Photojournalist Tom Stoddart covered many of the major world events of the 1980s and 1990s--the fall of the Berlin Wall, the siege of Sarajevo, the election of Nelson Mandela, and famine in Sudan, to name just a few. On July 25 he opened a career retrospective of his work called Perspectives in London that has attracted more than 100,000 visitors. He's predicting a quarter million visitors by the time the show closes September 11. "It's going great guns. There's massive footfall," he says, "obviously due to the position of the show and the Olympic crowds."
Not that so many Olympic fans arrived in London thinking, "Hey, let's check out the Tom Stoddart retrospective while we're in town." Though Stoddart has won numerous awards for his work, most of those who have seen his show had never heard of him before they walked into it. And they couldn't help but walk in: Stoddart mounted the show at a venue called More London, which is on a River Thames walkway near the Tower Bridge and Tower of London. "It's a favorite walkway for anyone who visits the city," the photographer says.
Although the party atmosphere of the Olympics is an unlikely backdrop for a display of hard-hitting photojournalism, Stoddart figured there would be no better opportunity to draw crowds to a career retrospective. "I called it Perspectives because I was going against the grain slightly," he explains. "The idea is to keep in perspective that when everyone is in London having a great time, there are people elsewhere who lack essential things such as water, medicine and human rights."
Stoddart mounted a successful exhibition called iWitness in the same venue eight years ago. He says of that show, "I didn't want to exhibit in a gallery, where people you know come to the private view [opening], stand around drinking the wine, and there's hardly anyone there afterwards." The key to a successful show, he realized, was to mount it where there's a lot of foot traffic. Looking for a public space to show iWitness, he stumbled on More London while walking along the Thames. "I called the number on the wall, got through to the CEO, and it went from there," he says.
More London is owned by a commercial real-estate company that rents office space in the area to big-name financial companies, while making outdoor space available free-of-charge for exhibitions and performances. In the last few months, with the Olympics just around the corner, individuals and groups in the UK "have been desperate to find public space to put on public theater and art exhibitions," Stoddart says. But he had the foresight to book the More London venue three years ago. "I know forward planning is everything," he says. "I got in early because I knew everyone would want the space."
Stoddard funded Perspectives himself, with help from the International Committee of the Red Cross. He declines to say what the exhibit cost, or exactly how he solicited the ICRC's help. But the ICRC has a sponsorship kiosk at the center of the exhibit, which it is using to promote its Health Care in Danger campaign against attacks on health workers and hospitals in conflict zones. The kiosk features four posters of images that Stoddart recently shot on assignment for the ICRC in South Sudan through his agency, Getty Images.
The exhibit itself features 74 images shot over Stoddart's 40-year career. To execute the show, he enlisted the help of Stuart Smith of Smith Design, who has worked on a number of projects with Elliott Erwitt, and who designed James Nachtwey's book Inferno. "Stuart and I designed the show and did the edit together," Stoddart says.
"Putting pictures in a public space rather than a gallery has its own complications," he continues. "Families are coming along to see it, so the edits have to reflect that. I wanted it to be powerful and thought provoking, but not too shocking." That meant pulling a few punches: Stoddart excluded his most graphic images of the Rwanda genocide and AIDS in Africa, for instance. "There are a couple of images that show bodies, but in a subtle way," he says.
"Whenever possible I tried to put in images that are aspirational," he explains. For instance, the show includes his signature images, including one of a well-dressed woman walking proudly down the street, in defiance of the Serbian enemy during the four-year siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s. "Some photographers go into dark situations and shoot darker," Stoddart notes. "But human beings never fail to impress me in difficult times. I like to balance the darkness with pictures that show the inspirational side, and the pride in surviving."
The images are printed in black and white, at dimensions ranging from 2x3 feet to 4 x 5.5 feet. They are inkjet prints mounted on Dibond (an aluminum composite) and covered with a gloss laminate to protect them from the weather. They are displayed in structures that are 10 feet high. "People get drawn into the fact that they are so big, and feel powerful because they are black and white," Stoddart says. The images are also mounted slightly above eye level, so viewers have to look up. That's meant to stir awe as well as reverence for the subjects--and the images.
Two people have been hired to tend the site every day, cleaning the show and interacting with visitors. And Stoddart, who lives nearby, has visited frequently to size up the crowd and its reaction to his work. "It's almost spiritual when 200 or 300 people are inside [the exhibit space]," he says. "In one hour on Sunday, 800 people went in. It was totally silent inside."
Which isn't to say it's always silent. Stoddart says he's seen a lot of children at the exhibit. "The most satisfying thing is watching parents—mothers especially—explain to their kids that were asking, Who was Nelson Mandela? Why don't these kids [shown in some of the images] have water?"
"That's satisfying to a photographer. Normally your pictures appear in a newspaper or a magazine, but you're not there [with] viewers, so you’re not aware of what reaction people are having. Standing there and hearing what they have to say validates strong photojournalism."
The exhibit monitors have occasionally introduced Stoddart to visitors, if he happens to be around when anyone inquires about the photographer. The monitors have also been inviting visitors to stand in front of a video camera and comment about the exhibit. A selection of the video comments have been posted on www.78perspectives.com, as well as on YouTube.