Horror and privilege of photojournalism

BERLIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 1989: The first section of the Berlin Wall is pushed down by the hands of crowds of determined people on the morning of November 10th 1989. Picture by Tom Stoddart.
BERLIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 1989: The first section of the Berlin Wall is pushed down by the hands of crowds of determined people on the morning of November 10th 1989. Picture by Tom Stoddart.

Morpeth Camera Club

Morpeth Camera Club welcomed internationally acclaimed photojournalist Tom Stoddart to talk about Every Picture Tells A Story.

He was born in Morpeth, brought up in Beadnel and began his career at the Berwick Advertiser. He was told that as a photographer he would enjoy a champagne lifestyle on a beer salary, and over the past 50 years he has enjoyed an incredible life, travelling to many countries.

Photojournalism takes blood, sweat and tears to capture important and dangerous events. This is why these images cannot be just given away.

Photographs of the Rohingya refugee camp illustrated the harsh living conditions during the mass migration of people from Myanmar.

Charities do not always want tragic images, but inspirational ones to encourage donations. However, Tom said an image of a smiling child doesn’t tell the whole picture and people need to see the other side.

He told of a photo shoot of Queen Rania of Jordan, explaining the lengthy organisation, preparation and time restraints, but once the images are handed over to the editor any decision-making is out of his control.

In the North East were photographs taken five years ago at a food bank, where people told Tom their stories, with faces etched with pain and anguish.

Harrowing images of Lesbos followed, with pandemonium as refugees landed on beaches, carrying their possessions, even wheelchairs. Why, Tom asked, would they be there if not desperate?

He said if you shoot in colour you see their clothes, if you shoot in black and white, you see their souls.

When witnessing tragedy, you must be confident that you have the right to be there, and there is no point going unless you get in close. It is not only capturing what you see, but what you feel.

Images of the pushing down of the Berlin Wall by the crowd followed.

Working with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, resulted in Tom capturing famine in Sudan, which he hoped would embarrass politicians.

The aim is not just to shoot horror, it is a means to document and cause outrage.

We saw an image of food being stolen from a starving boy. Tom fetched more food, but said that if you get involved, often you are taking up space from medics.

Images followed of ‘Sniper Alley’ in Sarajevo, where people have to dodge snipers on their way to work, proud people who, during 47 months in siege, still strived to look their best.

Women in conflicts, holding families together by finding water and bread, defiantly well dressed, are a source of inspiration to Tom.

It is stressful, but it is the simple business of finding and capturing a moment for the world to see, then leaving.

Tom said it is interesting and scary to look back at photographs. He sometimes follows them up to see how people are. One mother and child were tracked down to where they are happily settled in Australia.

The hard part is being there, watching the sick and dying. It is hard to keep a ‘look at this’ mentality when mass graves become the norm and when boys handle Kalashnikovs, laughing.

Tom prefers to work alone because groups can sometimes make bad decisions.

We saw images of Rwandan genocide and cholera-ridden refugees flooding into Zaire.

In the days of film photography Tom often went to airports begging passengers to take his rolls of film back to the UK.

During ethnic cleansing in Kosovo he came across bombed homes where he found abandoned photographs, a poignant reminder of family life.

At the time of 9/11 Tom felt compelled to go. We saw passengers on their first commute on the Statton Island Ferry, all looking over to the scene of destruction. He said there was complete silence, and you could sense it in his image.

Missing person pictures on mail boxes and sellers of T-shirts announcing ‘We Will Prevail’, captured the atmosphere.

There were photographs of the 539 assault squadron on the eve of the liberation south of Basra, of tired soldiers who had to stay focussed, even after being informed of the deaths of comrades.

He captured scenes during the AIDS epidemic in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

In one country he had to bribe his way into a state gymnasium to record its methods of achieving sporting prowess.

Stark monochrome images of refugee camp life, child labour factories, iron harvest trenches in the Somme, and women and children digging putrid water wells followed.

Amusing stories came of politicians such as Thatcher, Blair and Cameron. Pictures were intended to be ’a day in the life’ portrayals, but he was often only given 30 seconds.

He said it is a challenging job and a privilege. He has lost a lot of friends. It is not worth risking your life, and with no insurance you are on your own.

He ended by saying that for most of his career, he got by through sheer bloody mindedness.

Every picture did tell a story, it is easy to see why Tom’s photographs have international acclaim.

The club thanks Tom for an excellent presentation. With over 100 people in the audience, a big thank you to members, friends and visitors who supported the event, and to the organising team who worked tirelessly.