Just yards from City Hall, on London’s South Bank, the 20-year-old image of a beautiful woman towers above passers by. Frozen in time, the grainy blow-up of this iconic black and white photograph recalls another place at the heart of a forgotten war.
Eerily reminiscent of a young Sophia Loren she challenges unseen snipers to kill her. She is called Meliha and she is one of 78 powerful photographs shot by British photojournalist Tom Stoddart over his 40-year career.
These ‘Perspectives’ of conflict, famine and seminal world events present a stark counterpoint to the surrounding reminders of Olympic frenzy; the colourful rings hanging from Tower Bridge, the huge screen on nearby Potters Field relaying live events and the carnival atmosphere of the Festival of London.
The exhibition is free and accessible to all – deliberately open-ended so that the steady stream of visitors can pass easily through it as they move along the riverside between Festival Hall and Tower Bridge. It may be porous and temporary, but once surrounded by the 9ft towers that delineate it, visitors to Perspectives are captured by a stillness and intimacy that briefly transports them.
Stoddart put his marker on the Perspectives footprint three years ago, soon after London’s Olympic selection had been announced. His iWITNESS exhibition in 2004 was the first to be staged in then newly-opened More London space, so he knew its potential.
His initial thought was to use it to display a celebration of Britain and it’s people, but as the buzz intensified he decided to offer something with a more serious international flavour.
“The world’s nations are joined together in a wonderful sporting festival whose motto is ‘swifter, higher, stronger’. I hope that people visiting the exhibition will leave with a greater determination to understand and help those with little access to clean water, food and medicines who, through no fault of their own, cannot run more swiftly, jump higher or be stronger”.
At the heart of the exhibition a hexagonal structure displays four powerful images shot for the ICRC Health Care in Danger Campaign. The charity commissioned Stoddart to shoot them.
“The inability to access health care safely in times of conflict is one of the great unacknowledged humanitarian challenges of our time,” said Sean Maguire, ICRC spokesman. “From children crippled because violence prevents vaccines reaching them, to the wounded who die because it is unsafe to travel in ambulances, to attacks on nurses and doctors – the problems are varied and profound. Tom’s images capture the tragedy of the issue.”
Soon after completing them he travelled with ICRC to troubled South Sudan and images from this visit surround the campaign display children digging deep holes in the earth to find water, lines of containers at feeding stations snaking like contours across the barren landscape.
Stoddart’s signature pictures record famine, disaster and war – the helpless, emaciated child watching a well-fed adult walk away with his bag of maize; the courage of HIV sufferers in Africa, the silent grief of marines in Iraq after the death of a comrade. But they are also celebratory, recalling the fall of the Berlin Wall, the tenderness between siblings and the defiance of women like Meliha who looked death in the eye every day for four years and never showed her fear.
Perspectives runs until 12 September. It invites viewers to pause and reflect – and also to comment.
Those recording comments for Perspectives online ‘Visitors Book’ come from Burma, Somaliland, Iraq, Russia, Romania, Bosnia and Zimbabwe. Americans, Canadians, Japanese and Iranians – solitary viewers who stay for as long as three hours or families with children who ask why an 8-year-old girl has to dig a hole in the ground to extract a few drops of filthy water.
Stoddart is no stranger to attention. A quiet man by nature, his arresting images have frequently brought heart-stopping moments into the lives of magazine and newspaper readers. His books and exhibitions invariably win accolades and provoke thought. This latest is no exception.
Perspectives, like the man whose pictures it displays, is understated. Those who staff and support it do so with knowledge and respect for the man whose images surround them; a man who walks anonymously among the crowds of viewers but is generous with his time to those who recognise him.
Another anonymous visitor was M. Yves Daccord, Director General of the International Committee for the Red Cross, who declared himself deeply moved by Stoddart’s pictures.
But perhaps strangest of all are the visitors who find echoes of their own lives in the pictures, like the man who gazed transfixed at the picture of Barlinnie jail during the infamous rooftop protest.
“I was there,” he mused. “But I was a different person then.”
Information about the exhibition, the ICRC Health Care in Danger Campaign and Tom Stoddart can be found here. The page My Perspectives provides a location map and offers visitors a space to record and upload their own views of its content.