An Interview With Renowned Photojournalist Tom Stoddart
Whether a new or seasoned journalist, it is nearly impossible to do justice to an interview with photojournalist Tom Stoddart. His career has spanned forty years and has seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of Nelson Mandela, the siege of Sarajevo, and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, among other world events.
About his profession, Stoddart wrote, “I believe I’m a photojournalist in the traditional, classic, style who wants to remind people that much of the world does not have access to clean water, health care and food. Although the magazines want stories about celebrities, royalty and sports stars, I think that two percent of the time we should be reminded that the whole world doesn’t live in that goldfish bowl, and I know that when pictures are published that are harrowing or effective and powerful, the response from the public is amazing.”
While Stoddart started out as a small time press photographer for one newspaper, he originally wanted to be a writer. When he was 17 applied for the job hoping he could move into reporting later.
However, Stoddart decided to make a career out of photography and has not regretted it since. “Photography has been my life and is my life,” said Stoddart, “and it’s kind of who I am. Being a photojournalist is not a 9 to 5 existence, it’s an entire existence. There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t wanted to pick up a camera. On my first day at work at the small newspaper, the senior photographer said to me, ‘You’ll have a champagne lifestyle on a beer salary,’ and that’s exactly how it’s been.”
Glamorous as that sounds, Stoddart is very aware of the potential of photography to document events and effect change. He stated that the camera is a “very powerful medium,” and that he “wanted to be someone who drew attention to things, but using a camera instead of a pen.”
As an author with his own pictures, Stoddart has developed his own style that best suits his subject matter. The impact of one of his influences, Henri Cartier-Bresson, is very clear in Stoddart’s photography: both capture a decisive moment in their photographs. On this subject, Stoddart said, “There’s taking pictures and then there’s capturing moments where all of the energy and everything comes together.” The result is striking photography with engaging composition that tells a story.
“I do it in a very simple way,” Stoddart continued. “I only use short lenses on Leica cameras, which are very quiet and very good quality cameras and lenses. I work very close to people because I like to see into their eyes. I think you can tell everything about what’s going on in a person’s life by looking into their eyes. [You’re] looking into their soul, in a way.”
Stoddart also tends to avoid color photography unless an assignment requires it, stating that his heart and his best work are in black and white. Said Stoddart, “Frankly I don’t really enjoy color. There was a photographer called Ted Grant who said, ‘When you photograph people in color you photograph their clothes. When you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls,’ and I think that pretty well sums it up.”
Although photography is traditionally considered to be creative medium, Stoddart does not believe that his work is art. “I’m not an artist,” said Stoddart, “I’m a communicator. I see my job as to bring back images that make people angry and wanting things to change for the better. I think the camera needs to be handled carefully. When you’re covering these kinds of events it is vital that it is used for truthful purposes and for good, to bring information.” He added, “By being there, you give a voice to the people that you’re photographing.”
This is especially clear in Stoddart’s story Women of Sarajevo Revisited. “In the [original] story about the Sarajevo women I was determined to highlight their pride,” Stoddart wrote. “I was watching these women, a strong part of whose resistance was in the way they dressed, who looked like they’d come out of Kent dressed in their twin sets and pearls, and they were arguing with each other over the price ofdock leaves and grass, because that’s all there was to eat; and I knew that I had to be in this place making pictures.”
He added, “Women would go out and put themselves in the line of fire. Men would be either fighters or the elderly would be staying indoors, but it was women who had to go collect water, or queue for bread, or try and look after their whole families, so they were exposed. That’s why so many of them were killed with shellfire and grenades.”
Twenty years later, Stoddart had the rare opportunity to go back to Sarajevo and find some of the women he originally photographed. “In photography, normally you are in someone’s life for a split second, and you make a picture and then you move on. So for me, it was amazing to go back 20 years after, find the people, and see if they’d survived and how their lives had changed by peace come to the area. And, by and large, they were just very happy that they’d survived the war and were going on with their lives as best they [could]. I mean, there are still major problems in that area, but I just wanted to revisit them and see how they were after all that time.”
Currently, Stoddart is working on a similar story: as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaches, he is finding the people that he originally photographed that November.
As Stoddart continues to press forward in his career, he has a few words of advice for aspiring photographers and photojournalists: “You need passion, perseverance, determination, curiosity. You really need to be strong mentally, and you need to feel that you can be useful with a camera, and that photojournalism is an honorable way to make a living.”