GENERATION AGELESS

Tom Stoddart is an award winning photojournalist who was brought up in the fishing village of Beadnell. After moving to London to work in Fleet Street he spent 35 years photographing news events around the world. He returned to live in the North East six years ago.
Tom StoddartTom Stoddart

Generation Ageless is about talking to people who have made interesting life/work changes and have a positive attitude to mid-life, doing things differently, changing their pace of life, their priorities, reflecting on what’s gone before and the new opportunities and challenges to come.

I used to do this…

Run around the world covering international news for magazines like Time, Newsweek and the Sunday Times. I owned a flat in London but most of the time was spent away on foreign assignments. My first job was as a 17-year-old trainee photographer at the Berwick Advertiser and in my first week the editor said ‘You will have a champagne life on a beer salary’. He was right! I’ve worked in over 60 countries and witnessed historic events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the wars against Saddam Hussein, Nelson Mandela’s election as South Africa’s first black president and the siege of Sarajevo. Photojournalism is exciting, demanding and very competitive and I loved it!

Now life is about…

Living back in the North East and appreciating the raw beauty of the area and the warmth of its people. I’m still working but don’t want to go to conflicts or spend weeks away, so I prefer to find subjects closer to home to photograph. Last Christmas I spent two weeks shooting portraits of people visiting the Newcastle West End food bank which is the busiest in the UK and featured in Ken Loach’s Bafta winning film ‘I, Daniel Blake’, which portrayed life on the breadline. It was a sobering experience to photograph such poverty only six miles from my home. Being back in Northumberland has brought much joy and calmness to my life. I got married to a wonderful girl in 2015 and Ailsa and I spend lots of quality time together, either enjoying the north Northumberland coastal area where I was brought up, or socialising with good friends in the pubs and restaurants in Ponteland where we live.

Why/how I made a change…

I simply grew sick of living in the London chaos and waiting for the next adrenaline rush when an assignment to a faraway place came up. After over 40 years of witnessing some pretty extreme things I was tired. One day I woke up and realised that I needed to ‘go home’.

I’m lucky I can…

Still go off whenever I see an interesting story happening that I would like to be on. Newcastle airport is terrific and I can quickly get to London, Europe or further afield if necessary.

Family is all about…

Love and communication.

The people who are important…

My family and a few true friends who would always be there in the good times and the bad.

I thrive on…

News and current affairs. In the UK we are incredibly lucky to have a free and diverse press that delivers great journalism every day.

Things are different because…

My life has totally changed and now I’m more relaxed and less selfish. My wife, family and friends come first and my work is much less important to me than 
it was.

Work/life balance?

I did my best photojournalism when I felt angry at what was happening in front of me especially if it involved innocent people caught up in a war or disaster through no fault of their own. But stress and anger will get you in the end and are a waste of heartbeats, so now I try to relax, eat, sleep and laugh every day.

Day in the life of me…

Tom StoddartA typical day on assignment would be similar to what I’ve recently done in the refugee camps set up in south-eastern Bangladesh for 655,000 Rohingya people who have fled from persecution by the Myanmar military. I was shooting photographs for an exhibition to raise funds for the UK ShelterBox charity. Up at 4.45am to meet two ShelterBox staff and a driver, plus translator in the lobby of a hotel in the port town of Cox’s Bazar where most of the international aid agencies are based. Leave at 5.15am and drive for an hour to the world’s largest refugee camp at Kutupalong in time to photograph the sun rising over thousands of makeshift homes that are set on clay hills.

The morning is cold and I photograph people huddling around fires and then setting off to collect firewood. Hundreds of men, women and children walk for three hours to a forest to cut down the trees and carry the wood back to their homes. The sheer strength and fitness of the people is amazing. As we move through the camp the sounds of young children chanting from the Koran reaches us and I spend an hour shooting pictures of the youngsters studying by a mosque in the early golden light.

Then we find a group of new arrivals being helped by the UNHCR agency. The people are traumatised and the brutal stories of atrocities inflicted on them 
by the Myanmar military are hard to listen to. I try to capture the emotion in the faces and my colleagues record interviews and take notes. One teenage boy 
has a terrible weeping scar on the back of his neck where he claims a Myanmar soldier slashed him with a machete.

It’s hard going climbing up and down the hills in the camp looking for images and we stop for a couple of hours to rest and eat a packed lunch well away from hungry eyes.

Later in the day at the Norwegian Field Hospital we find a heartwarming story. A heavily pregnant woman has been brought in after being told that the baby inside her has no heartbeat. The doctors are convinced her baby has died but when a midwife delivers the tiny infant and places him on the mother he starts to breathe and cry out. A miracle!

As the light falls I work quickly shooting pictures of women collecting water at a pump. For security reasons we need to leave the camp and get back to the hotel before nightfall. The sun is setting just as we get back to Cox’s Bazar and I have ten minutes before dark on the beach which is the longest unbroken sea beach in the world. Then it’s a shower to scrape the mud off myself and my filthy clothes before a meal, then clean my Canon cameras and asleep by 9pm ready for another 4.45am alarm.

Mid life means to me…

Not to dwell on things past, but to embrace the future and appreciate how lucky I am.


 

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