Caught in the London Underground during German air raids in 1940, the famous British sculptor Henry Moore drew the terrorized individuals around him. The artist effectively became an eyewitness reporter, his Shelter Drawings a symbol against Nazi aggression and a remarkable and haunting historical record.
Palestinian artist Samia Halaby’s stirring body of work Documentary Drawings of the Kafr Qasem Massacre, is the result of a decade of research and an exercise in remembrance as it depicts the murders of 49 Palestinian civilians by Israeli border guards in 1956.
Notwithstanding the overload of photographs especially through social media, there has in recent years also been a growing use of illustration to raise awareness, inform audiences and to tell stories. NGOs have been making use of this much more artisanal medium, to capture and recount Syrian refugees’ lives. SyriaUntold has also been using illustrations with a number of articles since first doing so with Shadi Whose Mail was Too Late, in June 2017.
British illustrator George Butler put forward that “illustrations don’t need to be competing with photographs, but I think they connect more powerfully with a smaller number of people, I think they are great tools for engaging people who care and understand. I think they can stick in your mind for life. I think they stand out in a world obsessed with photography.”
Illustrating Different Points of View
The Syrian revolution witnessed a strong artistic output, including the production of cartoons. Widad Al-Hamawi[i], a member of the Comic4Syria collective, pointed out that the power of illustration lies in “the colors, the emotions, the clarity of the event, the sense of bitter humor sometimes, tackling the subject from different points of view, catching a moment that cannot be photographed or was not photographed, but we know it happened. Illustration gives you more freedom to document events and feelings.”
She underscored that “illustrations have the liberty of seeing the picture from any perspective you want, literally speaking. This helps the audience put themselves in the place of all characters. Illustrations magnify the truth, emotionally and graphically. Illustrations are about telling the truth through lies.”
The collective stopped posting and publishing years ago. “But we hope we were able to document moments of a very important part of our history in our own way,” Al-Hamawi said. “We wait and wait for the time to come where we [will] be able to publish again.”
Sharing Hidden Stories
American illustrator Molly Crabapple’s Scenes from Syria, published in 2015, is the result of a remarkable collaboration and a vivid exchange undertaken clandestinely in 2013 between her in New York, and Syrian journalist Marwan Hisham, in his native Raqqa. The duo later worked on Aleppo and Mosul and is putting together an 82-page memoir about their work, to be published in 2018. According to Hisham, “more subjects, such as refuge and the idea of homeland, will be included.”
“Our first collaboration was about Raqqa,” Hisham, now based in Turkey, recalled. “Molly (at the time a Twitter acquaintance) suggested if I can take photos that give an idea about the general life in the city under ISIS occupation. The idea, we both knew, was risky but was also very tempting. We agreed to make up to ten illustrations. Since it was my city, I knew exactly where to go, and in some cases, what to capture. We were in daily contact exchanging ideas. Molly ended up drawing all my photos of nine scenes. We had one thing in mind: Depicting civilian and human life in Raqqa and other cities away from stereotype.”
The first and arguably most striking of the nine “Scenes from Daily Life in the De Facto Capital of ISIS” Crabapple produced, depicted the historic Clock Tower, a well-known monument that featured a male and female peasant, brandishing a torch – their heads chopped off. Only one lone individual features in the background. The base of the statue, painted black and covered in ISIS slogans, and the signature ink blotches that characterize the series, are as foreboding as the riotous cloud hovering above the structure – and the peasants’ severed heads on top.
“[…] the Clock Tower illustration from Raqqa, […] symbolized ISIS’ vandalization of the city. It was a magnificent start. It gave me an irresistible motive to help make more,” Hisham recalled.
Besides providing as much additional information as possible, Hisham also wrote the captions: “In the Raqqa project I shot short videos around some of the scenes I picked, to make it easier for her to see through my eyes,” he explained.
Asked what an audience should consider when viewing illustrations done in or of Syria by non-locals, author and cartoonist Andy Warner suggested that it should be the same thing one would consider about any media produced by an outsider: “Does it make the effort to connect, empathize and tell a true story that a local would recognize?”
Butler admitted to feeling a strong sense of responsibility when working with ink pen, paper and water colors in Azaz near the Turkish border after the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had captured the town in 2012. “I think one criticism of drawing or perhaps it is just me – is that it is easy to be biased in favor of the person you are sitting in front of. I like doing justice to the people sitting in front of me. In Azaz I felt like it was the least I could do. But I think the press significantly contributed to the idea that the opposition would overthrow the Assad regime (because they only had access to one side), whereas in reality the regime was never going to ‘lose’ without outside involvement,” said the British illustrator.
His illustrations captured everyday life: a man sitting with his back to a wall, next to him a motorbike and then further on, a group of people, queuing for bread. The man looks into the distance, his expression is stern, his right hand presses his forehead. Parts of the illustration are colored; much of the rest is kept in grey and black outlines that guide the viewers’ eyes.
“As ever, the majority of these drawings were started from life […],” the artist recalled. “[…] I was acutely conscious of the severity of the things that I was watching. So whereas drawing in the studio allows you to be free and expressive, I became obsessed with making these tanks, buildings and people as accurate as possible, to stand as a record. That might have meant that they weren’t technically the best drawings ever but it seemed to make sense at the time.”
An Ideal Medium?
To process the trauma he’s witnessed and highlight what his hard news coverage did not, the Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has been capturing some of the hostile places he covered not only with his camera and notebook but also sketchbook. The trained architect is presently working on a book that will feature this body of work done in his home country Iraq, as well as Syria and Yemen.
For the past 30 years political cartoonist Patrick Chappatte has built a parallel career as a graphic journalist, highlighting issues and individual stories that get overlooked by the media. Among his vast body of work feature illustrations that tell stories of death row in the United States and an animation film about villagers affected by mines and cluster bomb in Lebanon (‘Lebanon: Death in the field’).
In the documentary ‘Plans-Fixes – Patrick Chappatte,’ he underlined that graphic journalism is an honest way of talking to readers and that the art form, which has developed and proliferated since the 90s, may well have done so, certainly in parts, due to the need of the media to renew itself.
Chappatte maintains that “contrary to a common prejudice, comics can help address serious, difficult issues. This form allows, if not requires, the reporter to be part of the story he tells, both as a narrator and a character.”
“I think that comics journalism and nonfiction is especially well suited to the current media environment, and the boom in the form demonstrates that,” Warner corroborated. “There is tremendous value in addressing current historical events using this medium because of the way the visual element engages readers.”
“It ages well, too,” Warner underlines, “reading nonfiction comic books like “Palestine” by Joe Sacco, which was written in 1992 and published in 1997, can help explain a lot about the current historical moment in the Middle East, even though it’s 20 years old.”
“I think illustration is overlooked as a way of recording the news, even ‘hard’ news,” Butler suggested. “That’s not to say it is better suited. However, we are acutely trained to read into paintings and drawings and, for difficult subjects, I often find that an audience is more willing to look for longer at a drawing and to understand what is happening. Illustration is brilliant at allowing people space to use their own brains.”
Back from Azaz, Butler started a small initiative with some “Syrian Suppers”, which gradually grew into the Hands Up Foundation.
“We have raised nearly £4 million,” Butler said. “The illustration just allowed me to sit in Syria long enough to be moved enough to react. And Hands Up is how we do that.”
[i] Pseudonyms were used for security reasons.
Thanks to Syria Untold.