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Penny Tweedie (1940-2011)

24 January 2011 - Graham Harrison

The photographic industry pays tribute to the respected photojournalist who documented Aboriginal culture and
turned her camera away from the bayoneting of prisoners in Bangladesh in 1971.

Penny Tweedie died on the 14th of January at the age of 70. A photographer all her life, she was a pioneer for many female photojournalists.

In a career which began in 1961 at Go and Queen magazine Tweedie went on to work for all the top publications of the time from The Sunday Times, to The Telegraph Magazine, The Daily Express, The Observer, National Geographic, Newsweek, Paris Match, Geo and Time magazine.

She covered the invasion of East Timor in 1975, and famously refused to photograph the bayoneting of four prisoners in 1971 during victory celebrations at the end of the Bangladesh War of Independence. While some photographers refused to photograph the killings others did. At the heart of the debate that followed lies one of the dark ambiguities of photojournalism.

But perhaps Penny Tweedie’s greatest achievement was her vibrant document of the lives of the Australian Aborigines with whom she lived with her son Ben, and about whom she produced three books – This My Country, Spirit of Arnhem Land and Indigenous Australia STANDING STRONG which became the exhibition for the Sydney Olympics. Her achievements were recognised in 1999 when she was awarded the Walkley Award for photojournalism.

Penny was a member of the National Union of Journalists and of EPUK which she joined in 2008. The photographic industry was shocked to hear news of her death: “It seems despair at the world’s lack of use for her craft finally induced her to take her own life,” write Mike Wells and Duncan Campbell in The Guardian.

Friends and colleagues remember Penny Tweedie:

“I was in awe of Penny before I ever worked with her, she was a legend of her era. She was rare in that she could take great pictures and write well – not to mention being a woman working in a male dominated industry. If Penny had an idea for a story she could make connections with everything and anyone to do with it and she would pursue it until she was satisfied she had it completely covered, no stone unturned. She knew what made a good story and she made it look easy, but she laboured years on her projects – money was a concern, but nothing to slow her down. On one occasion she brought in a massive story on the indigenous people of Australia. Her energy and knowledge of her subject sold us on the spot – as did the stunning photography. I don’t think she would have left the office without our commitment to publish – we would have been too shame faced not to say yes. Penny felt to her bones that the story of these people and their way of life had to be told and made it clear we would be idiots not to publish; and she was right.”
Victoria Lukens, Picture Editor, The Independent on Sunday Review 1991-2007.

Bangladesh, 1971. Photo © the estate of Penny Tweedie

“Penny had an MG, I had a Reliant Scimitar and Prince Charles had a police escort and a helicopter. Trying to keep up with his Royal progress around Wales after his Investiture in 1969 was taxing, dangerous (to other road users) and immense fun. That was the start of our long friendship and I shall miss her indomitable spirit, energy and professionalism.”
Adam Woolfitt, photographer.

“Penny was an inspiration to me ever since I read an interview of her in The Guardian in the early seventies. She was a true photojournalist. She was also kind and hospitable to all her friends and colleagues in Sydney and in Kent. Together we struggled to master Lightroom. I’ll miss her and will always regret not spending more time with her.”
Sally Fear, photographer.

“I have always been impressed by the courage and the commitment that Penny showed in her career as a ‘concerned photographer’. She was able to function alone and come back with a sensitive overall picture of the situations she got involved in. Her stories never left her, she was always ready and keen to do an ‘update’ on matters that she cared for. She represented an era of photojournalism which has dramatically changed over the last decade.”
Philippe Achache, former Director of Impact Photos.

Bush fire, Australia. Photo © the estate of Penny Tweedie

“When I was a student in the late 60s our art school took us off to Paris for a week. In those days everyone travelled by coach and boat. A part-time lecturer came along, she was a working photographer rather than a teacher and I remember her gallantly climbing up to a high point on the boat to get a good group shot of the lot of us. That was Penny and she made quite an impression on us young lads. I lost track of her after college but was aware that she lived and worked in Australia for years documenting aboriginal life. Very sad she’s gone.”
John Walmsley, photographer.

“I greatly admired Penny Tweedie’s stand during the war in Bangladesh in 1971, a story which raises its head every so often and I ask myself ‘What would I have done in that situation ?’ Like many I was shocked to learn that she had taken her own life because of the despair she felt about the way her work was valued. Penny was not the only photographer to die in such a way over the past decade or so. Donavan, the great fashion photographer, Peter Jay sports photographer, Richard Mills of The Times - all I believe took their own lives. Donovan said he couldn’t cope with all the new things happening. Peter, very ill with cancer took his own life as he ‘gave up’ as those who commissioned him gave up on him. Richard I don’t know about except that he was in Zimbabwe. And now Penny. Yet when a photographer dies their work lives on, hopefully for ever. That is indeed a good thing.”
Brian Harris, photographer.

“I was always rather in awe of Penny when I worked at the Telegraph Magazine. She was such a feisty, strong character, always coming back from assignments with pockets full of film to develop, full of tales of her adventures. Her great love of the Aborigine cause stayed with her always and I remember so well the pictures of her little blond son, Ben, living amongst them with her. She also gave great parties and when we moved near to where she lived in Sussex we socialised a lot, and she was a very generous host. A one off character and a compassionate photographer who will be missed by all who knew her.”
Patricia Elkins, picture editor.

Sisters, Arnhem Land, Australia. Photo © the estate of Penny Tweedie

“Thank you to the thoughtful soul who, a week after dear Penny’s death, realized that a still life of vegetables on the home page of her website totally failed to illustrate what most of her life had been about. Sadly, it did illustrate how gamely she pressed on as a photographer in a world of diminishing assignments. I first met Penny on the steps of the Sydney Harbour Opera House in 1981, where she and a hundred other photojournalists were for once in front of the cameras, to commemorate their participation in the seminal Day in the Life of Australia book. Thirty years on she remained the youthful reporter, ever eager to take the next plane to a trouble spot or to a child in need. Sadly, many of her clients had developed visual arthritis and were no longer willing to get her on to those planes. My regrets … that I didn’t stay a closer friend, and that I never could beat her at table tennis.”
Patrick Ward, photographer.

“Penny was a photographer of the old school who developed professionally by working on freelance projects close to her heart and expecting that sooner or later, magazines would publish them. My overwhelming memory of her is as an impassioned advocate for whichever subject was currently preoccupying her and she could be, understandably, a little impatient if you didn’t respond immediately to her enthusiasm, bogged down as one might be with the day-to-day mechanics of editorial production. I recall that she always presented her work in a highly professional manner, well researched, well edited, well captioned, and with a coherent introductory text. Like many of her generation of photojournalists, Penny grew up in an era when magazines tended to recognise, support and publish good, intelligent stories and I guess she felt left behind by the new editorial realities of the digital age. What could be worse for a creative person than feeling you still have a lot to offer but finding you are increasingly ignored?”
Colin Jacobson, Picture Editor, The Independent Magazine 1986-95.

Penny Tweedie is survived by her son Ben, her mother Anne, and two brothers, James and Charles.

• The funeral of the photojournalist Penny Tweedie will take place at 3:20pm on Thursday January 27th, 2011 at Charing Crematorium, Kent.

• Penny Tweeidie is featured on Last Word, the BBC Radio 4 FM programme to be broadcast on Sunday January 30th at 20:30.

Want to contact the EPUK Website editor? editor@epuk.org


Penny was my friend. We met on a hill in Kent. She told me she took pictures for a living, I had no idea of the extent. We drank beer whilst watching politics on TV in the pub. We walked our dogs in the woods. She was a good person.

Comment 1: Paul Walsh, 8 September 2011, 10:43 am

I knew Penny from the other side of the business as her supplier of photographic equipment. She was always a wonderfully warm and funny lady with an effervescent character that filled our working relationship.
She had respect for all of us and so gained the love and respect of all my staff and colleagues.
She was one of a special breed of photographer, sorely missed.

Comment 2: Steve Baker, 8 November 2013, 01:31 am

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