Graphics by: Raja Choudhury
Long before he became the most sought-after Indian sports photographer, adding a dash of glamour to cricket photography, Kamal Sharma had a rude awakening. Sharma saw the harsh realities of life in a big city after he had left his hometown, Ferozepur, Punjab, for Delhi, in search of a better life.
Sharma would sleep on a Delhi railway platform in the night after doing odd jobs under an unforgiving sun in India’s capital.
But not even the noise of the passing trains in the dead of the night nor the people that had duped him in broad daylight could have prepared Sharma for the dagger that pierced through the Big Apple’s heart on 9/11.
For a man who made up for his failure to become a professional cricketer by carving out a niche of his own as a cricket photographer, Sharma became the only Indian photojournalist to have captured the horrors of the worst terror attack in history.
So, how did one of the most renowned names in Indian sports journalism land up in Manhattan, New York, 20 years ago on that fateful day that brought down the Twin Towers (World Trade Center) and changed the course of human history?
The invitation that brought him to New York
“Of course, cricket took me to America,” Sharma recalled days before the world marks the 20th year of the attack in the American heart.
“I was invited by Wasim Akram to cover a six-nation exhibition tournament in New Jersey. After that cricket tournament, I stayed back to cover the US Open Grand Slam.”
A couple of days after an Australian upstart named Lleyton Hewitt crushed American idol Pete Sampras in the 2001 US Open final, Sharma woke up to a piece of devastating news.
“My brother-in-law woke me up and said the World Trade Centre was hit by a plane. I was shaken by the news because only the previous day, I was clicking pictures of the Twin Towers and the Empire State Building,” Sharma said.
“But the journalist in me was pushing me to rush to the scene of the tragedy. So I told my brother-in-law I had to go to Manhattan and take pictures of the crash. But it wasn’t until we were in the car that we realised that it was not an accident. It was a terror attack and that the second tower was also hit by another plane!”
When Sharma arrived at Manhattan, he saw thousands of people evacuating the area. “And no one, absolutely no one, was going towards it apart from one policeman. But no matter what, I decided to go towards the burning tower. The first tower (the North Tower) had already collapsed,” he said.
“By then I was in New York for two months. You know Manhattan, it’s always full of people. It never sleeps. But the roads were completely deserted that morning after the incident. I took pictures of the empty streets. That was a story in itself, a story of an empty Manhattan.” Sharma still gets nightmares of that horrific day that killed more than 2,900 people.
“As a photojournalist, I was lucky to be in New York that day to capture those moments. But as a human being, it was the worst experience of my life,” Sharma said.
“I saw people in disbelief. I saw people covered in dust. But also what struck me at that moment about the American people was that — even though they were trying to escape the mayhem — there was no chaos, no unruly behaviour. Everyone was following the rules. The discipline that had been ingrained in them was visible even in that catastrophe.”
Sharma says he wasn’t aware of the magnitude of what he was doing that day.
“When I look back now, anything could have happened to me that day. You know I was just a random guy from India taking pictures, even though I had a professional camera,” he said.
“I was not there from any of the American publications. The police could have shot at me at that moment, or they could have arrested me. After all, America was in the middle of the worst attack in its history. But that thought never crossed my mind. I just went on taking pictures.” The collapse of the Twin Towers and the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11 may have brought a paradigm shift in world politics, but the artist in Sharma prefers to reflect on the visual appeal New York lost that day.
“I remember taking pictures of The Brooklyn Bridge, with the Twin Tower-dominated Manhattan skyline in the background. It was a splendid sight. You know The Brooklyn Bridge is a 100-year-old bridge and the twin towers were the most-photographed buildings in history. The Brooklyn Bridge was like a grandparent and twin towers were born and died in front of it.”
Exhibitions in India
After Sharma returned to India, his 9/11 pictures exuded such admiration that the list of people wanting to get enlarged copies included the iconic Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar.
“From Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid to Harbhajan Singh, all of them wanted enlarged photos. Sachin even asked me to sign on them. I was a little taken aback because I had heard that Sachin had only taken two autographs in his life, one from Martina Navratilova and the other from Michael Schumacher,” recalled Sharma.
Sharma went on to hold more than 20 9/11 photo exhibitions. “All the big newspapers in Delhi featured my pictures. And the response to the exhibitions was heartwarming. People like Sachin and Kapil Dev attended them,” said Sharma.
“We even had people from the American embassy and the top officers from Delhi Police. Then I was invited to host an exhibition at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. It’s very difficult to get a slot there. They saw my pictures somewhere and invited me. It was a one-month exhibition.”
But Sharma says the world still hasn’t learnt from the mistakes even 20 years after that attack.
“I get disheartened by the disharmony I see among people,” he said.
“You know I would not have been in New York 20 years ago if not for an invitation from Wasim Akram. I share a great camaraderie with Wasim. I wish we have more such stories of brotherhood. The world would be a much better place.”