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Olivier Kugler:

Reportage Comics

The proactive, attentive, sensitive approach of Olivier Kugler to graphic reportage takes him into firsthand, face-to-face exchanges with his subjects – confronting and communicating their experiences and realities in print and online press: from features in The Guardian and Harper’s magazine to full-length book projects. While Kugler’s documentary comics are related to the wave of cartoon journalism sparked by Joe Sacco’s genre-redefining comicbook, later graphic novel, Palestine (1993 and 95, respectively), they typically avoid autobiography and self-depiction. Kugler’s focus is on the individual, their appearance, locale and story. Aside from some scene-setting and arrowed captions, all the words are their words, quotes distilled from his extensive audio recordings of their conversations. Self-effacing, Kugler prioritises giving his routinely ignored or overlooked interviewees their voice.

Born in Stuttgart in 1970, Kugler is based in London, where he was twice selected for the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Illustration Awards: as runner-up in editorial illustration in 2006, for Kugler’s People, his series of portraits of contemporary British lives for The Guardian (example above); and in 2011 as overall winner for Un thé en Iran, a 30-page illustrated diary for the French current affairs quarterly XXI of an Iranian trucker’s four-day journey to deliver bottled water from Tehran to Kish, a small island in the Persian Gulf (below).

A chance to join young French veterinarian Bertrand Bouchard on a weeklong mission to care for domesticated elephants labouring in the logging industry in Northwest Laos resulted in the 48-page journal Mit dem Elefantendoktor in Laos (2013, below).

Out of this came an invitation from the Swiss chapter of Médecins Sans Frontières. ‘MSF asked me to produce a series of drawings documenting the circumstances of refugees [in Syria]’, Kugler told Grafik magazine, at a time when ‘there was hardly any mention in the media about the Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan in general and the Domiz refugee camp in particular’. Kugler was flown over to Iraqi Kurdistan, where he spent two weeks in December 2013 in Domiz. Kugler preferred not to draw on location, aside from a few rough sketches, but to concentrate on conducting interviews and taking hundreds of reference photos of the refugees he met, reviewing them each night to rough out scenes and compositions.

‘The men I talked to were mainly receptive,’ Kugler continued. ‘I found it difficult though to talk with and photograph women. Due to traditional and cultural circumstances, women (or their husbands and fathers) often weren’t keen on me depicting them. The few women I was able to draw were either employees of MSF or their patients.’ One of whom was the mental-health patient Vian, whose testimony fills Kugler’s new two-page Strip for ArtReview magazine (see at bottom of this page).

Returning with his photos, audio recordings and roughs, Kugler works at a large scale, drawing in pencil on A1-size paper, which he then scans, composes and colours using the discontinued program FreeHand. He does this while listening again and again to the recordings of his subject’s statements, until he can distil their words, which he then hand-letters and combines digitally into his layout. In London, his work formed part of the group exhibition Call Me by My Name: Stories from Calais and Beyond, at the Migration Museum in Lambeth through 30 July 2017, while throughout December 2017 much of his Syrian project to date was exhibited at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green.

Supported through commissions and an Arts Council England grant, Kugler has been able to record the complex lives of Syrian refugees displaced on the Greek island of Kos as well as in Calais, Birmingham and Bogotá, and is now bringing these visual essays together in his next book, Escaping Wars and Waves, published initially in 2017 from Editions Moderne in German, and released in English in June 2018 from Myriad Editions.

‘Vian’ - Strip for ArtReview Magazine
Click images to enlarge…

Posted: March 21, 2018

This profile and strip were originally published in ArtReview magazine, 2017.


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My Books

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Featured Books

Escaping Wars and Waves
by Olivier Kugler
(Myriad Editions)