Manjit Thakur / New Delhi
Long before becoming a famous Indian sports photographer, Kamal Sharma’s pictures had glamorized cricket through his photography.
It was his sheer quest for work that landed him in the USA in time to be the only Indian photojournalist to capture the horrors of 9/11 as it was unfolding in New York and Manhattan, 20 years ago.
How did one of the most famous names in Indian sports journalism arrive 20 years ago in Manhattan, New York on the fateful day that brought down the Twin Towers (World Trade Center) and changed the course of human history?
“Of course, cricket took me to America,” recalls Sharma, “I was invited by Wasim Akram to cover a six-nation exhibition tournament in New Jersey. After that cricket tournament, I stayed to cover the US Open Grand Slam.
In the 2001 US Open final, an Australian rookie named Lleyton Hewitt crushed American hero Pete Sampras, and a few days later, Sharma received the devastating news.
“My brother-in-law woke me up and said that the World Trade Center was hit by a plane. I was shaken by this news because just the previous day, I was clicking pictures of the Twin Towers and Empire State Building,” Sharma said.
“But the journalist in me was goading me to go to the venue of the tragedy. I told my brother-in-law that I had to go to Manhattan and take pictures of the accident. But it wasn't until we were in the car that we realized it was not an accident. It was a terrorist attack and the second tower also hit by a plane!”
When Sharma arrived in Manhattan, he saw thousands of people leaving the area. “No one else, absolutely no one, was going towards him except a policeman. But no matter what, I decided to head towards the burning tower. The first tower (North Tower) had already collapsed."
“By then I had been 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 empty streets. It was a story in itself, the story of an empty Manhattan,” he recalls.
Sharma still lapses into the experience of that day that saw 2,900 people dead in a single day.
"As a photojournalist, I was fortunate enough to capture those moments in New York that day. But as a human being, it was the worst experience of my life," Sharma said.
"I looked at the people in disbelief. I saw people covered in dust. But what also surprised me about the American people at the time was that - even though they were trying to avoid catastrophe - there was no chaos, There was no unruly behaviour. Everyone was following the rules. The discipline that was inherent in them was visible in that disaster as well."
Sharma says that he was not aware of what he was doing that day.
“When I look back now, anything could have happened to me that day. You know I was a random guy from India taking pictures even though I had a professional camera,” he said.
"I wasn't there with any American media. The police could have shot at me at the time, or they could have arrested me. America was in the middle of the worst attack in its history, after all. But that thought never crossed my mind. I just went on clicking pictures."
The collapse of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon attack on 9/11 may have brought a change in world politics, but Sharma's artists like to recount the visual appeal that New York lost on that day.
"I remember taking pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge, with the Twin Tower-dominated Manhattan skyline in the background. It was a spectacular sight. You know, the Brooklyn Bridge is a 100-year-old bridge and the most photographed buildings in Twin Towers history The Brooklyn Bridge was like a grandparent, and the twin towers in front of it were born and died."
After Sharma returned to India, his 9/11 photos garnered so much praise that the iconic Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar. He also asked for copies of the photographs from him.
“From Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid to Harbhajan Singh, they all wanted big photos. Sachin even asked me to sign him. I was a little surprised because I had heard that Sachin had taken only two autographs in his life, one from Martina Navratilova and the other from Michael Schumacher," recalls Sharma.
Sharma organized more than 20 photo exhibitions on 9/11. “My pictures were published in all the big newspapers of Delhi. And the response to the exhibitions was heartwarming. People like Sachin and Kapil Dev attended them."