The optimist

Reading Time: 14 minutes

On his first week as picture editor at The Sunday Times in April 1989, Aidan Sullivan arrived in the offices when reports started to come in that one of the stands at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield was collapsing. In the early hours of that Saturday afternoon, “we didn’t know how bad it was. And then the pictures started to come through via two photographers from the Press Association”, recalls Sullivan. “By the end of the afternoon I had two piles of pictures on my desk as the deadline for the first edition was coming up. On the left were people who were dead, or dying, and on the right were people in distress, but who were not in a life-threatening situation.”


Sullivan was 28 at the time, having taken on the role of picture editor at the newspaper after working for the Mail on Sunday. “But even at that young age, I knew that since we were dealing with a UK tragedy, if I had chosen to publish a photograph of somebody who was dead or dying in the first edition of The Sunday Times, it would probably have been seen in advance of their families being officially notified. I felt we had a responsibility not to do that. If I could find a photograph that still illustrated the horror of what was going on without showing somebody dead, than that was the route we had to choose. That was my first day in charge of the picture desk – talk about sink or swim.”

Sullivan had been a photographer for more 10 years when he joined The Sunday Times’ picture desk. “I had just come back from a trip to Afghanistan, and Alan Jones told me he was about to resign to join a new newspaper called the Sunday Correspondent. In that instant, I thought I could be a picture editor. I liked the idea of working with photographers, finding ideas and commissioning them. So I went for it.” It was the beginning of Sullivan’s second career – one that would strengthen his bonds with photography and establish him as one of the biggest supporters of photojournalism in Britain today.

Sullivan was born in 1956 in Aden, Yemen, then home to Britain’s largest overseas military base. “My father was an Air Force pilot and he would fly around Yemen in this little purpose-built aircraft that could land on very short runways. He was charged with delivering fake money to sheiks and tribal chiefs who were loyal to Her Majesty. They kind of knew it was fake money, but it was his job to keep them sweet. It was to keep the tribes loyal because of the uprising taking place in the country.”

Sullivan’s father had bought a Rollei camera that he had installed on his plane, and “he was telling me that when he used to approach these different palaces, some of them had gardens in the back. And he knew that one of them had a harem in the back, but he was told he could only ever approach the palace from the west, so he would never fly over it. So, on his last ever trip, he was determined to fly over it and take a look at this harem. He was telling me how he was trying to angle the Rollei while flying the plane to try to take the picture. That was one of the first times I really thought about photography.”

Following a stint in Mombasa and on Germany’s air bases, Sullivan was sent to a Jesuit school in England, where he didn’t really connect. “But they do toughen you up,” he says. “I was seven and we used to box every Saturday morning. These were tough people but, to my father’s shame, academia wasn’t really for me.”

When he turned 16, Sullivan was living in Southend-on-Sea with his family. “That summer I was bored. We had just moved there, so I didn’t have any school friends. I had to do something, so I looked for a job. I saw in the local newspaper that they were looking for a copy boy. I still remember the moment when I walked through the door of that newspaper. Something happened and I just thought: “This is it. I know what I want to do.”

Much like academia, Sullivan found out that journalism in its written form wasn’t really for him. “I soon got bored with that,” he says. “At the time, my father had given me his Rollei and I started using it to take pictures of my friends. I soon realised I actually enjoyed taking pictures, so I volunteered to work with the paper’s staff photographers. I would assist them at weekends, carrying their bags and listening to their stories.”

The first photobook he ever bought, incidentally, was Homecoming by Don McCullin, with whom he now spends a lot of his time – the war photographer has an honorary office adjacent to Sullivan’s in the basement of the Getty Images London building.

On his 18th birthday, Sullivan was woken up by his father. “He told me that one of the amusement arcades on the shore was on fire. I rushed out of bed, got my camera, and sure enough this thing was ablaze. It was 7.30 in the morning on 08 August 1974. The place was called the Happidrome, and I had pictures of the firemen trying to put out the blaze.” With his rolls of film in hand, he called Ron Case, legendary photographer and picture editor at the Echo newspaper. “He told me to come in and asked for the films. I said: ‘No. I want a job.’ He answered: ‘Give me the films and then we’ll talk about a job.’ So I gave them to him and then realised he was talking to me, but I couldn’t hear a word of what he was saying. All I was thinking about was whether my pictures were overexposed. I had no idea what was on these films.”


Aidan Sullivan’s picture of the Happidrome on fire was published on his 18th birthday © Aidan Sullivan

Sullivan got what he wanted: a job as a junior photographer on the Grays and Tilbury Gazette, and his picture on the front page of the Echo. “I still remember the caption: ‘The fire-blackened ruins of the Happidrome – picture taken by amateur photographer Aidan Sullivan, who works in the Echo library and is 18 today.’”

For the following 18 months, Sullivan would work hard, cutting his teeth in a difficult place. “The editor and I didn’t really see eye to eye,” he admits. “But there were a couple of big incidents and I would see my pictures get picked up by the evening papers. At some point, they wanted me back – I was 20 when I became a staff photographer.”

Next, he moved to London to join the Fleet Street News Agency. “I remember, as I arrived, the picture manager standing outside with his arm extended. I thought: ‘How nice. He’s come out to welcome me.’ So I put my hand out and he handed me this piece of paper and said: ‘Bow Street. Go there now and call me when you’re done.’ I had no idea where Bow Street was and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do when I got there. Thankfully, there were other photographers there who helped me. Then a guy on a bike came to pick up my film and I was sent to Bond Street. I didn’t see that office for three days.”

In London, Sullivan’s images ended up regularly in the Evening Standard, so it made sense to go freelance for the newspaper. “Then I did a lot of work with Tom Stoddart at the Daily Star, and then when the Mail on Sunday was launched, we were both approached to join it.” At that time, the newspapers had big budgets and Sullivan started to get what he had always dreamed of: foreign assignments. “I went to Afghanistan twice and loved every second of it.” But something felt wrong. “I remember one day, I was going on a ski holiday and had left something in my apartment, so I went back up to get it. That’s when the phone rang and I knew it was the picture desk with an assignment. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to answer. Of course, I did answer the phone, and they wanted me to go to Tripoli. I ended up having to cancel my holiday, but that was a sign.”

So when a job as picture editor at the Mail on Sunday opened up, he jumped at the opportunity. He was quickly headhunted by The Sunday Times, where he started as deputy editor before being promoted in April 1989 to picture editor. “I was 28 then, and I worked for Andrew Neil, which was not an easy thing. He was a very demanding man.

“At the time, the newspaper was changing dramatically – we were adding new sections all the time. One day, he asked us to come up with a dummy for a new section called Culture. We had Annie Leibovitz send pictures of Mikhail Baryshnikov and dummied it up, and he said: “Great, we’ll go with that.’ And that was it.”


At the newspaper, Sullivan started building a team of photographers he could rely on. He commissioned Jon Jones to go to Yugoslavia: “I approached him for backing and he gave me some money to cover the war there,” says Jones. “He was one of the few people to support me.”

And in 1989, he put his support behind a young photographer named Ian Parry. “He was just 24, and it was the start of the Romanian revolution. He had done one foreign assignment before, in Sri Lanka, but he was desperate to go to Romania. It was just before Christmas and I remember talking to him after he sent back some pretty good work. I said: ‘That’s it, we’re done now. We don’t have another edition until January because of Christmas.’ He said: ‘No, there are a couple of things going on that I want to look at.’ And then I got a call to come into the office; there was some bad news. I remember picking up the phone to Reuters, which was running this report that a cargo plane had been shot down – we don’t know what happened – and on the manifest it said there was the crew and one passenger, and they thought the passenger was Ian. I didn’t know what to do. I was absolutely broken.”

Sullivan remembers sitting down and just sobbing. “When the realisation comes through that somebody has lost his life, it is really too much to bear,” he says. “It was really hard. It was kind of surreal – it kind of slowed down.”

Sullivan was determined to create something positive out of the tragedy, launching the Ian Parry Scholarship in 1990, which rewards a young photographer with a grant for the production of a photojournalistic body of work. In its 24 years of existence, the scholarship has rewarded Simon Roberts, Marcus Bleasdale, Jonas Bendiksen and Sebastian Liste, among many other photographers. “I’m proud that we kept that going all these years,” says Sullivan.

In 1994, he moved to The Sunday Times Magazine. “Our budgets were not the budgets we used to have in the 1980s, so I relied on the relationships I had with photographers. We still commissioned a lot, but we had to acquire things for a lot less money than we used to. That was a challenge, but again I think that worked because there was a trust there as well. I had a wonderful time at the magazine and worked with some of the greatest art directors – Tony Chambers was a genius, and Michael Rand as well. They are people you work with and think ‘these guys have vision – they absolutely know where they’re going’. To work with these guys who understand what you’re doing and what the photographers are doing, and are able to create something that works on page, is a big buzz – it’s very rewarding.”

Aidan Sullivan [centre] on one of his last assignments in Afghanistan before joining the Mail on Sunday as a picture editor © Aidan Sullivan


Aidan Sullivan [centre] on one of his last assignments in Afghanistan before joining the Mail on Sunday as a picture editor © Aidan Sullivan

For Tony Chambers, who now edits Wallpaper* magazine, Sullivan’s transition from the newspaper to The Sunday Times Magazine was marred, at first, by suspicion. “The magazine had an air of autonomy and superiority, to be honest, so there was always a bit of tension and suspicion towards anybody who came from the newspapers because there were changes afoot at that time,” says Chambers. “To Aidan’s credit, after a while people learned to trust him, and he embraced and understood how the magazine worked. He soon became one of us and we used to joke that he had gone ‘native’.”

Sullivan admits there were difficulties at first. “The transition from newspaper to magazine was the steepest learning curve I have ever encountered,” he says. “They are very different worlds. I arrived at the magazine thinking I knew a great deal about photography, and within a few days I realised just how much I had to learn; thankfully, the team there was willing to educate me.”

But then, these talented art directors he had worked with and respected left and The Sunday Times Magazine hired a new director with whom Sullivan didn’t get along. “I felt my time at the magazine was coming to an end.”

Getty comes knocking

In 1995, Sullivan launched with Simon Townsley and Jez Coulson. The photo agency launched on a simple premise: what do photo editors need but don’t get? Publicity stills from Hollywood’s studios, Sullivan declares. “When it came to news and sports, we had everything we needed, but publicity stills from studios were always appalling. That was how we came up with” Sullivan used his connections at studios in London to get the service started. “It was a win-win situation for everyone around. The media didn’t have to pay anything and they received high-resolution images. And since these were high-res images, they would run them bigger, so the studios were happy too. And we were happy because they paid us. It was remarkable.”

In 2004, Getty Images acquired and Sullivan was asked to move to Los Angeles to help with the transition. Eighteen months later, he moved once more, this time to New York, where he met with Getty’s co-founder, Jonathan Klein. “He asked me: ‘What do you want to do now?’ And I said: ‘Well, you don’t actually do what I want to do. I’d really love to see us as a home for photojournalists.’” Klein’s answer was unexpected. “He asked me if I knew Tom Stoddart and if I could get him on board.” And Reportage by Getty Images was born. “This was an amazing opportunity to build something very special,” he says. “I think we’re incredibly lucky at Reportage because we have this fantastic resource that is Getty – we can use their marketing department, their legal department, their salespeople. We have advantages beyond any of the other agencies, such as VII Photo, Noor and Magnum, for example. And we’re very mindful of that.

“What I wanted to do was to build an agency within the agency that could attract some really talented photographers, but also prove that Getty Images was very much a part of the photojournalism community. It was really important in terms of that perception.”

Sullivan was determined to make Reportage into a very positive thing, without the pretence of being anything other than a commercial agency. “We’re not a co-operative. We’re quite up-front about what we do. We’re a commercial agency; we are here to make money for the company and our photographers. We have a business plan. But we would like to take some of the elements of being Magnum, for example, and bring that into the mix and work with photographers who are very thoughtful – photographers who are committed to the stories. There’s a heart and soul, but it’s a commercial entity.”

Despite his numerous achievements – from The Sunday Times to and Getty Images – what has most defined Sullivan remains Parry’s death in 1989. When Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed in 2011 in Libya, Sullivan helped co-ordinate the return of their bodies. “When I got the call about Chris and Tim from Human Rights Watch, I went cold and thought: ‘Here we go again’.” Hondros was a Getty Images photographer, so it was natural for the agency to take care of the administrative and diplomatic formalities. “But then I thought about Tim,” says Sullivan. “No one was going to look after Tim. So I called Jonathan Klein and Adrian Murrell [Getty’s senior vice president in charge of global editorial] and said we needed to help him. They said: ‘Absolutely – just do it.’ It was probably the worst 10 hours of my life, after Ian. It was not just the emotional drain, it was the logistics of trying to get them out of this volatile situation. We nearly missed the boat, literally. One of the bodies couldn’t be released because we couldn’t get authorisation.”

When I asked him why he felt the need to help, Parry’s name is his only answer. “When we lost Ian, I suddenly realised that if you have the resources, you should be there to help. When Tom Stoddard got hurt in 1991 in Sarajevo, he was not actually working for anyone – he was freelancing. But he had been on staff for The Sunday Times. When I got this call from his agent, who said he had been in a mortar attack and couldn’t be treated, I thought we needed to get him out. His legs had snapped in half and his shoulders had been completely shattered. I got News International’s insurance policy to kick in and we were able to get him out and look after him. I felt that we just had to do it.”

“He virtually put me back together,” says Stoddart. “I remember lying on a stretcher, semi- conscious, and the phone rang in the hospital. When the nurse came back she just said: ‘They’re coming to get you.’” The next day he was being flown to Heathrow. “The doors of the ambulance opened and Aidan was standing there. I was semi-conscious and just said: ‘I’ll repay you.’ And he said: ‘You won’t live long enough to repay me.’ It was that expensive. He has always been loyal to everyone who works with him.”

For Sullivan, there was no question that he had to be there for Stoddart. “As a director of photography, if you can convince the photographers you work with that you are 100 percent behind them in everything, they will give you 100 percent. I’ve always stuck up for my photographers – whether it was at The Sunday Times or Getty Images. You have to have that relationship with them because they are really vulnerable. They are only as good as their next picture. They are constantly soul-searching. They need support. They need someone to trust. That’s what I’ve always based my career on, and that’s why I have such a strong relationship with the photographers I’ve worked with. It’s my job to encourage, support and inspire them. I’ve been a photographer and I know how lonely a place that can be. I’ve been in difficult situations and know how scary that can be. For this profession to continue, we need to give as much support to the guys out there as we possibly can.”

Most recently, Sullivan took charge of yet another initiative by spearheading A Day Without News?, an initiative to help raise awareness of the risks that journalists and photographers take every day to bring back the news. “I think we were all so shocked when Tim and Chris died. And then, when we calmed down, we realised that what they were doing was what they wanted to do, what they were trained to do, and what they were really experienced in. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you choose that profession, it’s quite likely that, eventually, you might get hurt.”

But then, the community had to deal with the murders of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik. “They were targeted. This was different. Who is going to be prosecuted for killing one of the finest foreign correspondents and a young World Press Photo winning photographer? What is going to happen? Are we just going to let this go?”

A Day Without News? is the most utopian initiative I’ve ever heard of,” says Jean-François Leroy, Visa pour l’Image’s director and one of Sullivan’s close friends. “When he told me he was starting this campaign, I was doubtful, yet he surprised everyone. The United Nations Security Council actually discussed these issues, thanks to this campaign. It shows what kind of man he is,” says Leroy.

“I feel that as part of my life in photography and journalism, if I can give anything back, I will,” says Sullivan, especially at a time when the industry is so concerned and scared. “In Syria, for example, people think it’s too dangerous – that it’s not worth the risk. And that’s the problem. We can never get to a point where we believe it’s too dangerous because then there will be a day without news. What we have to do is minimise the risk by only working with photographers who are qualified and have enough experience.”

So when a young Spanish photojournalist came to see him last month after spending three weeks in Aleppo, Syria, Sullivan was straight with him. “Before he showed me his images, I asked him to show me how to tie a tourniquet, and he didn’t know how to do it. I told him: ‘You have no business being in Aleppo.’ He said he couldn’t afford the training. So don’t go until you can. Photojournalists need that basic knowledge – either for themselves or for somebody else who might get injured. If you don’t know how to tie a tourniquet, what chance do you have?”

Sullivan did end up looking at the photographer’s work because, he says, he will always look at work sent his way. That’s just the way he is, explains Chambers. “Aidan has a child-like enthusiasm for photography and visual journalism. He’s very giving and has always had a positive outlook on photography.”

Sullivan doesn’t suppress that enthusiasm, and it’s particularly on show when the time comes to celebrate Ian Parry’s life through the scholarship he established.

“It’s the best party in town,” he says. “When I look around the room, there are probably five people who actually knew Ian. So when I see 350 people partying in his name, I know he would have been thrilled that it was going on.”