Earlier this year Lawrence Zeegen wrote a tremendous broadside for Creative Review calling on illustrators to rediscover their voice. “It’s all style over content, function following form,” he said. “Illustration has withdrawn from the big debates of our society to focus on the chit-chat and tittle-tattle of inner-sanctum nothingness.”
George Butler is certainly not a creative who could be lumped into Lawrence’s critique and is more than willing to to turn his reportage skills to difficult subject matter. He has just returned from a trip to Azaz in Syria where he immersed himself in the country’s ongoing, increasingly bitter battle to shape its future.
Azaz was, George explains, “a town that was coming back to life after a war had rolled through it, people coming back to their homes, finding their shops raided or shot and, of course, having to carry on with normal life.”
He set about capturing the reality of a situation that can fade into cliche through the combination of distance and repeated news coverage, through the people affected by these extraordinary events – soldiers, refugees, prisoners – rather than the events themselves.
“People reacted well, it was very popular. Firstly because it was one of the ways the outside world would learn of their cause and secondly on a more personal level they were flattered and amused to be drawn.
“But it goes further than that. You are of course a guest of theirs and more than welcome to record anything and everything – their lives, as it were are open to you. I was invited into a hospital ward where, sadly, an old man who had just died from a shelling attack was being wrapped I felt like an intruder on a private moment.
“The next morning one of the Free Syrian Army soldiers decided I needed a shave and took me off on the back of his bike to the barber, no question of paying anything. That was all quite humbling, perhaps abnormal, when you can take a plane out of there the next day and be home to talk about the Olympics over a cuppa.”
The results are poignant, stark portrayals of a country violently convulsed by the promise of change, and George hopes they can add to the news footage and photojournalism that already exists.
“I certainly wasn’t trying to compete with the raw, quick, film and photography coming out of the more dangerous parts of Alepp – I don’t see how you could since the process involves sitting in front of your subject for 10, 15, 45 minutes and observing it.
“But on the flip side it is this process that has its advantages, it’s open and trusted, people often come and talk to you, it’s a great introduction into understanding the subject.
“On top of all the photography taken you are free to interpret the scene by highlighting bits that are important to the story and equally leaving irrelevant information out, which of course you cant do with a camera.
“For situations like this the more mediums and medias recording and documenting the better.”