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Richard Johnson
"Afghan Reportage"

Richard graduated in illustration and design from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee Scotland in 1990. He has spent the best part of the last two decades working in newspapers as an illustrator and graphic artist.

His first piece of field reportage was with the Detroit Free Press in 2003 when he accompanied a USMC regiment during the invasion of Iraq. Since then he has used the same sketch and written format in D.R.C., Zimbabwe, Kenya, C.A.R. and Afghanistan. He is always on the lookout for opportunities to use the medium to draw peoples attention to subjects they would otherwise ignore.

Richard is nearing the end of his current trip to Afghanistan. He is stationed at Camp Morehead somewhere south of Kabul from where he sent this report.

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'I try to approach each assignment as a blank slate. I think I have both average intellect and average politics - I believe I am Mr. Average. This works to my advantage, allowing me to be skeptical of everything equally. I work directly for the National Post in Canada (but my work is also syndicated to The Detroit Free Press, The Dallas Morning News and the Chicago Tribune).

This is my third trip as an artist to Afghanistan, my fourth as an artist in a war zone. I first cut my teeth as a media embedded artist in 2003 with the U.S. Marine Corps during the invasion of Iraq - due mainly to having had a bad idea at the wrong time in the wrong place, and having had someone overhear it. Sometimes an epiphany should just be kept to yourself.

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During my previous trips to Afghanistan, the military forces I have been embedded with have been actively involved in warfare. This time however my project was to attach myself to any military element involved in the training of Afghans to self support. I have been traveling throughout the volatile east of the country from Kandahar-to-Zabul-to-Kabul, writing and drawing stories on the training of Afghan Police, Army, Air Force, Medical Personnel and Special Forces. The end goal being a thorough understanding of what is being done and what remains to be done before the 2014 deadline.

In actual fact not much has changed on the war fighting front. Even the simplest of missions can be confounded by an enemy that is constantly looking for an opportunity to end your life, or even better maim you for life. The soldiers face many of the same IED dangers as have been killing them fairly consistently since the start, and some additional dangers from inside the wire attackers. This is a not a country that you can ever relax in, and even then there is likely nothing you can do to save yourself should things go sideways. This is obviously a fairly stressful environment to work in especially on an eight month long tour.

I think the sketches have a way of capturing the stress placed on everyone working there. I use the drawings rather than photography not because I am a shitty photographer (although I am) but because I believe that people are pulled in by the sketches and find themselves reading something they otherwise would not have. This is key for me. So many readers have grown bored with this conflict.

As for the journals themselves, I have a couple of hard and fast rules that exist only in my head. I work from life in every possible instance - unless I can’t. Because sometimes things just don’t stand still in a war zone. In that instance I work from photographs that I have taken or from memory, and always within 24 hours of an event having happened. After 24 hours my connection to the event seems to slip and I start to lose details, and I never work from anyone else’s photography. Being there and seeing it for myself is the whole point.'

Richard Johnson

National Post, Kandahar Journal
An illustrated guide to a war journalists kit

All images are copyright 2012 by Richard Johnson.

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