Interview with Richard Johnson, Graphics Editor National Post, Part 1 of 2
Part one of a brief interview with Toronto sketcher Richard Johnson, graphics editor at the National Post
Richard does a variety of work for the Post, and on his own blogs — but the work that really captured my attention is his sketching project The Kandahar Journal. A long running visual diary of Richard’s three tours as an embedded sketcher with ISAF forces. After a short stalk on Flickr, Richard generously agreed to answer a few questions by email.
[Afghan National Army soldiers of the 6th Kandak walk from camp down into Mizan Valley on an early morning patrol, September 2012]
MTH: Hello Richard! Can you start off with a brief bio — Just a little introduction — tell us what was your background in art, your training — and what brings you to be an artist who is involved in reportage through drawing?
RJ: I attended Duncan of Jordantsone College of Art in Dundee, Scotland, I was there mostly for the girls, but I picked up some drawing skills as well over the four years. My visual reportage career started almost exactly ten years ago when I worked as a Graphic Artist for the Detroit Free Press. My dislike of my immediate boss drove me to consider any option to get out of the office, so I volunteered to embed as an artist with the U.S. forces that would shortly be invading Iraq – in search of weapons of mass destruction. I really didn’t like my boss obviously. Much to my surprise, and his, my proposal was accepted and three months later I found myself along with a squad of U.S. marines crossing the border into Iraq on the first day of the invasion. I was the terrified looking guy with the sketchpad.
A few of weeks before I left for the Middle East I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a couple of days with Howard Brodie. Brodie had been a Combat Artist who had a career that stretched over six decades of sketching in some of the shittiest places in the world. I’d recommend that anyone interested hunt down his work. For me though he was like a god. He was in France during the Battle of the Bulge in WW2, went ashore with the USMC at Guadalcanal, was in Korea in the 50’s and was in Vietnam in the 60’s and 70’s. Brodie never carried a weapon and was eventually awarded the Bronze Star for valor. When not in the field he was to be found courtroom sketching. Charles Manson, Jack Ruby, the Chicago Seven he sketched them all. At the height of his skills while working for the San Francisco Chronicle he would illustrate Superbowl games from the sidelines. Try that I dare you. He died last year after suffering the repercussions of a stroke which he had while sketching USMC trainees in the Mojave Desert at 85-years-old. They simply do not make them like him any more. For me it was a bit like visiting God.
Mostly what I gained from my short time with Brodie was a reaffirmation of my belief that drawings have power. Looking at his work it is impossible not to be emotionally moved by his rendering of the subjects. Before I left I spent two hours drawing him while he glared at me for my temerity. One of the most intimidating sketches I have ever done.
[Howard Brodie glares at Rich Johnson, San Luis Obispo, California, February 2003]
[Sketch by Howard Brodie: Sgt. Joe Eaz somewhere in Germany. Sgt. Eaz confided to Brodie that he could never kill a man and that he instead always shot over the heads of enemy soldiers.]
A month later I stood in the Kuwaiti desert, the night before the invasion, shit scared watching Iraqi SCUD missiles pass overhead. Like Brodie the only weapon I carried with me were the prismacolors that he had recommended. I have never used anything else.
MTH: If you don’t mind starting with a very Urban Sketchy question – in the USk community, one of the core tenants is that we draw on location. There’s an undertone that we draw ‘entirely’ on location – though in fact there’s lots of reasons to do some touch up at home, or add some color after the fact. Things like the weather, or a truck parking right in your face can force you to finish a drawing in the pub.
But still – we strive to “draw on location, capturing what we see from direct observation”. Can you say, to what degree your drawings are ‘entirely’ on location – and if that in fact seems important to you?
RJ: All of my work is done and created in the field. I have a set of rules in my head that I attempt to stick to. My first and foremost rule is to draw live and I do this in some of the most outrageous situations. Inside an armoured vehicle, in the back of a helicopter, laying in a ditch or on guard duty in the dark. But I don’t have the same fixation on ‘live’ as your USk group does. I mean I do, but for me the most important thing is the absorption of atmosphere that comes from spending time with my subjects. In my case, soldiers and their lives. And I have to live it in order to draw it. So when there are times that I can’t possibly sketch – walking behind a tank on a rescue mission; accompanying house-to-house searches looking for weapons; moving on foot patrols in the pitch dark; or on major operations – I take photographs and work from the photographs. But my second rule is that I work on this art as quickly as possible. Chiefly this is because I want to create the art when it is all fresh and new. So in my mind I have a 24-hour window. But mostly this is dictated anyway by the news cycle back in Canada. My work needs to get in the National Post newspaper, or up online, so my speed is driven by that deadline on the other side of the world. Even my sketches from photographs have that look of live sketching because they have to be immediately hurried.
Also, I’d say that ‘working from photographs’ back in the world seems very luxurious, but the realities of fieldwork might have me working through the night inside a humvee cab with my laptop hooked up through an inverter directly to the vehicle batteries. Then most likely you’ll find me filing my story and art at three in the morning via my portable satellite dish, usually while squatting in the dirt, with a red light on my head, cursing my editor as he asks me dozens of inane questions. There is never any doubt in my mind that I am ‘entirely’ on location.
Nothing I have posted on flickr was drawn from a photograph.
[Corporal Jason Sypher scans the walls with his M-240 as he walks behind a Canadian C2 Leopard tank during a Quick Response Force rescue operation, Arghandab Valley, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, July, 2007]
MTH: Why drawing? In this world where we have relatively inexpensive, high fidelity, mostly portable camera gear — in your opinion, what makes creating hand drawn lines worthwhile? What is it the makes you invest further time and effort beyond the technological, mechanically captured image?
RJ: After my six weeks as an artist with the USMC in Iraq I was struck by the massive public response to the work. It made me realise that there was power enough in the drawings to make people respond viscerally to what they were seeing. I received dozens and dozens of hand written letters thanking me for the work. I think that was the point when I realised that the art had the power to turn heads and change minds, or in broadsheet language – the sketches had the ability to stop people in their journey through the paper and make them read and potentially care about subjects they had become immune to reading or caring about.
[USMC Sergeant Jason Barringer sits on a riverbank waiting for US Navy divers to find the bodies of two of his men who died while attempting to secure the opposite side of the canal, An Numinayah, Iraq, March 2003]
MTH: I found your work via one of your Flickr posts. The first thing of yours I found was the Kandahar Diaries project at the NationalPost.com. Can you give us the capsule summary of the project — where did you go, how long in the field, how many sketches, etc?
RJ: The Canadian area of operations included a pair of dusty river valleys that come together south of Kandahar City in Kandahar Province. The area between where these two seasonal rivers intersected was called the Horn of Panjwaii. South of the Horn was the Rigestan (Red) desert. The desert below and the villages and waterways inside the horn were a main thoroughfare for Taliban fighter and weaponry coming in from Pakistan. The Canadian task was to interdict these shipments, lure the Taliban into a fight, and then use superior force of arms to kill them. This was the Canadian mission for close to five years. My Kandahar Journal mission mandate was to capture the faces and daily lives of Canadian forces who were engaged in fighting the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan.
I went on three separate missions to Afghanistan writing for the Kandahar Journal. On each trip I was out between six-to-eight weeks. I went wherever the soldiers went.
[Sergeant Yannick Pichet probing with his trench knife for a suspected IED during a foot patrol through the villages around Combat Outpost Najet, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, 2011]
End of Part one: Come back tomorrow for the second half of our interview with National Post field sketcher Richard Johnson.
If you want to start at the beginning of the deep archive of his military artwork – head over here: http://afghanistan.nationalpost.com/. Or you can find out more background at http://newsillustrator.com/, or follow on twitter @newsillustrator