Malik Meer and George Butler discuss illustration at the Frontline Club
First, Butler explained what is special about illustration:
“Drawing offers the viewer, the audience, a different perspective. It encapsulates the passing of time in one image, those two or three hours, say, on the street just observing quietly in the corner . . . are invaluable. . . . I didn’t want to go to Aleppo to compete with the photographers, who do a fantastic job capturing the frontline for the front page, . . . I wanted to offer a different angle, a more human fourth dimension . . . to capture a period of time and then distil it into one image.
“ . . . Things move, people come and go, and you pick something that you like to draw and perhaps it’s a figure and they then walk off and come back and they’re in a different position. . . . Sometimes that means highlighting one thing. . . . If there’s a particularly interesting character why shouldn’t he be closer to the foreground? And if there’s something that’s not very interesting . . . I draw it smaller and at the back. It’s a very personal thing; if anyone else was to do it they would probably pick different things.”
Do you think people react differently to an illustrator than to a photographer who just shoots a photo and leaves?
“I see it as a very open and honest process, one where people can see over your shoulder see what you’re doing, they recognise their friends, the places that they work. . . . Importantly, they don’t feel threatened. They’re not made to feel uncomfortable or made to pose. . . . What this means is you’re very often afforded access to places that you wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to see.
“. . . [It] shows that you care about them, that you’re willing to sit and spend time with them. . . . There’s something very nice about the . . . handmade creative process that comes across because it’s so personal from start to finish.”
An audience member asked, does the activity of drawing act as a barrier, to put some of the emotions you have towards the scene into something?
“Absolutely, I think people have talked about how they can hide behind their camera when these sorts of things happen and the drawing board is a physical barrier. Certainly during the little lad in hospital [with an amputated leg] it felt like it was a way of distracting myself, just copying exactly what’s in front you rather than thinking about it for too long.”
Can illustrations ever be as powerful as photographs?
“I think the photograph is fantastic at its job . . . engaging a huge audience on the front page. But I think if you know a little bit about the subject or if you’ve seen a lot of photographs of the subject, which you sometimes have now then, illustration can be a great, layered way of capturing attention.”
“We’d run quite a lot of reports from Syria, insider reports, broader political pieces and you resort to the pictures that are available and they are the ones that everyone sees at the time. They do capture incredible moments but the minute you see something like this [illustration] it just captures something else. . . . I think they’re as haunting as classic conflict images.”
George Butler whilst drawing in Syria
But with illustration being such a subjective art form and Butler himself having admitted he leaves things out of an image or brings scenes to the forefront, where does he think the line between style and story should be drawn?
“For me sometimes when I’m on holiday or in a different part of the world, not in Syria, it’s quite nice just to draw things that you know you can make look good . . . but in terms of Syria it was always any kind of opportunity to draw because there was always a story to draw that was as important. . . . I suppose if you’re really true to reportage you’d have the two offering as much fifty–fifty, story and good-looking picture.”
It could be said that because they are such beautiful pictures that they lend a fairy tale-like quality to what is a very present war?
“Obviously as photographers or anybody creative you’ve always learnt to make things look good and yet the things that are in front of you don’t look in any way good. . . . I think people understand that as an artist . . . that you’re very much giving your interpretation of it. . . . I guess it’s just about being as honest to the subject as possible.”
Frontline Club trustee Jon Lee Anderson will be running a four-day journalism masterclass, Capturing the Story, at La Porte Peinte this summer. La Porte Peinte is an arts centre based in Noyers sur Serein, Burgundy.
Letters to Myself, which screened at the Frontline Club on Monday 14 April, follows Russian photographer Oleg Klimov as he returns to the places he documented during the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and into the 2000s. The film combines Klimov‘s memories with the stories of the people he photographed at the time.
Director Masha Novikova spent some time filming Klimov in Chechnya in 2000 and later in 2003–05 whilst working on a different film but has known Klimov for over 20 years and has wanted to film him at work for just as long but it took some time to secure funding.
Novikova said through a translator after the screening:
“It was my first war and my first time in a ruined city and of course it was quite tragic for me . . . for Oleg it hasn’t been the first time so . . . he was much more cynical than I was.”
Klimov, speaking through the translator via Skype from his mother’s home near Moscow which appears in the film, spoke about how he felt being the subject of the film instead of being behind the camera:
“It did take us quite a long time, Masha and I, the crew, everybody was looking for the people we were asking about, trying to find out about their stories and it was a very moving, very emotional time for me, as you can imagine 20 years later. It took me back to those times.”
Oleg Klimov speaks via Skype at the Frontline Club
“For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war.”
While our perception and understanding of the 20th century is intrinsically linked to the images of its conflicts, photography’s ever-increasing ubiquity has perhaps desensitise us. If photography was meant to show us our true natures and in so doing shock us into action, then it has failed.
Opening the debate that took place at the Frontline Club on 9th April to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Mukesh Kapila,former humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, claimed that the legacy of this experience is to to make us all Rwandans, “because a crime against humanity in one place becomes a crime against all humanity everywhere.”
L-R Mukesh Kapila, David Belton, Sam Kiley, Williams Nkurunziza and Eric Murangwa Eugene
On Monday 7 April, the Frontline Club welcomed Yorgos Avgeropoulos for the screening of his latest documentary, The Lost Signal of Democracy. The film followed the closure of ERT, Greece’s public broadcasting service, in June 2013, and tracked the progress of its staff and critics right up until the end of March 2014. The film, for Avgeropoulos, showed that:
“Democracy is the first victim of crisis, and information the second.”
Introducing his film The Lost Signal of Democracy, screened at the Frontline Club on Monday 7 April, director Yorgos Avgeropoulos began by describing the film as more than merely a document of the closure of Greece’s public broadcaster, ERT, by the government:
“I would just like to say that this film is not just about a public broadcaster that has been shut down by the government and the 2,656 people who have lost their jobs, but it shows rather the bigger picture that democracy is the first victim of the [economic] crisis and information is the second.”
On Friday 4 April, Open Access was screened at the Frontline Club. Bringing together the work of five directors – Volodymyr Tykhyy, Serhiy Andrushko, Jeanne Dovhych, Dmytro Konovalov and Dmytro Tiazhlov – Open Access follows the stories of five different people as they attempt to invoke the 2011 Ukraine law on access to public information.
Sergii Leshchenko takes part in a Q&A at the Frontline Club via Skype from Kiev
There was a certain measured optimism in the response to this question from the panel and a general feeling that this election is one to get excited about. Chaired by BBC Broadcasting House’s Paddy O’Connell, the panel of experts were grilled on the candidates, the election process, the possibility of a second round and the challenges ahead.
On Monday 31 March, the Frontline Club hosted a screening of First to Fall, followed by a Q&A with the director of the film, Rachel Beth Anderson, and its co-director, Tim Grucza.
First to Fall follows two Libyan young men, Hamid and Tarek, who return to Libya from Canada during the conflict in 2011. The two friends, both in their twenties, are troubled by the events in their home country, and feel that they must join the fight against Gaddafi. They soon find themselves in the middle of the fighting, despite their lack of military training. The film places the journeys of Tarek and Hamid at the centre of the larger context of the conflict, documenting their different experiences of the war.
As Afghanistan gears up for a pivotal presidential election, on Wednesday 2 April we will be bringing together a panel of experts to take an in-depth look at the candidates and the challenges that await them. For further details see HERE.
Ahead of this First Wednesday debate, here is a run down of the presidential contenders.
With incumbent President Hamid Karzai barred from contesting the upcoming election, Afghanistan goes to the polls looking to elect a new leader in the first democratic handover of power in the country’s history. While the initial field consisted of 11 potential candidates, over the past few months these have been been reduced to four major presidential contenders.
At the Frontline Club on Friday 21 March, a screening of Pandora’s Promise was followed by a Q&A with director Robert Stone and environmental activist Mark Lynas who features in the film, which was moderated by Tom Clarke, Science Editor for Channel 4 News. The film asks the question whether nuclear energy is actually the answer to global warming and unsustainable fossil fuel consumption in our rapidly modernising world.
Robert Stone said:
“To me, just as a film maker, there was this delicious irony that the one technology that environmental activists had been united against for decades, may turn out – I believe will turn out – to be the one technology that is most necessary in solving today’s energy problems and climate change.”
Not surprisingly, this controversial topic sparked many questions and comments from the audience present.
“I hope you enjoy the film half as much as I enjoyed making it. Apart from the crazy bit,” director Morgan Matthews said on Monday 17 March at the Frontline Club as he introduced his new documentary Shooting Bigfoot in association with BBC Storyville.
Warning: Contains spoilers.
Director Morgan Matthews discusses his latest documentary, Shooting Bigfoot.