The Pride of Being a Witness
First, pride. The pride felt at having been asked to write these lines. Tom Stoddart is a member of the very select club of great photographers. There is no shortage of photojournalists out there who bear witness to events around the world. Thank goodness for that! But then there is an altogether smaller group of photojournalists like Tom who, no matter what situation they are confronted with, bring a special talent to their role as witness.
So, pride - but at the same time apprehension. How can I say anything about his work that doesn't seem like a platitude? Turn the pages of this book! There is famine in Sudan, the siege of Sarajevo, an earthquake in India, floods in Mozambique - all expressions of the madness of the world in which we live. Looking at Tom's career, certain constants can be seen in his work and of these, none reveal more about the man and the effectiveness of his images than their profound sense of humanity.
There are, indeed, images that show stark and violent events, but the pictures themselves are not hard to view, and it is the situations in them, whether man-made or the work of nature, to which we respond.
The skeletal figure of a boy crawling along the ground, struggling to look up, to attract the attention of the anonymous figure turning away: how did such a scene arise? How can we live in a world in which such situations are allowed to occur?
The pedestrians in Sarajevo living with the constant fear that a sniper could shoot them dead, just like that, for no reason in particular other than the "crime" of being born there ...
The Kosovars who had to flee their homes, leaving everything behind, not knowing whether they will ever be able to return ...
Then suddenly the violence of Rwanda, and the consequences of the worst case of genocide in the second half of the 20th century ...
The woman in front of her ruined house, destroyed by the Gujarat earthquake in India, with that dignified, vacant gaze ...
In a different frame, another woman is seen clinging onto her children in Mozambique, knee-deep in water, carrying the few belongings she has managed to salvage on her head and around her neck.
So many pictures, so much suffering … but also such determination to never give in to the comforts of a "civilized" world when there is still the chance to comment on the intolerable, irreparable and unspeakable.
So, we could ask ourselves what the whole point of all this actually is. Cynics will always question the need for such pictures, and it is, of course, naïve to say that photojournalism can change the world. However, it cannot be denied that there are pictures or photo essays that have profoundly influenced our perception of "what really happened" at certain world events. Who could dare to claim that Nick Ut's picture of the naked girl, running down a road in Vietnam, was not a decisive factor in revealing that that particular war, like all the others, was a dirty one? Who would dare say that this picture had no influence on the shift in public opinion towards the war in Vietnam?
Permitting us, the reader, to "witness" world events is an indispensable function performed by the photographer. By helping us to see, we can perhaps understand … It's so easy to do nothing while saying that nothing can ever change …
Finally, one last picture: a little girl, smiling broadly, is seen rushing into her mother's arms. Looking more closely at the woman, we realize she has no legs, blown off by a shell in Sarajevo; but still there is the joy of the little girl. I see the warmth in this photo as a symbol of what can - still and always - offer a spark of joy, hope and love, even at the most somber moments. I have to say it is one of the most extraordinary photos I have ever seen. It is one of the very few photos I have up on the wall.
That is what I wanted to say about Stoddart, the photographer. But allow me to conclude with a comment on Tom, the person - one of the most modest, discreet and generous people I have been lucky enough to meet. A man as exceptional as his photos who never puts himself before the interests of the people he chooses to photograph. A rare and powerful achievement.
© Jean-Francois Leroy
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