Photographer Penny Tweedie, expelled from Uganda in 1972, dies at Age 70

Posted January 30, 2011 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Featured ~ 5,127 views


The Australian | PENNY Tweedie was a pioneering photographer who covered war and conflicts across the world, from Bangladesh and Vietnam to Uganda and East Timor. English born and an Australian citizen, she was also a great portrait photographer and an award-winning chronicler of Australian Aboriginal culture. Her book Spirit of Arnhem Land is recognised as a classic.

Her Kentish farming family was shocked when she announced she was going to Guildford Art School to study photography. On graduating, she joined the seriously hip magazine Queen, which had asked her college to send them their best student. Picture editors soon recognised her outstanding talent.

Photographer Penny Tweedie. Born Hawkhurst, England, April 30, 1940. Died Hawkhurst, January 14, age 70.

In her 50-year career, Tweedie went on to take photographs in more than 70 countries and across every genre. Her work appeared in the world’s leading publications, including National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, Paris Match, and Britain’s The Times and The Sunday Times Magazine, as well as in much of the Australian media.

She subsidised the work she did for charities and NGOs, including Shelter, Oxfam, Help the Aged, Save the Children, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Christian Aid, with commercial work for ad agencies and catalogues.

She always tended to be where the action was. While working in India in 1971, she was commissioned by The Sunday Times to cover the Bangladesh war. Although mistakenly arrested as a spy and imprisoned in squalid conditions by the Indian army, she got out in time to secure a set of shocking photos of Bangladeshi intellectuals rounded up and murdered in brickyards by the retreating Pakistanis.

It was while covering that war that she was summoned to a victory celebration outside Dhaka. She realised that some very frightened prisoners, accused of being collaborators, were about to be bayoneted to death for the benefit of the foreign press. She and a small group of other photographers refused to participate: some of those who stayed, arguing that they had a duty to record the killings, won prizes for their work.

The following year, she and colleagues were thrown out of Uganda by Idi Amin during the mass expulsion of Asians. The year after that, she had a narrow escape on the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur war: an Israeli sergeant scooped her up under one arm and sprinted for the shelter of a tank, cameras jangling, as incoming shells just missed them.

Her long involvement with Australia and Aboriginal people began in 1975, when she flew to Alice Springs to photograph the filming of a BBC telefilm about explorers Burke and Wills. “It turned out to be an experience that changed the direction of my life,” she later wrote.

From a base in Darwin she covered the build-up of the Indonesian troops ahead of the December 1975 invasion of East Timor. She returned to Australia and with her then partner, Clive Scollay, was invited to Arnhem Land to document artists and their families.

This resulted in a major National Geographic story, her book This My Country and, 20 years later, Spirit of Arnhem Land. The work led to exhibitions, including one for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and the 1999 Walkley Award for photojournalism.

Always conscientious, she returned to Arnhem Land with the proofs of her book to ensure that everyone was happy with the way they were portrayed. With the support of her friend Nick Waterlow, her trusted connections with Arnhem Land artists led to their historic inclusion in the 1979 Biennale of Sydney, European Dialogue. The work of artists David Malangi, George Milpurrurru and Johnny Bungawuy was included with Tweedie and Scollay’s multimedia piece Milmildjark: My Country.

In 2000, Tweedie photographed and interviewed 78 young indigenous people at work, which became an exhibition and then a book, Standing Strong.

She also collaborated with musicians Martin Wesley-Smith and Adrian Keenan on an audio-visual composition, Kdadalak (For the Children of Timor), commissioned and performed by the Seymour Group.

One of her last photographic essays for the Australian media was on East Timor’s Jose Ramos-Horta.

As a single mother to her adored son, Ben, who travelled with her on many assignments, she kept a house in Sydney and for decades commuted between Britain and Australia.

Her work continued, and whether it was on the effects of strip-mining in Ghana, Beirut “between the bombs”, the aftermath of the tsunami in India or East Timor’s struggle for independence and survival, she was often on the road: she believed that jet-lag was a figment of the imagination. She saw much of man’s inhumanity to man and empathised greatly with the subjects of her photos.

Her striking portfolio of portraits included everyone from Twiggy to princess Diana, John Lennon, Germaine Greer, Charles Perkins and Muammar Gaddafi.

More recently, she was a devoted carer to her ailing mother and lived among the Kentish fields of her childhood. Recent work for the National Trust (A Year at Sissinghurst) and a spectacular series of photos of Kent and Sussex showed that after five productive decades she had lost none of her skill.

Tweedie was a consummate professional, an artist of great integrity, courageous and brave. She considered herself a working photographer to the bitter end.

She coped resolutely with professional slights but it seems despair at the world’s lack of use for her craft finally induced her to take her life. Behind the exterior of the intrepid international photographer – cameras over her shoulder, bandana round her neck, broad smile on her face – was a wry, sensitive and compassionate soul, loved and admired by a wide circle of friends.

She leaves a large body of work in collections and leading photographic agencies, and is survived by her son Ben, her mother, Anne, and her two brothers, Charles and James.

Mike Wells and Duncan Campbell, with Richard Creswick and Andrea Hull

A version of this article appeared in The Guardian.

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Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.

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