George Butler

British reportage illustrator George Butler has drawn the Syrian conflict for national newspapers. I interviewed him about capturing the conflict, and the documentary form as a whole.

In August 2012 and February this year George Butler crossed the Turkish border to Syria to record in pen, ink and watercolour snapshots of life under conflict. His illustrations, published in The Guardian, The Evening Standard and The Times have also been exhibited this year at The Illustration Cupboard.

He insists that his artistic excursions have relied upon the openness of the Syrian people; their warmth is an aspect of his experience he is keen to highlight. As such, he soon feels less of an outsider looking in making objective observations based on first impressions and quickly becomes impressed by the people’s strife.

Like a portraitist, Butler stays with his sitters, drawing them from life, except that the surroundings are hardly ever still, and very much out of the artist’s control. In the drawing, Ahmed is Hospital, Ahmed is accompanied by his restless father who is constantly reaching out and retracting his arm to and from his young son in a gesture of comfort. Ahmed lies on a hospital bed, restricted by the leg he has just lost, and paralysed by the pain of losing the rest of his family to the conflict just the day before. Butler said he wanted this scene to stand in as “[a] description of a vulnerable moment,” and as such he poignantly added flesh colour to the sole remaining leg, in order that the absence of the other would stand out. 

In asking the artist about his attraction to illustration as a documentary form, he tells me how he feels photography possesses none of the mystery that manual art forms carry. As such while illustrations rarely make front-page spreads because as images of life they are technically incomplete, they gain something more potent, that the attention grabbing ‘full picture’ may not.

Butler has been involved in numerous art and humanitarian events in the last year that have sought to raise awareness of the conflicts in Syria in the UK. Ahmed’s Father Yassar told the artist, “art cannot change anything,” but Butler continues to deeply hope that his drawings will touch their audience in England.

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