[Disclaimer: This article contains graphic images. Viewer discretion is advised.]
Sebastian D’Souza’s soft and eloquent voice and hearty laughter might not point you towards his courageous and daring feats, but the 65 year old, now retired photographer can still calmly recall the details of the Mumbai Attacks with vivid imagination.
The evening of the 26th of November in 2008 was a normal one for the thousands of passengers passing through central Mumbai’s Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station. Right across the street in the Times of India building, Sebastian D’Souza, head of the Mumbai Mirror’s photography department, a newspaper housed in the Times of India building was also deciding to head home from what he calls “a boring day”. Recounting the day he says, “We were all just packing our bags and wrapping up a few edits.” Little did any one know what was to follow.
That evening, ten members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic militant organisation based in Pakistan, carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days across the Indian city of Mumbai. 164 people lost their lives and over 300 were injured in one of the deadliest terror attacks in recent memory.
D’Souza’s images of the attacks carried out inside the CST station by Ismail Khan and Ajmal Kasab, who was later captured alive by Indian authorities dominated world headlines and remain some of the most widely circulated images of those attacks till date.
The images closely and boldly depict Kasab and Ismail’s shooting rampage inside CST station.
Post the attack; legal proceedings ensued resulting in a dossier crossing 11,000 pages. Sebastian D’Souza’s photographs became the glue that held that dossier together and ensured that the legal argument did not fall through in court. “In the end, the pictures nailed him. It was all that we needed” Ujjwal Nikam, public prosecutor in the case would comment on it a few years later.
Since retiring and settling down in Goa, Sebastian D’Souza or ‘Saby’ still finds time to lock his eyes onto subjects, and is currently putting together a project on north Indian migrant workers in the city.
Saby was born in Mumbai in a humble home where his mother was a homemaker and father a typewriter repairer. “We were not very well off, but I was always a very artistic child. I loved the arts,” he says while divulging details about his past and his interests. “I was always into painting and sketching as a child and I discovered technical drawing when I was in 7th standard and hoped to become and architect one day.” Money was hard for the family to come by, ensuring that, that dream remained unfulfilled leading D’Souza to “discover photography later on in life.” Being a true Mumbaiite, he carried on the famed “Maratha Warrior” courage through out his career spanning almost 4 decades, covering many assignments which saw bloodshed and fighting.
Here he is recounting his photographic journey and the happenings of that fateful night to us:
Can you recount that day for us?
There was nothing special about that day to begin with, we were all about to leave for the evening. There was not much to do except finalise a few edits here and there. My camera bag was packed when I heard that somewhere in the Taj Hotel, a man had entered and was firing indiscriminately. Everybody picked up their bags and ran. Then I heard a grenade go off in the CST station, which is right opposite our office building, so I decided to go there instead.
As I entered, I heard the sound of gunshots coming from the lower floors. I was the last photographer to get inside and I found my way by looking at what was happening and where the people were rushing to. Everybody including photographers and policemen were running away so I decided to head towards what they were running from. It was a simple instinct. That is how I have always worked, just going against the grain of what is happening.
I had nothing in my mind. Absolutely blank. I observed my surroundings to see what was happening and always kept my guard up as I wanted to get pictures as effectively as I could and that is the only thing that I was worried about.
When I reached the platforms I saw two young terrorists, firing away at everything. They were expert shooters and were trained to make a kill in a single shot. Bang! A single shot and a body would fall down, so I exerted great caution.
All other photographers with me had run away, and I was the only one left. Police constables were either dead or running away as they were not fully equipped. I constantly took cover behind pillars or other such structures and then clicked away with the camera in hand. I am sure that the terrorists heard my camera click a couple of times.
I decided to follow them as they moved around and decided to move in closer to their location. I finally landed up inside a train coach and kept on clicking through the door and windows. There was not much distance between me and them, only about 1 train coach’s length or about 20-25 meters.
By this time, there was pin drop silence only interrupted by their firing, and I could even hear my own breath. While I was taking cover inside the coach, I could hear their footsteps coming towards me, and I held myself to ensure that I did not touch anything or make a noise. I even decided to hold my breath as it was so quiet that it could be heard. They were making their way to the opposite direction and passed right outside my train compartment. They were very close and I remember thinking that I could have shot them dead if I had a gun with me.
I decided to peek out as I could not see where they had gone. All of this had taken about an hour atleast and I had clicked more than 100 pictures. I decided to head back to my office and later on I found out that they had crossed the same lane in front of our office and had even tried to enter in. Had I known this I would have followed them further.
What was going through your mind? Were you afraid?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was blank. I had switched my phone off so that no one calls and disturbs me. It was just about getting the job done. As far as being afraid is concerned, I am never scared of anything. I believe that God is always with me and that nothing can go wrong because of that. Whatever has to happen, will happen. That day it was my job to click those pictures, and I did.
I was conscious of my surroundings and the lighting and I deliberately did not push my ISO settings beyond 400 to ensure that I had a noise free image and took support of pillars or trains or whatever was there to ensure that my pictures were in focus. I had a long lens and was shooting at 200mm. I only played back my images a couple of times to see if the exposure was okay.
How did your past experience pay off that day?
My first big assignment in the early part of my career was to cover the riots in Mumbai. I learnt somethings early such as being patient and being practical. It is foolish to go running with your camera and point it into the face of an angry mob. You have to keep distance, move, engage, dialogue and communicate both with words and with body language. Sometimes you may think that pulling your camera out and just moving around is a good thing in a situation like that, but it is not, if you be patient, the images will come to you automatically. I learnt from watching soldiers over the years; they always take cover and don’t rush into things.
Secondly, I learnt to always keep my emotions in check and keep my head on top of things always. I don’t get carried away in the adrenaline rush and get excited as doing that will attract too much attention to one’s self. Also I learnt not to let other thoughts such as that of my friends and family cloud my head. That way you I don’t get the chills, and lose my reflexes. That always helps me keep my guard up. There has to be a balance between the two, which only comes with experience.
The third and most important thing I learnt from my art teacher in school- to be always observant and keep all eyes and ears open.
What did your family think?
My wife Rosy knows me for many years and is aware of the kind of “crazy” things I do. She knew that I would always go out with my camera if something like this happened. I had switched off my phone and was not reachable to ensure my own safety. I only got to have a word with her when I was back in the office downloading and editing my pictures and she had called up a colleague to find out if I was okay. She was obviously very emotional. The attacks were still on and I only went back home two days later to change clothes. When I entered home she hugged me and cried, and told me how concerned she was. I told her not to worry as I know that God is always watching over us and ensures our safety.
When did you know the importance of your images?
I went back to my office to edit and file the images like any other assignment. There was no excitement in me, it was not something to celebrate, it was just like any other assignment but I knew that the images were important.
On the morning of 27th November when I reached the Taj hotel to photograph some more, I saw all the other photographers looking at me with jealousy, nobody came up to me or discussed, it is then that I got to know that I was the only one with such kind of images. A few approached me later and asked me if they could get the picture, I told them it was not possible.
It is only when the pictures were approved and out to print that I asked my editor for putting it onto the Comyan (Central server network that reaches all stations) as I was afraid that It will get stolen.
It was not for money, but to ensure that the images remain as proof. I did not make any money from the images and gave them image out for free later, even to agencies such as AP- Associated Press.
What did testifying in court mean for you?
I still have the camera and the card with the pictures in it. I never deleted the card as I knew that it could be used as proof. I only made copies onto hard drives.
When I was in court, I did not say anything. Till that time Kasab was claiming that it was not him and then the judge showed him my images. He became quiet and did not say anything after that. He even had tears in his eyes. I felt bad for him as he was only a young kid when his mind was turned into these things and because he was a poor chap who had basically done this for money.
What did you expect from the publication of your images?
Nothing. I have never wanted any awards or recognition. My images just tell the truth of that day, which if the job of photography and in particular photojournalism.
D’Souza was given a honorary mention in the ‘Spot News’ category at the World Press Photo awards 2009 for his coverage of the terror attacks. A gallery of some of the images can be found here. The weight of D’Souza’s contribution though cannot be measured in awards or prizes, but in recognising one man’s unbridled will power and dedication towards his task and hand and in treating every photographic assignment as the same, no matter how big or small.
If you like our content, don’t forget to show us your support-
Receive regular e-mail updates by subscribing to our Newsletter