There is something about photobooks which is timeless. Exhibitions are fun, educational and inspirational. Social media can pique one’s interest. But a book is different. You can study, take your time, and go back to it over again. I am lucky to have a decent library of photobooks, and this includes a copy of the Edge of Madness: Sarajevo, a city and a people under siege. This shows the work of Tom Stoddart and Alastair Thain, and is a catalogue of a 1997 exhibition in London at try Royal Festival Hall. It is a physically big volume, although it only has 48 pages, and there is an excellent introductory essay by Martin Bell.
The siege of Sarajevo lasted three and a half years, and at least 10,000 people were killed.
Tom is a photojournalist, and was in Sarajevo during the siege, working for the Sunday Times. He broke his ankle and his shoulder, which is now titanium. He went back after his surgery. Tom’s photographs in the book are powerful documentary journalism, featuring the people of the city. When the siege ended, Tom asked his friend Alastair Thain to accompany him back there in 1996. In a Guardian article by Maggie O’Kane on Alastair, Tom is quoted as saying
‘The landscape of Sarajevo should be recorded’. (link below).
Alastair was using a specially made camera based on NASA technology which captured incredible detail. His photographs are extraordinary urbanscapes.
Alastair is best known as a portrait photographer, though his contributions to the book are extraordinary urbanscapes.
Tom Stoddart. Snipers Alley.
There was an area of the town called ‘snipers alley’, as people had to run the gauntlet of long range fire from Bosnian Serbian forces. Just to get to work was an act of extraordinary heroism and personal bravery. As Martin bell notes:
‘Commuting to work Sarajevo-style required flat shoes, fitness and the courage to run across the most dangerous intersections in the world’.
Tom Stoddart. Snipers Alley.
The devastation in the city was appalling, as was the initial lack of international response. The book is both a record of terrible events, and a warning that such things can still happen in even the most apparently civilised of places.
To quote the Guardian article again:
‘Despite Thain’s reluctance to emulate the more traditional work of war photographers, he believes that his photographs of Sarajevo’s buildings do have a place: ‘A lot of war photography is slightly pornographic, [whereas] the study of the buildings is simple, influential and meditative. Most people, thankfully, don’t have a direct experience of war, but they can relate to the buildings’.
Tom’s photographs of everyday life under siege are as compelling as any war time photographs ever taken, and the benefit of the book rather than a ‘show’ is to be able to go back and study his work.
The most famous of the photographs is of Meliha Vareshanovic, a smartly dressed woman walking with both pride and lack of fear past a defending soldier. Striking in its simplicity, I think it is one of the iconic images of 20th century photography.
Tom Stoddart. 1995. Meliha Vareshanovic.
Other photographs are touching – almost happy photographs showing the love of caring family.
Tom Stoddart. 1992. Gordana Burazor, and Andre.
Tom considered this ‘his best shot’ in another Guardian article. (link below).
Edge of Madness is, I think, a unique combination of two photographer’s visions and styles.
I was very lucky to get a fine, used copy of the book from a French bookseller, and it has an important place in my collection. When I searched for other copies, I can see there is one available in the USA at a ‘reasonable’ price. But imagine my surprise when I saw what Amazon suggested, with prices at £800 and over. Photobooks as ‘art investments’ 🙂
Photobooks are indeed forever.
To see more of Tom’s wonderful and moving work, visit his Tom Stoddart.
STODDART, Tom & THAIN, Alastair. 1997. Edge of Madness: Sarajevo, a City and Its People Under Siege. Royal Festival Hall. London: Hayward Gallery Publishing.
STODDART, Tom. 2020. Extraordinary Women: Images of Courage, Endurance & Defiance. Woodbridge: ACC Art Books.
Maggie O’Kane. 2006. Out of the past. Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2006/feb/04/weekend.maggieokane (accessed 01/03/2021).
Leo Benedictus. 2008. Tom Stoddart’s Best Shot. Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/oct/02/photography (accessed 01/03/2021),