The Observer’s Tony McGrath: fearless picture editor who refused to flinch from brutal reality

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Tony McGrath, former Observer picture editor and a celebrated photographer whose work documenting the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s helped to inspire Live Aid, has died aged 80.

Dublin-born McGrath nurtured the work of a new generation of Observer photographers after cutting his teeth covering the conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s, including the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Yom Kippur, East Pakistan and Vietnam wars. In the latter, he survived an attack that killed the US troops he was travelling with, bringing to an end his time as a war photographer.

One of his best-known pictures was taken during the Ethiopian famine in 1984, a shocking image of an emaciated child in rags. It won him photograph of the year in the British Press Awards and was turned into a poster to raise money for victims of the disaster.

For a younger generation of photographers and reporters, who had not known him during his heyday as a photographer, McGrath became familiar as an uncompromising defender of photojournalism. Good company in Fleet Street’s then bibulous culture – if not always easy to deal with – he remained absolutely committed to photographic reportage as an agent for change.

For many, that was represented by his insistence that the Observer should publish what has been called “the picture that no one would publish”, the image of a burnt Iraqi soldier by US photographer Kenneth Jarecke during the first Gulf war in 1991 on the “highway of death”.

Related: Life and death looked straight in the eye: the legacy of Tony McGrath

While news outlets such as the New York Times declined to use that or similar pictures, McGrath insisted the Observer carry the photograph to reflect the brutal reality of a conflict often described in the media in gung-ho terms. McGrath set out to persuade his editor, Donald Trelford, to run it – although not on the front page – diplomatically recruiting colleagues to overcome Trelford’s initial concerns about its graphic nature. McGrath’s instincts were right, as the picture became a defining image of that war.

McGrath left the Observer two years later when the paper was bought by the Guardian from Tiny Rowland’s Lonrho, emigrating with his wife, Sue Adler, to Australia. He lived in later years in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales. He died on 11 July after a long illness.

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