George Butler is a journalist and artist specialising in current affairs and travel. Between 2011 and 2018, he travelled to a dozen locations where people have been forced by circumstances beyond their control to leave their homes, documenting in words and pictures the individuals and environments he encountered. The result is a moving collection of histories illustrated with his own pen-and-ink and watercolor images, Drawn Across Borders. He answers our questions on the creation of the book.
Can you describe the role of a reportage illustrator? How would you describe your own approach in particular?
Reportage – photographic or illustrative tells a story, it should communicate an idea, empathise and relate the viewer to the audience. My approach is to spend time in a place, often returning multiple times, sometimes a year apart. I try to use drawing as a ‘handshake’ as the artist Paul Hogarth once said. Then I have an excuse for being there, and as I draw, I’m learning about what I am seeing. In a way you are seeing my notes from class. I’m trying to show, not just tell the audience what is happening. Habits, characters and scenes; It’s the stories of the people and places that come from this process that I try and do justice to.
What media do you use when working on location? How do you choose your locations and what is it like working under pressure?
I use pen, ink and watercolour. It’s immediate, it’s fast and it appears on the page like a magic trick and that is a powerful tool when you don’t speak the language of the place you are in. My theory is that if you can sit down and make a drawing for forty-five minutes, then you should be in a place that is safe. Of course it doesn’t always work out like that and getting to that place can be dangerous and difficult. To be accurate quickly I have to have practiced enough that I don’t feel intimidated by a big white sheet of paper. However, being brave, not using pencil and not rubbing anything out can cut those corners too. Speaking to people makes me commit to making the drawing good, the pressure of having to do right by them really focuses my mind. I once sat with a group of men supporting the uprising on the Syrian/Turkish border, they thought I was a spy and asked me to draw one of them to prove I wasn’t! Which I did – very badly. In a way these drawings are a reaction to immediate things that happen.
What was the hardest thing to draw in Drawn Across Borders?
At a field hospital inside Syria near the border with Turkey I drew a little boy on a children’s ward, called Bassam. He was ten and had lost his right leg, his mother and his brother a couple of days before in an air strike. When I met him he was lying in hospital with his father Abid crying at his feet. He said to me ‘Art cannot change anything,’ and in this moment I believed him. My instinct was to leave without finishing the drawing, but another man in the corner said passionately, ‘These are the scenes that the world should see. They are important to show the people what is going on here.’ War photographers often talk about hiding behind their cameras. I did the same behind my drawing board that day. The process of drawing became a way of hiding from the scene, and at the same time a prism for my brain to comprehend it, to make it safe on a page so I can remember the moment without being horrified.
Do you think illustration can be more truthful than a photograph?
We live in an increasingly interconnected world but run the risk of having a far shallower understanding of it. If you agree that the way in which we receive our news is now flawed, or ‘fake’, perhaps headlines are written for effect, perhaps paid content is disguised as news, or photographs manipulated to shock then it’s not a stretch to suggest that a drawing, done from life, on location with the permission of those in the image can be an equally accurate description of that time and a place.
How do you think illustrators can contribute to the discussion surrounding the refugee crisis and other issues?
By highlighting the personal, the vulnerable, the human and the ordinary with a language that we all speak. But I don’t think an illustrator’s contribution is specific to this crisis. I think illustration as an industry, (and I don’t mean the individuals, but as a body), has forgotten its ability to communicate to people of all ages. And should be striving to do so outside of the more obvious avenues children’s books, cards and place mats. There is an opportunity here to use the tried and tested, ancient and evolved formula of putting pen to page to communicate in a way that transcends language. What could be more powerful?
Can you describe walking across the border into Syria in August 2012 and drawing in the town of Azaz in Northern Syria and what you saw there?
In August 2012 I walked across the border from Turkey to Syria on my own expecting to find an exodus of people trying to get away but the border was empty. I was picked up by the Free Syrian Army and driven past bullet-ridden buildings, olive groves damaged by tanks and a petrol station caught in crossfire. When we arrived in Azaz, my translator and an English student from Aleppo University explained how thousands of people had fled this small town when the fighting broke out to villages in the countryside expecting to be able to return to their homes. I drew children playing on a burnt-out government tank, one of them wearing a New Look top. The fighting had finished here 10 days earlier and would soon start again, but in meantime the few residents left were trying to fathom what had ripped through their homes. Were there shops still available? Had their cars been damaged? I found a scanner in the nearest Turkish town a day later and sent the image of children playing on the tank back to the Guardian G2.
What do you hope people will take away from Drawn Across Borders?
People move around the world for many reasons. Some migration is voluntary; most is not. People move for love, work, security, war, food and family. They have done for hundreds of thousands of years and still do. It runs deep in the human condition, but it’s an intricate and difficult subject for anyone to comprehend. I hope this book can offer a glimpse into some of the reasons people have for leaving behind places they once called home, places they still call home. What is clear to me as we begin a new decade – as the population increases, resources remain limited and climate pressure mounts – is that migration will vastly alter the future of the world and our species. Only by understanding individual cases better can we properly respond to migration as a whole. I hope these drawings are human straightforward and unthreatening, that they connect the viewer to that subject through a sensitive and handmade line; an imagined connection that can relate one person to another who otherwise would never have crossed paths. I hope I’ve done justice to the people I met who sat for long enough for me to draw them and told me their personal stories. I hope the images do the honesty of their words justice.
Drawn Across Borders is published by Walker Studio, 978-1406392166, £15.00 hbk.