Tom Stoddart obituary – The Guardian

Last modified on Tue 23 Nov 2021 21.22 GMT
The photojournalist Tom Stoddart, who has died from cancer aged 67, covered conflicts, catastrophes and social issues around the world for 40 years and was regarded by his peers as an outstanding practitioner.
I came to know Tom in the 1990s when we covered the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, often being in the same place at the same time. Although news photographers are commonly thought of as rivals, our camaraderie grew out of shared adversity and was cemented by our love for photography, especially the use of black and white reportage as a medium. Tom did not like colour photography and regularly quoted the Canadian photographer Ted Grant’s pithy remark: “If you photograph in colour, you see the colour of their clothes, but if you photograph in black and white, you see the colour of their soul.”

Tom instinctively recognised stories with a moral imperative and was dedicated to bringing them to people’s attention. He was compassionate and wanted people to know about situations that needed to be corrected. In 1992 he photographed the siege of Sarajevo, producing pictures that showed the extremity of Sarajevans’ lives and their struggle for everyday survival without running water and electricity, and under constant threat from the snipers on the surrounding hillsides.
The pictures were published around the world, highlighting the crisis and helping to raise it to the top of the political agenda in European capitals. Later that year he returned to the city and was injured during a bombardment near the parliament buildings. He was evacuated and spent a year recovering, but was so fascinated by the circumstances facing the Sarajevans that he went back in 1993 to document life during the bitter winter.
After that he was to visit frequently until the Dayton peace accord of 1995 was announced. The end of hostilities meant that a final chapter remained to be photographed. Tom asked me if I would drive to Sarajevo with him as it would be a cost effective way for both of us to cover the story. He bought an old Lada Niva (nicknamed “Trigger”) and that December we left London for Dover, stopping on the way to pick up some snow chains for the car before catching the Sealink ferry to Calais.
Three days later we arrived in snow-covered Sarajevo. It was a harsh winter; the roads were frozen sheets of ice and each morning we had to dig the car out of a snow drift. The weather was dreadful but the mood in the city was ecstatic. Peace had broken out and there was freedom to roam without fear. As the war ended, media interest in the story tailed off and on this occasion few of Tom’s pictures were immediately published, but he had completed a body of work that went on to be exhibited notably in 1997 at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in a show titled Edge of Madness – Sarajevo a City and Its People Under Siege.
Looking back he was pleased too when his work at the French photo festival Les Rencontres d’Arles in 1994 was picked out by a photographer he admired. The pioneer of photoreportage Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote to the curator praising the exhibition, something Tom might not have imagined in 1970 when he started out on the local newspaper in his native north-east.
Tom was born in Morpeth, Northumberland, the son of Thomas Stoddart, an agricultural worker, and Kathleen (nee Turnbull). On leaving Seahouses secondary modern school, and wanting to go into journalism, he approached the Berwick Advertiser but was told there were no vacancies other than apprentice photographer. He snapped up the chance.
In 1978 he moved to London, where he freelanced for Time magazine and the Sunday Times. He made a name for himself in Beirut in 1987, shooting an exclusive on the inhumane conditions inside the Palestinian camp of Burj al-Barajneh, where the British doctor Pauline Cutting was working in a temporary hospital.
Tom had the knack of spotting a good story long before other people and had the courage to undertake dangerous assignments with risks that others would balk at. He was professionally ambitious and canny, but also generous and charming, a trait he used in persuading people to help him achieve his objectives, whether talking his way through an obstinate checkpoint or persuading a hesitant editor to buy his work.
By any standards Tom produced a prodigious amount of photojournalism, from the 1982 civil war in Lebanon to the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989, the Romanian revolution, the Gulf war in 1991, Bosnia, the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the exodus of refugees from Syria in 2015. Internationally recognised for his news coverage, he was less well known for his work with charities and NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders, Christian Aid and Sightsavers, with whom he collaborated, using his powerful image-making skills to promote their causes.
He received many accolades, including several World Press awards and the Larry Burrows award for exceptional war photography, for his documentation of British Royal Marines during the invasion of Iraq. He worked tirelessly, seamlessly moving from one project to the promotion of the next. Unlike many photographers who become known for one piece of work, Tom had many to choose from. His last project, Extraordinary Women (2020), is a collection of images reflecting on the strength of women in times of adversity. The cover is graced by one of his favourite pictures, Meliha Varesanovic walking defiantly to work during the siege of Sarajevo, an image that exemplifies Tom’s photography.
He is survived by his wife Ailsa, whom he married in 2015, and his sister, Alicia.
Tom Stoddart, photographer, born 28 November 1953; died 17 November 2021