Tom Stoddart: Recreating The Battlefield In The Studio For A Cause

A classic photojournalist leverages his harrowing field experience to create a compelling poster campaign for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

An internationally acclaimed award-winning photojournalist who began shooting for his local newspaper in North East England 43 years ago, Tom Stoddart moved to London in 1978 where he worked extensively for the Sunday Times and was in Beirut when Israeli forces bombed Yasser Arafat’s besieged PLO base. He has subsequently spent decades covering major world events and conflicts including the conditions inside the Palestinian camp at Borj el Barajneh, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Romanian Revolution, the Desert Storm conflict with Iraq, and the siege of Sarajevo where he was seriously injured. He has also produced in-depth coverage of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. His compelling documentation of British Royal Marines in combat during the invasion of Iraq was awarded the Larry Burrows Award for Exceptional Photography by the Eddie Adams Workshop.

Over the years Stoddart has worked with charities and NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Care International, and Sightsavers. He works closely with Reportage by Getty Images shooting editorial features and during recent years he has expanded his repertoire by creating dynamic and powerful advertising images, many with a photojournalistic feel.

Here is the remarkable and heartfelt story of his work with a Leica S2 in creating brilliantly provocative images for a humanitarian poster campaign for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Q: You have been doing what I guess you call conflict photojournalism for quite a while?

A: Not so much now. I’ve been a photographer a long time and I’ve covered a lot of conflict zones. There’s a long list including places that other photojournalists find themselves in now. It’s been an interesting career I guess.

Q: The minute I looked at this ICRC project I immediately thought of some photojournalists of the past like W. Eugene Smith who enhanced actual photojournalistic settings by adding lights, etc. and generated a lot of controversy. How do you feel about recreating a battlefield hospital situation and making it look as realistic as possible and making it more of an artistic creation as opposed to actual photojournalism?

A: This is in no way meant to be real. We were trying to create posters that look realistic and powerful but under close examination the viewer would be able to see that the pictures were staged. So this is a long way from editorial. This is a corporate commission shoot. I think they chose me to shoot this project because I’ve been in those situations. I’ve been in many military hospitals in conflict zones. I’ve photographed amputees trying to get back to health. I’ve photographed sick children, etc. I think that the experiences of having been in these situations did help when it came to providing the ICRC with the kind of images that they wanted so that they could add and convey their key messaging.

I shot four images for them a couple of years ago at the beginning of their Health Care in Danger campaign, and these latest images were a follow-up.

The whole campaign is to try and emphasize the point that doctors and nurses giving aid in conflict solutions should be able to go about their business unhindered. The idea that civilians, who are caught up in conflict, should have access to health care and not become targeted by any group. If someone is injured or needs help they should receive it very quickly and that is the essence of the project. The campaign will run until 2015 during which time the ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies will urge governments who are signed up to the Geneva Convention to commit themselves to the protection of health care workers and patients caught up in armed conflict and other emergencies.

Historically the ICRC has done great work in the very long time that it’s been in existence so it’s a privilege for me to work with them. I and my colleagues from Reportage at Getty Images also work with the ICRC editorially where we actually go into the field to document their work. It’s a completely different thing. There we are obviously being photojournalists and the whole thing is about truth and there is no manipulation or staging when we’re working with them in the field. Here we are trying to capture the same feeling, but not the actual reality. It’s all about getting powerful images that stop the viewer in the street or make them look online and get them thinking about the messaging. In a way it’s really the same goal I have in my editorial work — getting the same point across.

Q: Looking at the video about creating these images and your bio, nobody can question the validity of your mission. It is an altruistic mission that’s all about promoting human decency. You mentioned that if someone looked closely enough at these images they would be able to see that it wasn’t a real combat hospital situation but a representation of that sort of thing, but are these images labeled as to how they are being presented?

A: Yes. There is copy on the photographs, and it’s clear to the viewer that they aren’t editorial. The posters are purely for the ICRC to promote this campaign. In the ‘behind the scenes’ video the ICRC people explain the aims of the project. It starts with a concept of what they want the campaign to say and whom they want to reach. These pictures are being used all over the world. They’re currently in seven capitals across Europe, in railroad stations, tube stations, on posters and billboards.

Q: How long did the whole project take?

A: The actual shoot took place over about five days, a week really. But the whole project really took about two months. Once we went into the studio we knew what we were trying to capture and create.

Q: How is this supposed to work? I see the video and I think of those people in conflict areas who are suffering and the Red Cross should be able to have access to these people and be able to help them. Are you trying to influence the public opinion so that governments will be moved to push for this? What’s the thrust here?

A: Of course, it’s about making areas of conflict easier for health care workers and civilians alike. The campaign is aimed at those who are involved in conflict and lawmakers. The idea is to get governments on board and get resolutions passed to try and influence things in a positive and humane direction.

Q: How does your photographic approach to this subject differ from when you are actually out in the field and documenting something and when you are in a controlled situation where you are trying to replicate a military field hospital? Is there a difference? Or is it the same?

A: It’s totally different. If you are working in Syria or Bosnia you are dealing with real situations and all the problems that produces for a photojournalist. There is no way we can go and make these pictures and have control over what is going into the shoots. That’s why these images were all shot in a studio. Using my personal experience and that of an ICRC surgeon who has spent many years working in the field, we tried to recreate down to the last detail situations we’ve been in apart from the fact that the subjects are obviously models. The ICRC doctor for instance would advise us on everything from what kind of equipment would be in the shots to the way wounds would be dressed to a general feel of the way a medical situation would present itself. My challenge, once you have all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in place, is to create some magic and create an image that will capture the attention of the people who see it. Hopefully they will look twice and be motivated by the copy to think about it and take action. I don’t think too many people even realize that a doctor or an ambulance may be stopped at a checkpoint or that someone badly injured would be prevented from getting medical treatment. I’m not sure the general public realizes that that happens regularly or that hospitals are often bombed and targeted. In Syria, for instance, most of the doctors have fled because of the violence. Our job was to create images that would get people talking about the subject.

Q: What equipment did you use to create these images?

A: I’ve worked with Leica cameras for many years shooting mostly with M-System film cameras in black-and-white and I’ve only recently switched to digital. These pictures were shot on the Leica S2. The reason I use Leica cameras generally is because of the outstanding quality of the equipment and the lenses. I’m a very traditional photojournalist so I shoot my current photojournalism and editorial work with an M9 or the Monochrom. But for this we wanted extreme quality because the images will be blown up huge, even to billboard size. We wanted the very best quality which is what the S2 delivers and I also find it a very friendly camera to use for this kind of shoot.

Q: It has a higher resolution sensor and you can blow up the images to practically any size you want. I understand the technical advantage of the S2 over the M9. But how is the handling? You say it’s friendly but is there anything specific you can say about it? What would you describe the differences between shooting with the S2 and the M-System?

A: I think I could have shot this on the M9. In fact the first four posters I shot years ago were all done with the M9. I’ve been able to use the S2 on other things prior to this as well. When I say it’s friendly, well every photographer is different, but I just find it very comfortable to work with. Maybe it’s psychological. Maybe you know in your head that you are going to get an amazing sharpness and color rendition. It takes a little pressure off you and maybe that’s what makes it a great tool. It feels very familiar to me and easy to use. Some of these pictures are quiet, some of them are straightforward, and a few have lots of movement and action in a simulated riot scene. It just felt that it was the right tool for the job on this particular shoot.

Q: For me the S2 seems to be a medium-format camera that feels and operates like a 35 mm SLR.

A: I agree totally with you. It feels a little bigger but it handles very well. I enjoyed using it very much.

Q: Which lenses did you use on the S2?

A: We used a Summarit-S 35 mm and Super-Elmar-S 24 mm.

Q: You mentioned you shot with the M9 and Monochrom and you shoot mostly in black-and-white. What is it that you find compelling about shooting in the black-and-white medium?

A: I’m pretty traditional. I’ve been a photographer for 43 years so a lot of that time has been shooting on black-and-white film. It’s where my heart is. I’m not a very good colour photographer I believe and I like to stick to my strengths. When I stopped using film I switched to the M9, and now I’ve been using the Monochrom a lot recently and I really love it. I think it’s a terrific tool. It’s the first time I’ve really felt comfortable since I stopped shooting film.

Q: Personally I’ve found that the Monochrom is the closest thing to shooting film I’ve ever encountered with a digital camera.

A: I agree. The tonal quality is fantastic. For me it’s almost like shooting back on the M6. I’ve recently been shooting landscapes with it and it’s amazing. However, for this assignment it had to be in colour and I just wanted to be sure we had the extra quality for when the pictures were blown up huge, so I used the S2.

Q: Do you think that there’s a distinctive quality in the images captured by Leica lenses? Do you think there is a certain “Leica look” to the pictures?

A: I’m not sure if there is a “look” but I’m sure that it makes you shoot in a different way. It’s a totally different way of hunting the moment. I don’t really buy into that “decisive moment” thing but it really is a way of trapping the moment. There are a few reasons for this. You have to use your feet and stalk the moment. You can shoot in very low light, and the most important thing for a photojournalist is that the camera is very quiet and unobtrusive.

Q: You are talking about the M-System?

A: Yes the M-System, which is what I’ve used through the years. The level of quality you get with these small cameras makes it easier to capture moments from up close. They are also friendlier and less intrusive to the people you’re trying to photograph. Whether there’s a different look I’m not sure but you can certainly tell a Leica picture just by looking at it.

Q: I agree with you about the size and intimacy. I’ve always felt that looking through a rangefinder camera was more like looking at the world with your own eyes instead of a picture presented on a screen. It’s a different orientation of the world.

A: You don’t make great make pictures with cameras. You make great pictures with your head and your heart. You need to give yourself the best chance of capturing what you are trying to say in your pictures. This is a very simple tool. The other thing is you don’t have a mirror flapping up and down in front of your eyes. It’s a very pure form of capturing moments. For a lot of professional photographers the M series doesn’t really work because they are sent to photograph in crowded situations and other photographers are there and they have to use telephoto lenses because of all that security, etc. But what I do in my editorial work is essentially telling a story with a camera, and that means spending enough time to put a story together. I’m fortunate enough to still be selling a lot of work in black-and-white, which is quite tough in this day in age and I’m lucky to be able to do it. So when the Monochrom came along, it was a wonderful tool for someone like me.

Q: When I first saw this video I thought you were a real honest photojournalist out there in the trenches with your Leica M. And then all of a sudden you are called in to recreate the experience. Doesn’t it feel odd as a photographer who has done the real thing to do a recreation of the real thing?

A: It is a little odd. But in addition to being a photojournalist I also shoot commercial assignments. You kind of have to do it these days, and I think that’s why this campaign was very comfortable for me. I’ve seen so many of these places and paid a lot of attention to the details so these images are as real as we could make them. I believe it’s a very worthwhile campaign and I’m proud of the images we produced. Sometimes these days you are given photography campaigns where you aren’t necessarily crazy about the subject. With this it is very pleasurable for me. I never felt like I was back in a hospital in Syria or Gaza. I can separate the two completely. But I hope that the viewer can get a feel of what it is like to be in these places and to try to understand the problem better.

After I shot this assignment the next thing I did was shoot our Prime Minister’s Christmas card, again on the S2. It‘s one of the joys of what we do. I do get a bit worried because I’ve seen so many of the guys that call themselves “war photographers” and there are virtually none these days. I’m a working photographer. I’ll go into a conflict zone one week and then come back and shoot something totally different. It’s a different set of problems. You asked what one of the big differences was. Well if I was shooting inside a hospital in South Sudan, editorially I’d be totally on my own. One of the things you have to get used to when you’re shooting commercial images is that you’re working as part of a team. Sometimes it’s a really big team. You have the clients and creative directors, art directors, accounts directors, assistants, lighting guys and all this stuff. Therein lays the big difference between shooting a personal photo essay and being put into a more corporate situation. You have to get used to it. As a photojournalist you’re trying to be invisible, get in, capture the moment, get out and move on to something else. With this kind of assignment you have to be more like a conductor. You’re constantly trying to keep the energy levels going, get the best out of the talent and at the same time keep a space for yourself so you can be focussed and personally creative.

Q: It seems you still have one foot in each world.

A: Hopefully!

Q: Do you think that each type of photography you do benefits the other? It’s obvious that you are bringing your experience from the field into the studio and the reason you were chosen has everything to do with that. How about the other way around? Do you think shooting in a studio influences or has any effect on your field shooting?

A: Yes, I’m a working photographer and I think it’s important to keep learning and take lessons out of everything you do. The most important thing a photographer can do is to shoot. There is far too much talking and blogging about it. The thing to do is to get down and dirty and get out there and make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. At the end of the day you need a happy client, whoever they are. They need to like what you’ve done. It’s challenging work. You have a responsibility. You see the conceptual drawings and that’s what comes from the client’s mind. Your job is to make their dream come true. So I think that perspective helps when I go back into editorial. You have to be very disciplined when you do this kind of work, and produce quality. These things are especially true in this day in age where everyone in the world is a photographer. As a professional you just have to keep reminding yourself that you have to be creative, prepare well, work hard and be different from everyone else, to create your own style and niche.

Thank you for your time, Tom.

- Leica Internet Team

Visit Tom’s website for more information.

Learn more about the ICRC’s efforts here and this specific campaign here. See other reportages on the Reportage by Getty Images’ website.