fine, but the thing is that we’re working on tomorrow’s issue, it’s going to be three days late.’ He said, ‘Keep in touch, whenever you shoot, come here and show me pictures.’
I thought, it’s not working here, so I went back to Kashmir and started working for a local newspaper for 1,000 rupees, which is roughly 30 dollars a month. I thought of it as an investment in my career and I thought it would give me a foothold in the market, I’d get to see how it works, how to do assignments and how to shoot.
In February 2002, I’m getting a call from the guy I met at the Times of India. And interestingly he had joined EPA, European Press Photo Agency, as the Indian Subcontinent Chief. So he asked me if I was interested in working for EPA from Kashmir. I said yeah, why not? And hence I got into it completely. From that day I never looked back.
When I think, how did it happen – it was something divine. Like somebody was guiding me towards this direction.
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Photo Above: Myanmar’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is silhouetted against setting sun as she arrives to deliver her speech during an election campaign rally in Thongwa village some 50 kms from Yangon, Myanmar, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012. Photo by Altaf Qadri.