Drawing a crisis: How journalists are using art to report on current affairs

Graphic journo header

When you think of the ongoing Syrian civil war and consequential refugee crisis in Europe, what image sticks out in your mind? Is it one of an insubstantial dinghy crammed with vulnerable passengers, desperate crowds camping out at Greek borders or is it the extremely upsetting photograph of the baby boy face down in the sand?

Images have come to be the most compelling devices in bringing awareness to the plight of millions fleeing war and devastation. As every journalist will know, a powerful image can provide crucial support to a story. However, with the news becoming increasingly more visual, the image often is the story. While television news viewership is met with a steady and constant interest, the appeal in print news continues to decline. Combine this with the growth of immersive journalism (as I discussed here) and the number of news organisations active on photo-sharing platforms, Snapchat and Instagram, and it is easy to conclude that news consumers prefer their news in a visual format.

This desire for visual news may stem from the association we have with history and images: they have always documented pivotal periods in time. This is proving to be as true as ever when we look at current refugee crisis in Europe. With activists such as Banksy producing artwork about the crisis, and simultaneously generating a media buzz around the message he was conveying, it is no wonder that journalists have noted the potential of art as a potent form of coverage.

Often referred to as reportage illustration, reportage art or graphic journalism, some journalists are utilising their creative abilities to marry together their journalistic tenets with artistic forms. Whether it is to construct a cartoon of the events or a series of watercolour paintings, the rationale for doing so is to report on the crisis from a visual approach.

This blog defines graphic journalists as those employing the use of tools from pencils to digital pens to create a drawn reportage. The cultural criticism blog states that graphic journalists:

“offer a level of nuance and meditative depth often reserved for the best investigative reporting.”

Among those offering a meditative depth with their work is Molly Crabapple. She is both an artist and journalist by trade: a contributing editor of  VICE, she has also published and exhibited much of her extensive repertoire of artwork. Molly recently combined the two to illustrate key political events. On her website, she has a section dedicated to this reportage art as well as Scenes from Syria to convey the daily hardships those stuck in the conflict have to face. Her style and use of colour is truly captivating, bringing to life the stories in a way that words alone could not.


Copyright free image taken from here. Edited by Chloe D’Costa using Pablo by Buffer.

Others in the field include George Butler, an artist specialising in travel and current affairs; his most recent work took place in situ at Greek and Serbian borders where he painted the stories from inside the makeshift refugee camps. He teams his paintings with the words of his subjects to provide an insight into life in limbo: between a past of living with conflict and an anticipated future in Europe. Much of his work at the borders gave a voice to the child refugees waiting to be processed. Buzzfeed featured his work in this article.

Cartoonist, Kate Evans, produced this strip as a result of her time spent in the Calais ‘jungle’. She narrates the thoughts and feelings of the subjects in her cartoons as well as integrating the latest in political news to her strip. This example has more of an explicit political view on the crisis.

Meanwhile, Aleksander Zograf gives a slightly less subjective artistic telling of the crisis with his illustrations of the state of immigration in Germany. He presents his work in a postcard-style, you can view it here.

This type of journalism does raise questions of objectivity and should therefore not be considered as a traditional, impartial new source. Nonetheless, it is an effective, thought-provoking method of implementing an opinion piece based on current affairs. Moreover, editorial cartoons have always combined art with satire so if we accept this for all the emerging forms of art then we are able to appreciate their worth as reportage.

The future of reportage illustration on the crisis is set to be progressive with artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, setting up a studio on the coast of Lesbos. One things for sure, journalists will continue to implement pencils and paintbrushes as some of their most compelling tools for memorable reporting.

Header image by Chloe D’Costa




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