Behind The Lines

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Olivier Kugler, who graduated from SVA’s MFA Illustration As Visual Essay in 2002, has spent much of his career doing just that — making visual essays with drawings that both touch and inspire. An exhibition of work from his most recent book “Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters With Syrian Refugees” is a first hand record of the tragic souls who have been forced to leave their homeland and the disappointments, frustrations and deprivations they’ve experienced in Kurdistan, Greece, Franace, Germany, Switzerland and England as they attempt to make new lives. The exhibition from January 19 – February 9 is at the SVA Gramercy Gallery, 209 East 23rd Street. I spoke to Kugler about the emotional impact of the project.

I was just genuinely interested in the people, their circumstances and how they are managing to cope with the situation they are in.

Before I traveled to Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan I did a lot of research… I read articles in newspapers and reports from NGOs, listened to radio articles and watched films I found online about the war in Syria and the situation of people who were displaced by the conflict. I also received a briefing from MSF/Doctors Without Borders, the NGO that sent me to Domiz, about the living conditions in the camp.

So, when I arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan I already had a good idea about the situation on the ground. But of course, these kind of preparations only help you to cope to a certain extent. When you finally meet the people you want to portray, in the desperate situations they find themselves in, when you sit together with them and they are talking about the loss and trauma they experienced, this does naturally want to make you cry… it obviously make you sad, angry and confused… What helped me cope with this stress was that I worked as hard and focused as I possibly could, not only on location but also later on in my studio, to create the best possible work I could.Through my drawings I wanted to create a platform for the people I encountered, on which they could share their experiences with a wider audience.

The living conditions I witnessed in Domiz refugee camp (December 2013) I found the most difficult. It was cold, it rained a lot and sometimes it snowed… the streets were completely muddy… people lived (still live!) in flimsy tents and small, basic, houses made out of concrete blocks and corrugated iron. Many of the tents get flooded during the winter… During the summer the temperature goes up over 40 degrees Celsius. Imagine living in a place like this for several years… on top comes the insecurity of the people living in the camp… many of them have lost loved ones… some of them have family members that are missing… they don’t know when, or if, they will ever get back to their former homes (if they still exist)… it is difficult to find work, schooling a place at university… to start a family.

Difficult was also the financing of this project. I spent almost four years working on it…Even though I received some funding from MSF, the Arts Council England and the Swiss German publisher Edition Moderne. I was struggling financially during this period. What helped a lot was the support of Harper’s Magazine which published three separate portfolios from the project. Without the fees I received for these publications I wouldn’t have been able to commit myself to this project for such a long time.

Almost all of the people I met told me that, even though life in Syria, before the war, was far from perfect, they enjoyed living in their country. They had nice houses, gardens, owned cars, many went to Universities… they never felt the desire to leave Syria… Some told me, how during recent conflicts in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq they supported refugees fleeing from these countries… they let them stay in their houses or helped to build shelters for them. But they never ever thought that, one day, they might become a refugee themselves.

With my work I am hoping to contribute in helping to raise awareness about the refugees’ circumstances… to create empathy that will lead to some kind of action by the viewer. During the last years my brother and my parents back in Germany helped Syrian refugees to settle in to their new communities. At the end of the Second World War my father’s family was forced to flee their home in Southern Moravia (now Czech Republic) when the Russian Army advanced. I am the son of a refugee.

What I am trying to say is that we should all be very much aware that we can’t take living in peace for granted and that we should feel empathy, if we don’t do so already, with people who had to flee their homes. Who knows… maybe one day we will be dependent on other people’s help in this regard as well.

The time I spent with the people who I chose to portray ranges from about an hour, or several hours to a day or a few days… These relatively short encounters left a strong impression with me. Later in my studio I spent many days, often weeks, working on each persons drawings and texts, using the reference photos I took and the recordings of interviews I conducted in the field. During these meetings and the work on the illustrations, the people I depicted have become very dear to me. I am still in contact with some of them and whenever I hear on the news the names of certain towns or regions in Syria I have to think about the people who I met and who once called these places their home.

The drawings are very honest. They show the people and places how I found them… I take my time and try to draw and colour accurately what I have seen without any deliberate exaggerations…

The drawings include texts, excerpts from what the people told me during the interviews… in my illustrations the people I portrayed address the reader directly. I try to recreate the situation for the viewer that I experienced when the refugees told me about their lives.

During each of these encounters I usually took at least dozens, often more than a hundred, photos of the people and the situations I wanted to depict. Having that much reference material allowed me later in the studio when working on the drawings to add ‘movement’ in
to the illustrations… I like the idea of showing the passing of time in one single illustration… like for example ‘animating’ a person by having several drawings of the person’s hands or head composed on top or beside each other. This is a bit comparable with the effect of long-exposure photography but with still being able to show a sharp and detailed picture.

Mainly large prints from finished pages out of the Escaping Wars and Waves book. There will also be reference photos, prints of original drawings and thumbnail sketches as well as copies from Harper’s magazine (with portfolios from this project) on display. Unfortunately we weren’t able to exhibit the original pencil drawings as the insurance would have been too expensive. The original drawings are quite large, at least A2. Often I use several A2 sheets that I tape together in order to create one drawing.

It would have been nice to show them to the students but I can, of course, understand the reason why we couldn’t do that.

For the time being I am done with this project. I am still in contact with some of the people I was able to portray… maybe, in several years, I want to create a new series of drawings to report on what happened to these people since I last met them… It could be interesting to follow one or some of them, if they should decide to do so, going back to Syria.

Before I worked on Escaping Wars and Waves I created journals depicting people I met in Iran, Laos and Egypt… for my next project I would like to focus on drawing people I meet here in the UK, the country that I have chosen to live in for the last 16 years. I am sure that migration will play a strong part in this work and I wouldn’t be surprised if a Syrian refugee who found asylum in Great Britain would make an appearance in it as well.

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →