In this week's episode, Alice interviews award-winning artist George Butler. George's art covers a huge range of topics, but he specialises in current affairs and his visual reportage from conflict zones like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria has won plaudits from the likes of Jeremy Bowen and Michael Morpurgo. George's work often takes him to places which other people are trying to leave. In August 2012, for example, he walked from Turkey across the border into Syria where, as a guest of the Free Syrian Army, he set about drawing the impacts of the civil war on people and towns. Over the last decade he has been to refugee camps in Bekaa Valley (Lebanon), oil fields in Azerbaijan, to Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Mosul, and to Gaza with Oxfam, among many other places. His drawings have been published by the Times, the New York Times, the Guardian, BBC, CNN, Der Speigel, and a host of other media outlets; and they have also been exhibited at the Imperial War Museum North and the V&A museum, among other places. George has also recently published a book, Drawn Across Borders: True Stories of Migration, which tackles one of the many ripple effects of conflict and shines a spotlight on some of the humans behind the headlines.
In the podcast, we talk about drawing as a dynamic process: one in which the artist invests time, and during which the people being drawn might come and go, shift position or mood, fade into the background or come into focus. George’s drawings capture the rhythm of a place over several hours, enabling him to convey a context and set of experiences that are less easily observed through the fast shutter speed of a camera lens. Another aspect of drawing that George relishes is how approachable and unthreatening an artist often seems. While a cameraman’s equipment might act as a barrier, a simple pad and pencil often gets people coming closer to look and ask questions, sparking conversations. Drawing on location involves listening to many different people and the stories they want to share; and what George hears then finds its way into the drawings as they develop.
George reflects on the combination of aesthetics and storytelling in his reportage. While he strives to make his art beautiful, he sees little point in an attractive image which is not telling an interesting story – one that uncovers less visible, ignored or forgotten aspects of a conflict. One thing that motivates his work is the desire to round out our habits of visualising contemporary wars. We discuss the push and pull of media organisations and NGOs, who sometimes want an artist to focus on particular aspects of a conflict, and also the challenges that artists and photographers often face in deciding what is appropriate to depict in any given context. George clearly sees his drawings as fulfilling a documentary role, setting down a record for the future; but he is also interested in myth-busting, especially around migration, and his book Drawn Across Borders has been described as ‘a work of art, compassion and activism.’
We hope you enjoy the episode! A blog with some of the images we discuss is available here, and more images are available on George’s website. For a version of our podcast with close captions, please use this link.
For more information about individuals and their projects, please visit the University of St Andrews Visualising War website.
Music composed by Jonathan Young
Sound mixing by Zofia Guertin