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Pioneeering photographer Penny Tweedie dies aged 70

31 January 2011

John Toner, NUJ freelance organiser

Pioneering photographer Penny Tweedie died on 14 January at the age of 70. Her distinguished career included ground-breaking coverage of wars and social issues, as well as other topics.

Penny Tweedie was someone I had known for several years in a professional capacity. It was, though, at the suggestion of another photographer, Guy Smallman, that we invited Penny to speak at the NUJ Photographers' Conference in the Spring of 2009.

Although she had given many talks across the United States, Penny was nervous about speaking at an NUJ event. Modestly, she insisted on talking Guy and me through her presentation to be sure it was what we wanted. The first pictures she included were of the Gorbals slums in the early 1960s. As someone who was born in another slum just a mile away, I discovered an unexpected but immediate connection with her work.

At around that time, Penny was offered a job by the Daily Express as a staff photographer. She related that the NUJ Chapel objected to the appointment of a female photographer, on the grounds that she might faint if she were asked to cover a train crash or something equally horrific.

Penny went on to cover the war in Bangladesh; the Yom Kippur war; conflict in Uganda; and the invasion of East Timor. She assured me that she didn't faint: ever.

Whilst covering the victory celebrations at the end of the war in Bangladesh, Penny and other photographers witnessed the bayonetting to death of some prisoners. Penny told how she realised quickly that the killings were for the benefit of the press. She and some other photographers lowered their cameras and turned their backs; others continued to record the murders

From the 1970s onwards, Penny became committed to chronicling the lives of the Australian Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land, which led to her receiving the Walkley award for photojournalism.

Those who heard Penny speak at our conference were greatly moved by her images and her measured, modest, matter-of-fact presentation. Several hours later, when the conference ended, one photographer with tears in his eyes spoke to me about the power of Penny's work.

During our last telephone conversation a few months ago, Penny told me that work was now difficult to come by, an experience shared with most photojournalists.

Penny Tweedie understood that photojournalism is essential to the fabric of our society: anyone who doubts this need only look at Penny's body of work for incontrovertible evidence of her belief.

Tags: , photographers, conflict, bangladesh, daily express, australia, uganda, war, east timor