Artist-reporters and drawing the news

A new book called Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees collects the graphic reportage that Olivier Kugler has contributed to a number of magazines and newspapers over the years. My new piece is on Kugler’s work and how comics have informed his journalism—it’s live now at Hyperallergic.

After traveling with translators to refugee camps and shelters that otherwise don’t get a lot of media attention, Kugler files visual reporting with his editors—the stories are based on interviews he’s conducted with Syrians who have been fleeing their country’s ongoing bloody civil war. Commissioned by Doctors Without Borders, Kugler sketches, takes pictures, and makes notes for his profiles before he works on larger drawings in his London studio. There’s more on his process at Eye magazine. Just as a traditional print reporter isn’t writing her story from the scene, Kugler is sketching and snapping photos rather than finishing a drawing.

olivier kugler comics journalism hyperallergic

Earlier this year, University of Delaware professor and author Jason E. Hill underscored the power of “sketch journalism” in his book on 1940s-era New York City news tabloid PM. But the practice is at least a hundred years older than PM: Although it’s not as prestigious as text journalism or even photography, experts have traced the origins of illustrated reporting as far back as the 19th century, when editors at publications such as The Illustrated London News assigned pictorial reporting to “special artists” in the field. In Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Formcomics scholar Hillary Chute suggests that there are roots of “drawn witnessing” in the work of artist-reporters such as painter and printmaker Francisco Goya—see my Chicago Reader piece on her book.

An offshoot of drawn reporting, comics journalism—in which text and visuals share a language and is sometimes inclusive of the medium’s conventional devices (word balloons, panels, sequential properties)—grows in popularity these days. News outlets as visible as The New York Times, Harper’s magazine (to which Kugler contributes), The Associated Press, as well as comics-only publications like The Nib are utilizing comics journalism with frequency. But it faces the same hurdles it always has. Gathering information through comics reportage asks more of news consumers than its conventional cousins do.

“The reading of comics journalism is more complex than that of other forms of journalism because a reader is not only supposed to follow a written text but also s/he needs to comprehend images or drawings, and this arguably takes longer than reading a newspaper or watching news on television, at least in a casual manner,” wrote Kenan Koçak recently in the International Journal of Humanities and Cultural Studies.

At Hyperallergic, I write that interacting with Kugler’s graphically complex visual reporting may ask even more on the part of the reader in addition to the already high level of engagement that’s typically involved in consuming a work of comics journalism.

Image from Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees. Copyright © Olivier Kugler 2018. Image courtesy Pennsylvania State University Press.