Interview with Richard Johnson, Graphics Editor National Post, Part 2 of 2
Part Two of a brief interview with Toronto sketcher Richard Johnson, graphics editor at the National Post
MTH: The Kandahar Journal is a bit…mmm…”extreme” as far as sketching trips go. A dramatic example of reportage. Can you talk a bit about why you created the project? It couldn’t have been your first try at field reporting, right? What made you think this was within your abilities? What brought you to the point where you presented the project to your employer?
Personally, by 2005 I found myself frustrated by the lack of news of the situation that our soldiers were facing. And I felt that the public had become immune to the violence in Afghanistan and that attention had been drawn away by the debacle of civilian death that was Iraq in 2007. But the Canadian mission in Afghanistan sent our young men and women home in aluminum coffins with such regularity that I wanted to know more and I thought that the use of art might work to get people’s attention. My employer at the time, which I won’t name – The Globe and Mail – would not support the idea. So I quit and took the idea to a newspaper that would – The National Post.
[Sergeant Zack Stinson lost both of his legs and portions of both arms to an IED in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Sketched at his bedside at a veterans hospital in Virginia, February, 2010]
MTH: Perhaps this is a similar question — but why such an risky project? Clearly you’re an accomplished artist, you could do anything with your art — be illustrator, designer, make a comfortable living right? — what brings you to take such extreme risks and hardships? It’s not an exaggeration to say you we’re in harm’s way on this venture? And I’m sure there were no 5 star hotels.
RJ: Not sure I can answer this very easily. It is not an easy choice, at any time. I have an excellent wife and a mess of children so I have lots at stake. But I care about soldiers. I guess that happened after Iraq when I saw what life was like for the very young men and women that we send into harms way, both on the front lines and when they come home. And I found myself with a skill that seemed to be able to connect readers to a subject in a very different way. In the end it was just the right thing to do. But it is no doubt a very dangerous addiction.
MTH: An “inside journalism” question : Photojournalists are very concerned about image manipulation — specifically, that even the slightest amount of Photoshop — color correction , basic editing — simple changes for clarity — in fact invalidates an image for use in reporting. Famously, winners of annual photo journalist contests have had their prizes revoked, after it was discovered they did something as basic as removing a shadow. As I understand it, the issue is, that the photographer must be able to defend the photo as being absolutely truthful in every way.
So clearly, it’s impossible to make a drawing without personal bias, or with 100% accuracy. By its very nature a drawing is an artist’s interpretation of a situation, encapsulating their feelings about the subject.
So — in light of that — please discuss! Any thoughts on that issue?
RJ: I don’t pretend to compete with photographers. There are no shortage of brilliant photo journalists out there who believed like I did that people should know more. But with all respect to photojournalists, I think that the art connects with readers in a completely different way. Not a better way. But when you look at a portrait of a soldier that I have sketched you are looking at a period in time that we have shared one another’s company and gotten to know one another. In general I will already have a relationship of some kind. Because soldiers are a tough nut to crack. So usually I will have been on patrol or gotten to know them a little before I ever get to the point of sitting them down to a portrait. So I think it is that connection between the sketcher and the subject – through the pencil and paper which translates to such a strong response from the viewer, or in my case newspaper reader. One of the things Brodie told me was to “draw without opinion”. He believed that simply drawing for accuracy was enough, and that by reaching for accuracy and ignoring opinion what came through was the essence of the subject. I have attempted to follow that guidance.
[Captain Ryan Sheppard poses for me in his lookout tent on the side of Ma’Sum Ghar near Bazzar-e-Panjwaii, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, July, 2007]
MTH: Ok — enough of the heavy stuff! Can you just show us a few of your favorite drawings and discus why they were your best work from the project? Do any of them stand out?
[Captain Shafiquiah Khan at ANA Base in Bazaar-e-Panjwaii, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, July 2007]
RJ: This is one of a couple of portraits that I did of Afghan Army Officers. They were very intimidating to do, partly because these are some proud men, but mostly because I sketched them in an open courtyard area. Which would have been fine, but the whole time I sketched, I was surrounded by a dozen Afghan soldiers standing mere inches from my back watching every touch of the pencil on the paper. I don’t own either of these sketches as I gave them to the Afghan’s as a kind of goodwill gesture I guess. All I have are the photos I took of the work immediately after I sketched them. I had him write his name in Afghan script before I took the photo.
[Caption – Corporal Jonathon Williams stands waiting as bodies are placed in body bags]
RJ: This was on another Quick Response Force operation. The QRF stood ready to deploy to aid the local police when they were attacked. These missions would happen daily. When we arrived at the police checkpoint, which had once been a school, all that was left to do was put the bodies in body bags and transport the wounded out. This and I think the image of Cpl Sypher behind the tank are examples of me working from photographs within hours of me experiencing it. I think that you can even see the sweat smudges on these pieces. I like this one because Williams hated journalists. I drew him anyway.
[Afghan National Policeman in recovery after team operation to remove shrapnel from his body. He doesn’t know it yet but he is the only survivor out of a half dozen police who were in a Ford Ranger when it struck an IED.]
RJ: This was drawn from a photograph within an hour of taking it. I followed the wounded policeman through the entire surgical process. This is the scene right at the end when for a moment it is just me and him in the room. I had never been in during a medical surgery anywhere, never mind one where the surgeons had to physically dig out foreign objects by the dozens. It was brutal and bloody and not as clinical and exact as I would have thought. But at the end the slab of meat was still breathing. When I wrote this story in the wee hours of the morning I realized I was shaking.
MTH: So, of course, you are an accomplished sketch artists. Is that full focus of your artistic practice? Do you have any plans to do studio work? I’m not aware if you paint, but I guess I’m asking if you have any plans to further develop the sketches that you bring home from the field. “Improving” them into what I’ll call, “finished paintings”? ( Edit: Of course, I drafted all these questions in advance of mailing Richard, but now that I’m reading the answers, this one was a pretty silly question. It implies that something more needs to be done with the sketches – clearly, these works stand on their own, recording events of significance. I stand corrected by his answer! ~m)
RJ: This may be a little awkward for your fellow Urban Sketchers to hear, but I don’t consider myself an artist in any way shape or form. I just draw. And once out of the field and back in the world I don’t continue to work on the material. The work goes in my art file in the basement under the laundry and that is that. I don’t have any hidden need to let out my inner angst on a canvas. Perhaps because I am too shallow, but mostly I think because by the time I get home the sketches have served their purpose. They are a means to an end, nothing more. Plus, life is busy.
Much of the Iraq work is now in the hands of the USMC museum in Quantico, Virginia, and much of my Afghan work from 2007 and 2011 is now held by the Smithsonian Museum of Armed Forces History in Washington, D.C. And I am involved with an exhibition of sketches and paintings of wounded servicemen called the Joe Bonham Project. It is currently touring the U.S. attempting to raise money and awareness.
Although I have no ‘artistic’ practice I am a bit of an art hooker. I will do anything for money. My day job at the National Post keeps me creating illustrations for all sections of the newspaper and I am a prodigious creator of information graphics as well. All of that keeps the bills paid and the kids fed.
MTH: Is there a book, or some sort of app/e-book coming out based on the Kandahar Journal? (or any of your other work?)
RJ: There is a book of the Iraq work. It is called ‘Portraits of War’. It might still be available on Amazon somewhere. I can’t seem to find a publisher interested in another book about Afghanistan. I understand from them that the market is saturated with Afghan and Iraq memoirs right now. But I do have background plans for an e-book of the Afghan work. Sometime.
MTH: For fans of location drawing, what are your future reportage projects we could follow? What is next?
The journalistic world has changed a lot in the last decade since I first started this visual reportage. It is no longer enough to come up with a good idea and volunteer your services. And we are far from the time when the work came looking for you. In order to make a field reportage mission happen now I need to find a way to make it impossible for my employer to refuse, I do this by a combination of subterfuge, blackmail, minimization of costs (read working for free or paying for some things myself), by being a photographer, and being videographer, and being a blogger, and being a reporter and being an artist, and a damned tweeter. And then the material had better be usable across multiple platforms, instantaneously if possible. Yup, and it would help if you can post it to the web yourself as well, from anywhere. There are no longer any pigeonholes in journalism. You had better be able to do it all if you want to stay employed. So my next mission may take some time.
I started getting the itch to be on the move again some time in the last couple of months. I think that my DRAWN T.O. sketch blog is really just a way of stopping me from going nuts while I deviously build towards the next project. I would like to get back involved with some relief work in Africa similar to the stuff I did with the United Nations in 2009.
Here’s a link to a great ‘what’s in your sketching-kit?’ illustration Richard created in the final days before his trip last year: INFORMATION GRAPHIC – WHAT AN ARTIST TAKES TO WAR
MTH: What do you think of the Urban Sketching movement? (If you’ve even thought much about it :) Niche Group Question!) From what you’ve seen, and with your experience as one of the few professional reportage artists – are we on the right track with what’s happening in USk.org and the wider community of USk workshops, Regional Blogs and Flickr Groups?
RJ: I think that the Urban Sketching movement is phenomenal. It is such a supportive community. I wish that I had found it earlier. I love the feedback and interaction, and I thoroughly enjoy the rich mixture of skills that are available. And I never fail to be stunned by something every time I check out the blog or flickr feed. And I am impressed that so may people have seen the truth, the truth that artistic skill is not always necessary in order to capture the essence and the atmosphere. What is really important is seeing it and experiencing it. In many ways that first person intimacy can at times leapfrog whatever limitations your artistic skills may have. That it is possible to make that connection with the viewer, to put them where you are, regardless of your abilities. So I think that you are on the cusp of something huge, and that if you can find a way to harness all of us amateurs and have us look at key issues around the world, we might well change it. Think of Urban Sketchers at the seal cull in Canada, sketching the Israeli separation barrier, in a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey, or in downtown Detroit. I actually believe that Urban sketchers could help the rest of the world see more clearly. How is that for a crackpot idea?
MTH: There is no question 13 – Anything you would like to add, answers to questions I didn’t think to ask?
RJ: Nope but I may have posed more questions than I have answered. If anyone in the USk community wants to know more this is my email address. firstname.lastname@example.org
MTH: Thanks Richard for your thoughtful, fascinating responses. I’m sure a lot of us will be following your work. Can’t thank you enough. Take care out there! Sketch Carefully!
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