The first thing you notice about Tom Stoddart are his eyes. Blue with a sphere of white grey, they remind me of a circle spotlight. Captivating, it is difficult to look away even when you know you should.
You may not have heard Stoddart’s name before, but doubtless you will have seen his images. Primarily an aids, famine and war photographer, he has travelled to over 60 countries in 40 years photographing kings to killers. In 1997 he was the first photographer to be let inside the Blair pack as they swept through the country on the campaign trail and to document the administration in office. He has spent 6 weeks with Mandela, watched the wall fall in Berlin and followed Murdoch and his inner circle as he prepared to buy The Wall Street Journal. The man on the inside, he is the quiet observer that has brought us images of pain, power, debate and destruction.
Stoddart began his life as a photographer age 17 on his local newspaper in a fishing village in the North East. Originally hoping to become a writer, within two days he had been converted.
“I realised that as a writer, you spend all your time at a desk. I wanted to be out on the road, meeting people.” He says. “The local newspaper is a crucial part of a community, just like a student newspaper. People deride it, but everyone wants to see a mention or their photo in there.”
After a stint with a photographic agency in York, he won a job with The Daily Mail, through “a stroke of luck and a bit of perseverance”. On a job with one of the paper’s journalists, he heard about an opening at the paper and called the photo editor, but was told that “if you were any good you would already be in London.” The next day, Stoddart took a train to Kings Cross. His first time in the city, he went directly to The Daily Mail’s offices, walked past security and made his way to the news desk.
“I knocked on the photo editor’s door and said ‘I am Tom Stoddart and yesterday you were very rude to me. You said that if I ever came to London I might have 10 minutes of your time and I would like that now please.’”
Even in the midst of confrontation, Stoddart was careful to watch his Ps and Qs. Quietly but carefully spoken, there is something in his gentle manner which is instinctively trust worthy. Despite being a story teller, he rarely puts himself centre stage and is keenly aware of the responsibility his job entails.
“If someone invites you to collaborate with them when they are at their weakest or in a terrible situation, it is a real privilege.” He says. “The camera is a very potent weapon in the wrong hands and you have to have your own rules about how far you go. I always try to be as honest as I can be when I take a picture.”
One of Stoddart’s more harrowing images is that of Kelvin, a young man in Zambia dying of aids being helped to bathe.
“There is more research and development into finding a cure for baldness than there is for a cure for aids. I went out to Sub-Saharan Africa to take these images. I spent a long time talking to Kelvin and he agreed to let me show what he was going through. It is an incredibly lonely thing to die of.”
Photojournalism is not without its dangers. While in Sarajevo reporting for The Sunday Times magazine, Stoddart took a risk.
“There was heavy fighting in the streets. There is always a point where you have to take a chance. Sometimes you are unlucky or you make a mistake. I made a mistake.”
Stoddart ran across some open ground in the cross fire when a mortar exploded. The force sent him over a wall. When he landed, he smashed his shoulder – which is now reconstructed in Titanium – and trapped his leg, pinning him to the ground. His life was saved by a young Bosnian, who crawled along the ground to pull him out of the line of fire. Stoddart never saw him again. Taken to the hospital with no water or electricity, he was on a trolley for 3 days waiting for an X-ray.
“I lost an inch and a half of my leg and they wanted to take my foot. That’s what happens when you cover this stuff.
“I wish the colleges would dissuade people from thinking war photography is glamorous. This cliche of ‘go to war and test yourself as a young man with a camera’ is not healthy. I lost two colleagues two months ago. They knew the risks, they did everything they could to reduce them, but they got killed.”
A worried picture editor once sent Stoddart to Hollywood to cover something lighter after a long stint in Sudan.
“One of the stories I was given was the porn industry. I remember looking down and there was this scene of 16 people shagging including a dwarf dressed as a leprechaun. I called my editor and said ‘you have got to get me out of here, this is real madness compared to anything I have seen before.’”
After his injury, Stoddart returned to photography and to Sarajevo, but felt changed.
“I became a better photographer. When you sit in a wheelchair for a year, you have a lot of time to think. I learnt to be patient.”
In 1995, Stoddart set his mind on the Blair campaign. Unlike America, Britain had no history of an internal photographer capturing moments inside the party until Stoddart determined to change that.
“I contacted them and tried to persuade them that after 18 years of Conservative government, this was a historic event that should be documented” He says. 18 months later and Stoddart was in.
“It was interesting to be present, to see how to be a winner. The attention to detail, the way they handle crisis, the tactics. It is great to watch these guys, but I don’t want to get to know them. I want to be the person in the corner that no one really notices.”
It seems an unusual comment from a photographer whose work centres on people. His images capture the humanity in situations most of us will never experience, making the unimaginable relatable. This is Stoddart’s gift.
“The camera is only a tool. You make photographs with your head and your heart. You are the author of a story and I like to shoot what I feel not what I see. Some of my best work is when I feel angry about something. People shouldn’t have to live like this. It is the reason I am freelance, because then you can tell the story you want to tell.”
Have years as the observer made him want to be a participant?
“I am very happy being an observer. You make your contribution by recognising that what you have in front of you is important. You have to see it.”
Whatever that nameless skill of observance is, Stoddart’s eyes have it. And he makes damn sure we see it too.
On the Famous Faces: “You don’t have to love them to find them interesting.”
Mandela: “It is true what they say; when you are in his presence it is special.”
Dalai Lama: “Wonderful guy.”
Murdoch: “For a photographer he has a face to die for. One minute he can be everyone’s favourite grandpa and the next he is a total ogre. He paid for my operation after Sarajevo, I wouldn’t be a photographer if he hadn’t picked up the bill.”
Blair: “There were times of him when he was very messianic. This image was taken before we knew that he was going to take us to war more times than any other British Prime Minister.”
Brown: “A very decent guy, but he has a robust way of dealing with people.”
Campbell: “If you were in the trenches, you would want him with you.”
PHOTOS/Tom Stoddart/Getty Images