Tuesday, 10 September 2013

In Conversation With Tom Stoddart

Photojournalist Tom Stoddart hands me his Leica M6. It’s the first Leica I’ve held, and cautiously raise the viewfinder eye level: “Wow Tom, everything looks amazing!” “Not everything Peter, not everything . . . ” his soft Geordie accent trails off. I hand back the Leica, the same Leica that has captured on film some of the most devastatingly powerful and informative images of a generation. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Stoddart’s photographic opus, iWITNESS, is the Encyclopedia Britannica: Tears of anguish scupper the cheeks of a mother as she prepares to send her confused child out of Sarajevo, 1992; A well nourished Sudanese man steals maize from a starving child, 1998; A man emaciated and weak from HIV is helped into a bath, Zambia, 2000; An old woman sits stoically still, waiting for aid to arrive in an earthquake ravaged village near Anjar, India, 2001. Page after turned page show starving people, lost people, people in physical pain, grieving people, innocent people, trapped and battered people, people decimated by disease, dead people. Among the 350+ pages of pictures, there is also hope, and laughter, and life: A child plays with pigeons among the ruins of an earthquake, India, 2001; A Bosnian muslim girl studies the Koran by candlelight during the siege of Sarajevo, 1994; New Yorkers return on the first Staten Island ferry back to Manhattan after the World Trade Centre attack, 2001.

Over a decade after I looked through his Leica, I’m off to meet Stoddart for breakfast and a catch up at his flat, situated behind the old News International site in Wapping, East  London. Arriving in London in the mid 1990s, I would visit the offices of News International regularly, knocking on doors to try and get my foot in one; it’s been so long since my last visit, on the short, cold, collar up walk from Tower Hill underground station, I get lost.  The Docklands Light Railway arcs over unfamiliar blue cycle paths; blue-in-the-face joggers buffer me past the Artful Dodger pub; churches squat next to building trade suppliers. Secrets Table Dancing Club provides a familiar landmark (but don’t tell anyone), I writhe between the lorries thundering their cargo along East Smithfield, the Shard clearly seen dominating the sky to the west, through the elephant guarded gates of St. Katherine Docks, waft past the myriad eateries, and arrive at my destination.

©Tom Stoddart/Reportage by Getty Images

A tanned Tom answers, a legacy of the St. Lucia sunshine under which he recently relaxed with his partner Ailsa, sipping cocktails and reading Bourne books. As Tom teabags his Newcastle United mug, I take a tour of his castle; a teddy bear swings from a wind chime, a signed hat from golfer Greg ‘The Shark’ Norman, hangs from a knob in Tom’s bedroom. Plants wither, DVD cases from the IT Crowd, The Inbetweeners, Bad Santa and Blackwatch, A Soldiers Story, are shed beneath the giant flatscreen TV broadcasting live from Westminster. I relieve my bladder in front of a smiling picture of Diana Princess of Wales leant atop the toilet, give her a squirt of relaxing lavender Febreze air conditioner, head into the kitchen and present Tom with the Gewurztraminer white wine I grabbed en route from Waitrose supermarket around the corner - ‘Full bodied and very spicy with a dry finish’ seemed appropriate for the host. It clinks easily in the fridge next to the two bottles of Newcastle Brown lager and myriad rolls of HP5 35mm, 120 Portra *exceptional for skin tones* and Tri-X film.

I’m here to talk with Tom in preparation for his October 2013 exhibition at White Cloth Gallery, Leeds, UK for which I am Co-Creative Director. The exhibition is an edit from his 2012 visual behemoth, Perspectives, 78 of his signature B&W images were displayed outside City Hall, the Mayor of London’s office, on the South Bank of the River Thames. During the 49-day show, over a quarter of a million visitors are estimated to have witnessed the large scale, en plein air prints, many of whom were in London for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

A Perspectives YouTube page is testimony to some of these visitors, visitors who came from Sarajevo and France,  Australia and Mexico, Bulgaria and Spain, South Africa and South London and many places in between. Young German art students fidget, giggle and gaze at the ground as they try to articulate what they’ve seen. An overwhelmed elderly New Zealand women weeps from beneath a purple hat. A Mostar citizen is positively surprised by the show, and a dreadlocked man from the charity, Kids Company, solemnly describes the ‘awakening’ that the exhibition provides. Success for Tom is judged by these public declarations. “The best feeling was to be unrecognizable among the work and listen to the mostly positive comments. Photojournalism is about, LOOK AT THIS, art photography is about, LOOK AT ME. I want to show people things that they thought they knew about.”  Tom had to raise around £50,000 for Perspectives - the Arts Council and similar institutions weren’t interested; “You have to be in Magnum Photos, or dead, or preferably both. UK snappers are generally treated with disdain by the establishment, as a feral bunch unworthy of funding.”

©Tom Stoddart/Reportage by Getty Images

Tom bounces from the spotted cushions dotted across his sofa and pulls down half a dozen full comments books from the 2004 retrospective photographic exhibition iWITNESS hosted at the same south Thames location. He reads out some of the comments, and points at one that’s simply the drawing of an angel crying. It’s clear he believes they are an affirmation that what he does is valid, that his work does have an effect on people. It does, one comment advises: Shit happens, get over it. When I took my daughter Grace to see Perspectives, then aged seven years old, she gave her own affirmation; “I think I understand why other children want to live in England, Daddy”.

When students come to visit Tom, he shows them Inferno, by James Nachtwey - ”The only true living genius working as a photojournalist today.” (Tom stood next to Nachtwey as he snapped some of the images in the book, images he says “defy belief”). Then he shows them Elliot Erwitt’s book, Snaps.  He looks into the eyes of those visiting students to asses if they understand the impact the “broad church of photography” can have. From the scores of aspiring photojournalists he’s advised and mentored, he can only really admit to believing at the time, that two had the potential to succeed, and in those two predictions, he has been proved to be right: Marcus Bleasdale and Leonie Hampton (née Purchas).

In Tom’s office, awards tumble from the cupboard; he’s proud of his Larry Burrows Award from the Eddie Adams Workshop for outstanding photojournalism, he thinks Larry Burrows’ 1966 colour photograph of wounded marine gunnery Sgt Jeremiah Purdie reaching towards a stricken comrade is one of the greatest photographs ever taken. Press passes twine together on hooks and stacked folders tower 6ft high. As the screen of his 27-inch iMac computer is touched into focus, an image of Margaret Thatcher appears, peering at the press through binoculars during a 1985 election campaign photo call; the hair on my neck bristles to attention. It’s a shot from his series Britons, a series he couldn’t sustain interest in. The anticlimax came as he parked the van in which he was touring the UK, under the Humber bridge, a location which he found out to be a popular spot for public sex known as ‘Dogging’.

It’s now time to be led, where I knew this day would lead: to the pub. Waiting for the lift on the third floor, we gaze across the former site of News International where Tom was twice a contract photographer. The newsroom is now a marketing suite for the businesses, shops and luxury homes that will take until Tom is 70 years old to build (he turns 60 in November 2013). The old newsroom wiring protrudes from the floor,; front-page classics from The Sun newspaper tout their history: ‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster’, ‘GOTCHA’ and ‘George Michael Shunts Trucker In Rear’. Weeds obscure the parking spaces of newspaper management now facing infamy in the courts; the scene is a publishing Marie-Celeste. 

©Tom Stoddart/Reportage by Getty Images

News International has moved on, and after 20 years living in Wapping, it is time for Tom to move on too, or back, back to his beloved North East of England. His new Northumberland home is six miles north of Newcastle, one mile from the airport, four from Hadrian’s Wall, 10 from where he was born, and most importantly, half a mile from the home of his footballing hero, Alan Shearer, who he observes from time to time enjoying a Peroni in the local pub. Born in Morpeth, the son of a farm worker, young Tom’s morals were instilled by his mother and the headmaster at the mixed comprehensive school in the fishing village of Seahouses, where he rose to be head boy. From school, most his peers said Auf Wiedersehen Pet, and went off to build a life rebuilding Germany. Tom, however, spied an advertisement in the Berwick Advertiser for a photographer. Only having really achieved in English at school, a 17-year old Tom saw this as a platform to being a reporter and successfully applied - success more down to having just passed his driving test than any photographic portfolio. After day two, and an assignment photographing on location at a Women’s Institute party, he knew photography was for him, not a life hammered out behind the typewriter.

Settling in a window seat of the curiously named, Town of Ramsgate pub, where convicts destined for transportation to the colonies were held in the cellar, Tom rests his new Leica Monochrome (it only shoots black and white) next to his pint of real ale, fixes me with his translucent blue eyes, haloed with a white ring - a hereditary condition from his mothers side, and explains the hardest thing to do as a photographer is to “keep swinging your legs out of bed”. This isn’t a reference to one of his legs being one and a half inches shorter than the other, a result of a serious injury sustained in heavy fighting around the Bosnian Parliament buildings, Sarajevo, during the civil war that was engulfing Yugoslavia, an injury that also saw his shoulder fitted with a titanium plate. In his 42nd year as a photographer, long term projects are over for Tom, he wants a very simple life, shooting short, sharp, 30-picture features.

We leave the oldest pub on the river Thames, pass the oldest riverside police station in the world, and thrust ourselves into seats at Italian restaurant Il Bordello, where the oldest-looking waiters in the world hand us menus. Peering at Tom through the glory hole of the menus ‘O’, he flourishes an order for a Torreon of Paredes Chardonnay and calamari with a side order of green beans and red pepper, a confident few decades on from when his mentor, chief photographer at the Daily Express, John Downing, quietly advised the Fleet Street newbie struggling to interpret another Italian restaurants menu, that perhaps the sirloin steak would be preferred to tartare.

In between Chilean slurps and fishy burps, he tells tales of ‘appropriating’ Saddam Hussain’s gold toilet roll and towel holder from Saddam’s Basra Palace, and swapping it with Martin Parr for a Parr print of a woman sunbathing next to a construction site vehicle, from the book, The Last Resort; he regales a tale of Bruce Davidson refusing to sign a book at the Intercontinental Hotel, Park Lane, held in Davidson’s honour; and he admits to having just written a Will (but refuses to say if I’m in it). Tom finishes the meal jabbing at pictures on his phone of cat Albert, a crashed airplane in South Sudan, South Sudanese toilets and his convertible silver Porsche.

While other photographers from his generation have ceased working, or ease their passage into old age educating the young, Tom has no intention to stop shooting. Working closely with Reportage by Getty Images, where Tom (and I), are fully represented photographers, he remains focused, and hungry to create a visual legacy. Will he be remembered by history? Through his exhibitions and collections he hopes he will (Stoddart’s work from Sarajevo is in The Imperial War Museum archive). After an amaretto, and a bottle of Pinto Grigio at Cape Bar, we say goodbye; Tom strides home coughing away the cruel crisp night, I stumble and sneeze my way back to Tower Hill.

Returning home and checking my emails, Tom has sent a link to an article written by Times journalist, Anthony Loyd, about the war photographer, Don McCullin: ‘This, in my opinion, is the best article written about a photographer, ever!’ No pressure then. I decide not to read it and read on through the email: ‘Pete, there’s no such thing as a guardian angel. There’s stupidity, experience, and luck, and I got lucky, very very early.’ I flex my hands, type up my notes, and feel very, very lucky to have met him.

A selection from Tom Stoddart's Perspectives will be exhibited at White Cloth Gallery from the 3rd October 2013 - join Tom, and special guests, Miniclick, for a unique evening on the 2nd October; tickets are available here

A version of this feature first appeared in issue #11 of Hungry Eye magazine.