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Three Pointed Questions for Reportage Artist Richard Johnson

September 28, 2015

I interviewed reportage artist Richard Johnson back in 2013, talking about his work sketching on location with various military elements in Afghanistan. He has since moved from Toronto’s National Post onto the Washington Post in Washington DC, where he continues to be a fascinating sketcher, taking on the hardest of topics.

Having spent the spring drawing an in-depth reportage of the trial of Tsarnaev Dzhokar (Boston marathon bomber), he has returned home with his sketchbook to address the issue of homelessness in DC.

Richard Johnson (3)

Richard Johnson (1)

This is a social problem that’s clearly familiar to any urban dweller. But one we are conditioned to ignore. There are so many perfectly good reasons to pass by a homeless person with eyes averted. Everything from shared embarrassment to reasonable caution. We don’t know these people. We’re worried about their mental state. Few of us want to engage face to face. As an introvert myself, I hardly ever talk to any strangers – never mind people who are in quiet crisis.

As always, Johnson pushes himself past these reasonable concerns. He has a compulsion to get up close and personal. Giving us his keenly observed portraits, accompanied by the subject’s own words.

Richard Johnson (4)

As a location sketcher myself, but not someone who has faced these kinds of raw stories, I’m fascinated with his work. It’s the kind of drawing challenge that many artists think about taking on. So I took a chance to ask him three pointed questions that might help those of us who are thinking about this kind of work. His answers were of course on point, and revealing.

Richard Johnson (1)

MTH: Richard, thanks for sharing your reportage on the homeless in DC. I like the fact you talk about how difficult it was to engage with people. That they’re not necessarily willing to be drawn. It’s an interesting topic for a sketcher.You start the project by sketching people at a distance – would it be fair to say you were dodging the issue of getting permission at first, before eventually finding a way into the story?

R.J.: I think what we do as urban sketchers is by its very nature a kind of documentary voyeurism. We draw our own worlds because we want to show them to others, but do it long enough and eventually you end up in some gritty corner drawing graffiti scrawled on some decayed building. You are sketching it not because this is something that you would choose to show others, but because it is something that needs to be shown. That is how I got to the point where I was surreptitiously drawing the homeless.

MTH: Do you have any thoughts on the ethics of drawing without consent? Is it a dicey thing – or do you feel you’re on the moral high ground making these drawings? Do you feel it’s any different ethically for a reporter than for a hobby-sketcher?

R.J.: This is always a thorny question and one that many of us grapple with especially in this changing privacy conscious world. As a visual documentarian though, I consider it my responsibility to capture life in its purest and most natural state. That is why we urban sketchers draw what we see – not what we’d like to see, or what we have staged, or what we took a photo of. The capturing of life while immersed in the same moment as the subjects we draw raises the art we create beyond anything created from a photograph. So in my opinion, if your intentions are pure and your mind is set only on the need to draw what you see, then it makes no difference whether you are drawing buildings or people. You are capturing your world.

Richard Johnson (1)

MTH: Have you ever faced questions about using people’s difficult situations to promote yourself? (Bear in mind, I’m on your side!) – but I’m curious about the issues around a reportage artist drawing public attention to their sketches while working with people’s true-life stories.

R.J.: As much as I love our Urban Sketchers group, I believe that there is much more we could all be doing with our skills. We have an organization that stretches all around the planet and an artistic device that affects people deeply. I think that we should all be looking for opportunities to tell the hard stories. I think we are beginning to see this happen. Some of the artwork, of devastation inside Syria, and of refugees across Europe in the last year has been particularly telling in changing public attitudes.

But more to your question, personally, journalistically I never want to be even vaguely perceived as taking from someone in pain in order to promote myself. I am the lens only. There are of course situations where I would not be able to draw without requesting permission first. My work with wounded warriors over the last decade depended on a high degree of trust and acceptance. And sometimes written permission was even necessary in order that there is a clear understanding. But regardless of the paperwork or trust gaining, my own motivation remains the same. I want to tell stories and change minds using pictures and words.

This is a power that we all have IF we choose to use it.

To read Richard’s full story, and see the rest of the drawings, please head over to his Washington Post article Drawing the Invisible. You can also follow his blog at NewsIllustrator.com, or follow Richard on twitter.

Richard Johnson (2)

12 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2015 12:22 PM

    Thanks so much for this — I always read his posts and so enjoy his take on life through his work.

  2. September 28, 2015 12:58 PM

    yes, thank you for a great post…..I do think urban sketching is a profound way to share the truth, whether is it in the beauty of a street scene in an exotic place or the beauty and reality of what is actually on most streets….homeless and more.

  3. Annie permalink
    September 28, 2015 1:53 PM

    Good questions, Marc. Really thought about the responses to them. Thank you.

  4. September 28, 2015 4:57 PM

    Love this story. I’ve often wondered about sketching people out in public. I guess it can go either way. Well done.

  5. September 28, 2015 5:11 PM

    When I first discovered Richard’s work I read and looked at everything I could find for about 3 hours straight, and then couldn’t stop thinking about his drawing and what he does with it. I was just in awe of the power and honesty of his drawings, and what he does made me dare to think I could at least try to sketch things that matter to me in a way that would mean something – to say something. I think he’s right to say that all of us urban sketchers could be making a difference, in a small way, by what we choose to do and how we do it. Thank you so much for doing this interview!

    • September 28, 2015 5:44 PM

      Thanks for saying. Great to hear your reaction – as it’s pretty much the same here. He makes you think about how much further you could go with things hey?

  6. September 28, 2015 6:45 PM

    Thank you for this really interesting blog post. Documentary sketching is an interesting topic and I liked Richard’s answer as to the question of ethics and the idea that art can be used as a way to transmit important stories about the world we are in. This was a really thought-provoking read and the sketches were potent too.

  7. September 28, 2015 7:07 PM

    Excellent and thought-provoking…

  8. cathykatejohnson permalink
    September 28, 2015 7:10 PM

    Excellent and thought-provoking. I found myself surreptitiously drawing a homeless man on our recent trip, and then ended up talking to him. Not about his situation, not about homelessness, but about the pigeons he fed that gathered at his feet like chickens. He just loved animals…and had a kind, serene aura about him. I didn’t feel I should ask him anything personal…I wonder what the reaction would have been if I had.

  9. Mary McLaughlin permalink
    September 28, 2015 9:54 PM

    Excellent interview – thought provoking and moving both. Thank you so much, Marc.

  10. September 29, 2015 9:28 AM

    I am a street and social documentary photographer and there is much the same kind of questions asked of us. I personally rarely photograph homeless people. My reason is that there are people doing work of that kind who have more skills than I do, more access to getting their work seen. For me to photograph homeless people would be just to satisfy my own desire to do so. And that’s exploitation…as discussed so well here. However very occasionally there has been a situation where I have just been DRIVEN to make a photo that includes a homeless person. For the same reasons as Richard: to tell an important story.Good interview, good work and you have my respect

  11. September 29, 2015 8:01 PM

    Great post Marc. I am in awe of Rich’s skills, mostly because of the humanity he is able to portray. Like Dapplegrey above, when I discovered his work I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s amazing how much he can convey with just a few ballpoint pen lines.

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