Reportage drawing around the world by George Butler


“Reportage has to have flesh, bones and above all, life in it. One is not illustrating, but pushing one’s nose info life.” (Ronald Searle 1977)

In August 2012 the UK national newspaper, The Guardian published a piece by Martin Chulov on Syria. Accompanying the piece were illustrations by professional artist and reportage illustrator George Butler, made a month earlier in one of Syria's damaged towns, Azaz. George Butler has travelled to many countries and through reportage has helped to tell each important story. His experiences confirmed his theory that reportage drawings can offer insight and value next to the now more ubiquitous and familiar digital photography. George explains how reportage Illustration communicates in ways that photography cannot and how it is more than life drawing.

Afghanistan 2006

It was during a trip to Afghanistan in 2006 that the practicality of the idea about the value of reportage first crossed my mind. I was still at university and had been lucky enough to arrange a trip to Kabul and Helmand Province as a guest of the British Army. With no experience in a war zone and due to the complications of the Afghanistan conflict, I was restricted to drawing on the bases, in the immediate surrounding areas and out on patrol. This was ideal. Whilst the embedded camera crews chased the action, I drew the British soldiers waiting to fight, cleaning their kit and interacting with each other. Although the drawings were fundamentally naïve they offered an alternative perspective.

"Artists give us another dimension: the little personal details of being in a battle as well as the big picture. Whether it is the stark landscape of a Sutherland or a Nash or many others who, by their work, convey the different sides of war, the mind and eye of the artist is a very powerful lens.” Elisabeth Frink 1982, The Falklands War, A Visual Diary by Linda Kitson.

Drawing on location is a process that benefits from being bold. The nature of standing in front of a scene and describing it mark for mark does not allow you to hesitate or reconsider. It is a perfect excuse to forget about the anxious restrictions of the studio or the idea that the drawing should turn out well at all costs.

It is also a fantastic excuse to use minimal and portable materials. I carry a couple of bottles of Winsor & Newton black Indian Ink and a box of 24 Winsor & Newton Half Pan watercolours along with a Sceptre Gold brushes set and an A2 pad of cartridge or water colour paper.  
Ghana 2010

In 2010 I spent 7 months drawing in West Africa. My ability to draw quickly and accurately was tested when I persuaded the Anglo Ashanti mining company in Ghana to allow me to draw for a day 1500m below the surface at the ‘coal face’ if you like, although this time it was gold. The mines were badly lit, incredibly noisy and filthy with spray from the drilling. My page was lit only by the narrow beam of my head torch; I felt that the pressure was off, because there was no expectation to draw an attractive picture and consequently, trusting my ability, the pictures turned out well.

What happened next was no course for concern but it gave me an insight into mining life that I would not have had if drawing from photographs. As we sat waiting for the ‘cage’ back to the surface it became apparent that it had broken down; with people stuck inside somewhere between us and the surface, we had no choice but to wait.

I took this opportunity to sit and draw Eric who had worked in the mine for 19 years. We talked about his family and his job, and how the safety of the mine had improved hugely since he started work. After a couple of hours the cage was still stranded and two trucks arrived to collect us. We all piled in and nearly an hour later we arrived out of a small hole at the bottom of an open cast mine. To give you an idea of the scale of the operations we resurfaced 7 miles from our original submersion point.

This history along with Eric’s became as much part of the story telling as the drawing. I always try and include some written context with the drawings; after all, they act as a witness account before anything else.

Syria 2012

Crossing the border into Syria from Kilis, Turkey to Azaz in August 2012 was actually very simple, you stamp your passport, wrap a scarf round your head and start walking. Eventually, after 4km you reach a Syrian border post, the new flag flown high. A young lad will point you in the right direction to the next office and so on. Within an hour I was in Azaz, being looked after by the Free Syrian Army. It had now become my job to describe Azaz, the conflict, the rebels and their way of life. The scenes of damage are immediately emotive; destroyed petrol stations, houses with shell-shaped holes in their sides and along the way, destroyed buildings and roads where conflicts have taken place. And yet whilst I was there children were rotating the turrets of abandoned tanks and civilians were inspecting the damage, whilst a man watered his goats at a tap. It was extraordinary. I sat down in the mud with my paper, ink and water colours to try and describe it; and felt a very real pressure to do it justice.

Using drawings to accompany the news is an old and proven formula, but because of our recent obsession with digital imagery and immediate news it has been overlooked. However, drawn reportage adds a unique, storytelling advantage and is now as good as new. With the ever-increasing competition for readers' attention perhaps it will be used more regularly.  

George Butler was recently awarded 2013 The Breakaway Award by the International Media awards for his impact as a young journalist. His next exhibition will be held at Illustration Cupboard, 22 Bury Street London, 13th July-3rd August.