Reportage Illustration book launch, lecture, and panel discussion
Location: House of Illustration
Hosted by House of Illustration.
Chair: Gary Embury, Panel: Jill Gibbon, Martin Harrison, former senior designer at The Times, Olivier Kugler, Lucinda Rogers, Tim Vyner
Abridged transcript of the panel discussion and Q&A 21st March 2018
Book launch and panel discussion
The event at House of illustration marked the book launch of 'Reportage Illustration: visual Journalism' by Gary Embury and Mario Minichiello. It was introduced with a lecture by Gary Embury on Reportage drawing and the development of the book. This was followed by a panel discussion chaired by Gary Embury with Jill Gibbon, Martin Harrison, Olivier Kugler, Lucinda Rogers, Tim Vyner, picking up many of the themes and subjects covered in the lecture.
Chair: Gary Embury:
Is this the beginning of a new era of Visual journalism, or considering the ubiquity of mobile phones just an offshoot or parallel strand of citizen journalism?
Martin Harrison: I don't think it is actually, it's a continuation, history develops things and I think illustration is reflecting that. Mobile technology is very exciting and commercially it's the way to go.. it's the small companies you've got to watch out for. Animation is the way forward for illustration, it's not Disney or Pixar.
When you are in a reportage situation it's often crowded .. there might be something technology can do to help make your experience more exciting.
The technology may be very enabling in allowing you to do that. We had some interesting discussions at the time of the Olympics project (referring to Tims' reportage drawing project with The Times 2012) and very often these discussions did end up as moving drawings or animations. From my point of view, although the technology is very enabling, I've actually been doing the same thing pretty much for the last 20 to 25 years. The context for the delivery of that work may change but the activity itself remains my observation of a particular place and particular moment in time and the documentation of that.... 20 years previously no one ever asked me what pencil I used, so I think people were fascinated by the technology and we still are, but the activity for me very often remains the same.
I'm going to say there is a Renaissance in reportage is drawing and there is something very particular and very powerful about drawing which digital technology is enabling us to disseminate more easily..
We are so inundated by the digital, and by the photographic image, that it draws attention even more to what is particular about drawing, which is a very different way of engaging with the world and a very powerful way of engaging with the world. When you are taking a photograph, you take everything. When you draw you begin with a blank page and I think the process of drawing itself, whatever the end product, gives us a way of grounding ourselves in the world where we can increasingly feel alienated.
I think there's a lot of interest in reportage illustration and reportage comic books, but I don't really see a large market for it. There are hardly any newspapers or magazines out there who commission this kind of work. I don't get work from The Guardian anymore. Most of my work I sell to American magazines they still pay alright and there is interest in this kind of work.
Gary Embury: Susan Sontag said, 'photography is an act of non-intervention'. Is drawing any better?
Jill Gibbon: The relationship with the place in which we draw, it's something that I've become increasingly interested in over the years. It dawned on me that what defines reportage drawing is being present in the location...
In a world where our social interactions and experiences of the world increasingly take place online, drawing is increasingly significant as it takes you out into the street and into political places and relationships with who we are drawing. I think that is something we need to bare in mind and be critically aware that there is always the danger of being voyeuristic. I would avoid any prescriptions to say you can draw this but you can't draw that, it's just something to be critically aware of.
Some people in the market did not want to be drawn (referring to her exhibition on gentrification.) Each person is different for each person has a different reaction. and lots of people come along who want to be drawn. Going back to the photography angle, of course the sheer number of hours of being somewhere, you absorb the reality of the place. I can sometimes draw up to 8 hours, you're getting information, journalistic information through hearing what people say and what they tell you as well as the picture. with a camera, you can take a photo in a split second and then go off and do something else and that's the problem everything is too quick.
Gary Embury: Is it enough to just passively visually report or sketch without research into a particular issue?
Whilst the Olympic games were actually taking place I had the freedom to move around and respond to emerging stories as they were happening, so a project like that took a lot of research and planning in advance. Following on from that I took on a project to draw at a number of Eastern Orthodox Monasteries in North Eastern Greece through a bursary from the Royal college.
Intentionally I did no research for that as I didn't want to pre-plan or pre-empt what I might experience or see when I was there. Research is absolutely relevant for certain projects but other times, instincts, just back your instincts, it's very exciting.
On a simpler level, when I sent Jane Webster to Morocco with a writer, we had to plan out all the views so we were sure on the material coming back. For the front page of a broadsheet at the time there was quite specific requests. I'm always looking for an emotion for a front page, it's got to grab you, there has to be something extra with it.... so, we did a certain amount of preparation work before she went over there..
preparation work is essential when it comes to commercial jobs. Space is limited more so now than it was back in the 90s, and you have to satisfy editors who may or may not be visually aware.
The trouble with a lot of reportage work is it's quite dense and you've got to imagine that translated to newsprint together with all the copy that goes with the story and you're not doing yourself any favours if you make it to intricate.
Gary Embury: As a former senior designer at The Times why don't you think there is as much commissioning going on in terms of reportage drawing?
Money and taste. The economy shows itself in advertising. Advertising pays the way, that's the mantra. I think papers are just fighting hard for the readership and the space. Editors come and go, and you get a change that filters through. It really is a clean sweep, you might get a new art director and there is a change of illustrators as result.
Gary Embury: Can the drawn image compete with the photo or moving image, what is the future of reportage when one considers the development of digital interactive media?
If I took a photo of something you're not allowed to take, a drawing is somehow permissible. We are now all taking photos all the time and then filtered then posted straightaway, but when I make a drawing, people are more likely to say,' what are you doing?' I think there's less of a boundary in that respect..
I think sometimes there's genuine curiosity and other times deep suspicion. It's not understood the way photography is understood, because we are all taking photos on our phones all the time.
I think the understanding is pretty universal, and a really nice by-product of drawing outside is to have conversations with people about that.I think it's very heartening actually.
I think there's something actually really radical about drawing, that it provides an alternative way of understanding a location and being on location to the dominant one which is photographic. It's much more visceral, it's much more contemplative, it's much more grounded.. John Berger wrote a lot about drawing and the politics of drawing. He wrote about drawing in Palestine. Drawing people created a shared vocabulary and he talked about those people whose houses had been bulldozed in the occupied Palestinian territories and who used drawing to assert their memories of the houses that had gone. I'd suggest you can't do that with a camera, you can't do that with a photograph.
I don't draw on location anymore, I used to do it a lot. but I came to a stage when I started to work journalistically, I just didn't have the time to draw, photograph and conduct interviews at the same time. I also noticed that when I draw on location my likenesses are not very good.
... I've been working on drawings on Syrian refugees I met in Kurdistan refugee camps in Greece, Calais, Germany and Switzerland.
When I approached the people I wanted to draw I told them that I was an artist and I would like to do drawings of them but to do so I was going to have to take photos of them as reference. Many of them were a bit suspicious of me taking photos..
When I showed them earlier work of mine and I and explained to them that I only use photos as reference material, they were usually fine with it. ..
In this quite political context some of the people I approached did not want to be recognised.
Gary Embury: Following a conference at The RCA in 1984 called 'The Artist as Reporter' Clive Ashwin wrote an article for Designer Magazine called 'New illustration and selective Blindness'. He wrote about Selective vision in referring to reportage drawing where human issues were strangely absent. What do the panel think about reportage drawing which doesn't really get under the fingernails of real underlying issues.
You can choose what you draw is the answer. In the choosing you are saying something or may be leaving something out.
Harry Morgan and Joe Munro interview
I don't think we should necessarily apologise for wanting to express our opinions, just as the written word is a series of sentences chosen by the journalist and arranged in a certain way. The way in which colour, line, shape is arranged can evoke atmosphere and opinion about something that's being documented,
This is where text can be really useful and important, I 've spoken a lot about how powerful drawing is, but it is much more ambiguous than writing. You can use writing to anchor the meaning or the politics of what you are drawing, so that combination of writing drawing and text can be very important.
... when I'm drawing in arms fairs I'm continually baffled by how to get beneath the surface, so sometimes I draw really wildly and sometimes I decide it's the polite veneer I need to draw, and the drawings are much more restrained. I'm continually baffled, continually dissatisfied, continually on the point of wanting to destroy entire sketchbooks in frustration, and yet it's that challenge that keeps me at it. Every now and again once in a blue moon there is a drawing which does get beneath the surface, but I would say most often you do need a bit of text to give context as well.
Gary Embury. I'm interested in the role of universities to underpin this kind of journalistic inquiry within art courses. do you think we are equipping our students in terms of, ethics, data protection, and confidentiality? Do there need to be more courses specialising in this area or giving the kind of content film and journalism students would receive undertaking documentary projects.
For sure, there needs to be lots more done there. .A number of years ago there would have been much more prescriptive briefs and projects. I wonder if the expectation that 50 % of the final module is your own self-generated content is the reason there is a resurgence in reportage. People are trying to work out what stories they want to tell and how they want to tell them. Certainly, discussion needs to be there in terms of support in terms of the ethics of what they are doing.
I've been working with Syrian refugees, I often asked myself who's profiting from this. I get commissioned by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to go to this refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan to do drawings and document the circumstances of the refugees. I went out there to create drawings to raise awareness of the situation of the people in the camp. I guess the problem is with artists, with our work, we produce for a market for people who are already liberal thinking who also support refugees or minorities, so sometimes I'm not sure if it really helps anyone...
I'm not taking advantage of the people I draw, but I sometimes think I do kind of profit from it because with this work, with this subject matter, people are always interested in it. the people I met in Kos for example, in Greece, they were so desperate they thought, we spent three years in Syria, they wanted to wait for the war to stop, they were in refugee camps but the war just didn't stop, so they wanted to go to Europe, because they wanted their kids to go to school, they want to live in peace and want to have a safe future.... They wanted their stories to be heard. What I am trying to say is, it didn't help them, they didn't get anything back from me drawing them, but it probably helped to raise awareness of the people and their circumstances.
Gary Embury: But you are really transparent about what you are doing so that's really credible isn't it, as long as you are being completely transparent.
I find it quite difficult, the exhibition upstairs. (On Gentrification Ridley rd. market drawings) I really love the fact that the pictures aren't being sold, .. because the idea of money changing hands, it does make me a bit uncomfortable, because what about the subject of that picture? what if the subject hadn't been there, there wouldn't be a picture. .. what I want to do with that show is put it up near the market to make more of an issue about the market and how it should be protected and make something happen as a result of these drawings I really do want to do that.... I don't feel comfortable just going away and doing something completely different at the moment, I want to try to make it so it does have an effect.
It's an individual thing really, as artists you are drawn to something because you feel strongly. You wake up in the morning and you start drawing, you feel strongly about. I personally think that the most arresting, shocking, reportage work that I've ever seen is Ronald Searle's work. It recorded horror on a scale we thought we'd never see again, sadly, it's going on in the ISIS controlled areas. Who knows what art might come out of these areas, I know journalists who have been filing stories to the BBC that have been animated very successfully, and when you look at the suffering the people went through and you realise the artist was suffering at the same time.
MH: (In response to an observation from Julia Midgley in the audience regarding drawing versus photographic responses to war and suffering)
.Well the work of Henry Tonks, even though it was done such a long time ago, if I showed it to people here they would be shocked and captivated, it transcends time and that's the quality of art and illustration.
That is one of the powerful things about drawing, it's so visceral and its clearly subjective,
We are story tellers, and I think the camera can give an impression of objectivity but it isn't, any account is constructed, the photograph is constructed, .... but with a drawing its more obvious, the process of construction.
drawing or you should do. We rely on you to point out the obvious, that this is wrong, that this isn't quite right, Otherwise the world won't change. So, it's not the soft stories, the ones that pop up on the news every night, it's the ones that will pop up every year, they're the ones you should be chasing.
Olivier Kugler interview
Gary Embury: Do you think images can instigate change on their own or specifically the drawn made image?
The first thing that comes to my mind is a photo of Alan Kurdi the young Syrian boy.. I think he was 3 years old when his parents tried to cross, they were on one of these crowded boats, they wanted to go from Turkey to Greece... the boat sank and the boy drowned. You've all seen the photo of the boy lying on the beach with his face in the sand washed up on the beach. I think this is the most powerful picture, and if I was to think of a drawing there's nothing I could come up with that could compete with the power and strength of this picture.
That's a good example of a single image narrative, that has very direct impact and perhaps what many of us are engaged in. Lucinda's exhibition is a good example of this, the accumulation or the investigation of a project through a number of works. It's that body of work that potentially can change, raise awareness, do the things we are talking about. rather than the impact of a single image, but it's true, it's very hard to think of an individual drawing that can have that impact.
That image (referencing the photo of Alan Kurdi) still relies on the story, you needed to know who he was and why he was there.
Louis Netter interview
I would agree it's a photograph all of us know and it had an absolutely shocking effect. I think what was equally shocking was just how short that effect was, and just how quickly public opinion changed again, and how shockingly repressive our society is towards asylum seekers in spite of images like that. What I would suggest is that I think there's a real role for art and activism, I think they need to go together and I think that's what you've been talking about Lucinda when you've been talking about the purpose of your drawing and what you want to do with them, and when Olivier talks about the drawings he did with Syrian refugees, you're talking about the conversations you're having with them, you're talking very politically about the work and I think that is crucial. I would question whether any art can do anything on its own, so we need to be activists as well as artists.
Following the panel discussion, the audience were invited to ask questions.
The discussion cantered on the future of reportage drawing and how as researchers, practitioners and academics we can look at new technologies including digital media and animation in order to explore innovative ways to make and distribute reportage and documentary drawing projects. Collaborative working was considered a positive step forward between illustrators, animators and film makers including the use of virtual reality, augmented reality and interactive digital media.
Thanks to the Panel, House of Illustration and the audience for their time and for a lively discussion that will undoubtedly continue.