Drawn from Life: Reportage event Manchester School of Art 04/11/16
Keynote Lecture: Olivier Kugler
With additional short presentations from Dr John Hewitt and Robin Sukatorn.
This event first began as a conversation with Olivier Kugler in 2014 around a bid for Arts Council funding to develop an extensive body of work based on observations in conflict zones and refugee camps with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)
By expanding the scope of the day to cover reportage from three distinct speaker perspectives the intention was to explore some of the tensions around definitions of reportage and the distribution of content through traditional and evolving media platforms. The Q&A discussions also covered the contextualisation of layered content through the relationship of contemporary and historical narratives in the body of the drawing or post and the use of photography as a part of the reportage process.
The lectures were attended by staff and students from Manchester School of Art undergraduate, postgraduate, foundation and alumni: Julia Midgley and Cherie Gerrard. Also present were our invited guests: staff and students from Stockport College Illustration programme. I am grateful for the article below written by MFA student Robin Sukatorn as a reflective record of the event and to Dr John Hewitt for his contributions on the day.
In a world where news is increasingly consumed in endless rolling feeds, where political campaigns are fought in a media frenzy of ‘post-truth’ rhetoric and bombastic headlines, and where the minutiae of daily life is framed, curated and shared across a swelling smörgåsbord of social media platforms, questions of representation, authenticity, truth and engagement have become particularly pertinent. Amongst this bustling melee of information and visual content, where do we find space for representations of nuanced, individual lives; for local and personal moments and experiences; and for authentic, unfiltered portrayals of the human condition? Where do we find time to pause and observe the people and places in the world around us?
One medium which has the potential to cut through the noise is reportage illustration. This unique creative process involves the recording of events, scenes, people and places through direct observation and on-location drawing, and offers a novel and engaging way of shining a light on more local stories and personal experiences. Reportage artists place themselves in the unique and intimate position of a witness and reporter, producing visual records of a specific subject, responding immediately and intuitively to the observed scene at hand and capturing its essence and vitality through their own individual perspective,style and technique.
Olivier Kugler, a prolific socially-engaged illustrator and visual essayist based in London, is one of the most prominent practitioners of this reportage tradition, and this Autumn term the Manchester School of Art Department of Illustration with Animation hosted a special public event, convened by Senior Lecturer Ian Whadcock, in which Kugler discussed the development of his practice and presented a selection of his illustrations to an audience of students, educators and creative practitioners.
I was privileged to be invited to participate in the event myself, opening proceedings with a short presentation of my own reportage drawings developed over the course of my first year of MFA Illustration studies at the Manchester School of Art. I spoke about my own experience scouting out and documenting various scenes and events from contemporary political, cultural and community life: drawing newly-elected Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking outside Manchester Cathedral, culminating in an illustration for which I was delighted to receive the 2016 John Ruskin Prize Student Award, as well as regular excursions to draw city council meetings, music concerts, political demonstrations, public vigils and parades in Manchester and the North of England. I also presented a selection of my drawings from a current project with the responsible-investment charity Share Action, in which I am developing a series of compositions documenting scenes from the Annual General Meetings of several FTSE 250 companies including Marks & Spencers, National Grid and United Utilities, based on my personal observations and sketches of the characters, interactions and proceedings witnessed from within the meetings.
I was followed by Dr John Hewitt, a Senior Lecturer in Illustration at Manchester School ofArt and the winner of the Hugh Casson Prize for drawing at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2016, who in his presentation offered his own take on reportage illustration and his experiences using drawing as a means of representing and documenting the world around him. He spoke of his role as a ‘psychogeographer’- one who wanders through the urban environment, observing and recording the relationships between places and people, including the histories and ghosts of the past which linger seen or unseen in specific locations. He also recounted his experience documenting the 7/7 bombings in London, through drawings committed from memory based on his personal observations in the aftermath of the attacks, and how he felt a strong moral duty not to invent or inject himself as the artist into the image due to the sensitive subject at hand. I was particularly struck by his words on the ‘evidential value of the moment’ as a core feature of reportage, the important role of drawing in building empathy- particularly evident in his own moving sketches of homeless people on the streets of Manchester- and the positive utility of social media as a platform for sharing and building wider engagement with his drawings and the stories behind them.
As our special guest for the afternoon, Olivier Kugler then took to the podium to share the story of his development as a reportage illustrator. Born into an artistic household in Germany, Kugler spoke about his love for drawing as a child, with a particular focus on the human figure and documenting the world around him. Although initially pursuing the more economically-secure option of studying and working as a graphic designer for a number of years, Kugler eventually broke away from this path and threw himself into the world of illustration, bolstered by a scholarship to study a masters degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
It was fascinating to hear Kugler talk first-hand about the development of his creative process as a reportage illustrator, in which he works from direct observation, on-location drawings and personal photographs, subsequently incorporating text, digital colour and narrative composition and creating vivid and characterful visual essays which capture the unique personal stories of particular individuals and places. While presenting us with a selection of his drawings, Kugler offered an insightful commentary into the stories and experiences behind some of his most engaging projects: with particular highlights including his sketches and interviews of diverse characters encountered on the streets of New York and London; drawings of aged locals and railways conductors in China as part of a field trip of Guardian journalists; spending four days travelling through Iran with a truck driver and documenting the experience through reportage illustrations based on personal photographs, interviews and memories, for which he was awarded the overall prize at the 2011 V&A Illustration Awards; drawing discreetly from within the home of a characterful ‘super-grass’ ex-mafioso named Luigi; witnessing and documenting the desperate living conditions of refugee families in Iraqi Kurdistan- and subsequently the island of Kos in Greece and the Calais ‘jungle’ in France- and offering a crucial and poignant insight into the human stories behind the headlines which so often pass us by as faceless and sweeping reports.
To hear Kugler speak so passionately and movingly about his experiences meeting and drawing such a diverse array of individuals around the world- whose stories are told with patience and detail through his characterful and engaging illustrations- was incredibly inspiring and eye-opening, both for myself as an aspiring illustrator and no doubt for the other students, practitioners and educators in the audience. Through bringing together different approaches and experiences of documentary drawing, visual journalism and reportage illustration, and offering a platform for Kugler in particular to share the stories and insights behind his remarkable work, the event built a compelling and optimistic picture of how drawing can be harnessed to reflect a more nuanced, intimate and engaging perspective of the world around us.
Article by Robin Sukatorn MFA Illustration Student at Manchester School of Art
©Robin Sukatorn 05/12/16
Dr John Hewitt’s drawings and account of the 7/7 London bombings are on permanent display at the Museum of London