The Images Should Speak for Themselves... but
Catherine Duncan spoke to Tom Stoddart at the offices of the Independent Photographers Group, London
by Catherine Duncan
When is wearing high heels and your best frock an act of defiance? Well, one occasion is a war zone in Bosnia. It is this sort of detail that inspires Tom Stoddart to take the pictures he does, whether the subject be Bosnia, Beirut or Romania. Detail encourages a more intimate connection with images, with their subjects, touches us where long shots of massed hardware and troops cannot. Detail etches a truth that cannot be denied by any future revisionist histories. Detail or close ups (not telephoto ones) are proof. If Stoddart photographs a woman sheltering from attack trying to protect her children, it is because he is there with them. He is especially in awe of the women of Sarajevo, their creativity and resilience in the face of adversity, the subtle symbols of resistance that they represent, their basic heroism in feeding and clothing a family of ten in spite of the shattering of their lives. To achieve his type of detail, Stoddart gets close to his subjects mentally and physically. This closeness is bound up in the ethics of his photography: he wishes to work with his subjects in every sense, to know them, to photograph the intimate emotion on a face that could tell a thousand horror stories, to enable people to speak 'through' him. He, the medium, has the possibility to let the subjects tell their story worldwide and he thinks that the people he photographs recognise his sincerity, sense of purpose and the possible results of the exposure of the images. The intended result justifies and spurs a vocation built around war and suffering. It would be miserly to fault a commitment and idealism that might seem naive in a less seasoned veteran.
Stoddart claims that the images should speak for themselves. One should be able to see the distress on a face, notice the implication of the flat shoes worn when one is running for one's life across 'sniper alley' in Sarajevo. In recognition of publishing difficulties the photographer usually provides some words to go with the pictures. Interpretation is left only partly to chance. When one is committed to the political act of photography, one can hardly leave the political and historical contextualisation open. Stoddart displays a self assurance born of reality and does what he can to expose the wrongs and indifference of the world. He intends to carry on doing so as far as is reasonably within his power.
The broad intent of the images, the publicisation of suffering and how the average (or exceptional) person copes is universal and timeless, but the reportage and current nature of the image is acutely pertinent to its time. Foremost, the photographs are a document, an alternative news to instant 'look at this big bomb' sensationalism, a study over time. Tom Stoddart works in the tradition of the Magnum photographer to make photo essays, not photo soundbytes. If a subject, such as humankind's obscenity inflicted upon itself, deserves consideration then it is worth a long and thoughtful study. For Stoddart, understanding and getting close to people is more important than strategic war games and the awe of military hardware which infatuates much of news journalism. If mainstream journalism is ignoring an area of injustice or disaster, then someone needs to haul it into view. Stoddart is sick at the world that values a 'Hello' feature on Tom Cruise above the knowledge that thousands of men women an children are dying of cholera in Rwanda.
Stoddart's coverage of certain politically 'unfashionable' issues is perhaps a political act in itself. But he is comfortable that if he feels passionate about a subject then a certain bias is inevitable. This is in contrast to the criminal neglect of western governments in the inhuman courts of petty political point scoring. Unphased in his commitment to his work in face of such indifference, he and a handful of like minded photographers have set up the Independent Photographer's Group, a collaboration of editor, sales staff and photographers to allow them to help fund by commercial photography the serious work on which they cannot gain advance publication interest. This will enable the photographers more freedom to cover what they decide is worthwhile and not be tied so directly to saleability. There is massive competition in all media, with faster and more sensational news commanding the day to day market, compromising the choices for the serious photojournalist. But when one believes in one's vocation as Stoddart does, one cannot compromise oneself. In light of digital technology, he compares his B&W prints to the craft of dry stone walling and, unsurprisingly, Stoddart is not daunted at all.