“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
Artist and reportage illustrator George Butler has travelled the world using his work to help tell important stories. In 2013 he won the Breakaway prize at the International Media Awards for his impact as a young journalist.
Butler believes reportage drawings can offer insight and value next to the now more ubiquitous and familiar digital photography. Here, he explains how reportage illustration communicates in ways that photography cannot.
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 naive, they offered an alternative perspective.
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 brush set and an A2 pad of cartridge or watercolour paper.
In 2010 I spent seven 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 1,500 metres 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 cause 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 seven 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.
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 watercolours to try and describe it. It felt a very real pressure to do it justice.