In October 2017, me and my colleagues Judith Vanistendael and Mei-Li Nieuwland set out to Lesbos, armed with many sketchbooks and endless drawing materials. We stayed in Kara Tepe and Moria camps for 7 days. As artists we drew what no camera had been able to capture until then: the clothes that were set out to dry on the barbed wire of the camp, the little kids sliding off a hill in plastic crates, the improvised coffee corner, the outdoor cooking stations made of bricks, the cooking gear made of iron fence, and the containers and tents in which the refugees live. Based on our observations and interviews, three very different comics were made and published in several news media, including French newspaper Le Monde and the website for graphic journalism Drawing The Times. Even Greek media mentioned the project. We hoped that readers would be informed that the refugee crisis is still not over, despite what most people think.
Graphic journalism plays an important role in history. During World War I, many illustrators were sent to the battlefields to document what cameras couldn’t. In Auschwitz, the most detailed visual documents left are the drawings of the artists that lived there. Still, it seems that in the age of film and photo, these reportage drawings have lost their value. I am convinced that graphic journalism can play an important role, even in contemporary journalism. Drawing offers the journalist an approachable way of gathering visual information, where cameras can be too intrusive or too obvious. The artistic element makes it more accessible to readers of all ages and could be used to reach out to new audiences. For the subjects of the report, drawing is a very pleasant way of communicating.
It’s not as threatening as photography or audio recording can be. Also, if the subjects want to stay anonymous, it is possible to simply give them a different face or haircut in the drawings, while in film and photography the faces would have to be blurred. In comics, it is also possible to draw what the journalist can’t see. By drawing memories as flashbacks, it is possible to go back and forth in time. A documentary filmmaker would have much more trouble and would have to use voiceovers or actors to get that done.
One of the most important books in comic journalism is Palestine by Joe Sacco, which was published in the 90s. He was the first to make a detailed drawn report where he combined journalism, travelogue and cartooning. For his other books he traveled to Gaza, Iraq and Gorazde. In his comics, Joe himself is always the main character and we see the world through his eyes. This narrative style is still used today by most graphic journalists. Another important book is Pyongyang by Guy Delisle, a Canadian artist. He lived in North Korea for two months and drew what cameras were not allowed to capture. His book is not just a great comic, it is also a very important historic document of what life in North Korea looks like – even though he sees it from a Westerner’s perspective. What Joe Sacco and Guy Delisle have in common is the sense of humor, which surfaces even in spite of all the traumatic stories and events that they capture on paper.