“You can tell [a story] in a dead and lifeless way or you can tell it as a story of human beings interacting with each other. I simply choose to do the latter.” — Joe Sacco
Joe Sacco is a Maltese-American cartoonist and journalist. Some of his famous titles include Palestine (1996) and Footnotes in Gaza (2009) based on his experiences in occupied Palestine; and Safe Area Goražde (2000) and The Fixer (2003) on the Bosnian War. He was a featured delegate at this year’s LLF where he sat down with Books&Authors to discuss comics, controversies and conflict.
Why conflict? What is its allure? Why is conflict at the heart of your artistic and journalistic inquiries? What is the motivation behind it?
I wouldn’t call it the ‘allure’ of conflict, or the allure of places of conflict — I mean if there was any of that, I think I got over it very quickly. It was a feeling that certain people had been victimised and that realisation hit me hard. It really depends on what hits you in the gut. There are certain things happening in the world that make me shake my head, but I don’t feel compelled to put myself in the position of going over there. So, it is not any place, it is certain places for certain reasons. And the main reason I started to get involved with conflict, as you say, is because the United States was part of that conflict in terms of its undying support for Israel ... you know, no matter what its policies were or are. As somebody living in the US, I am paying taxes, I am financing that oppression. So, that made me feel linked to it.
The other link was the fact that I had studied journalism and at a certain point I realised that American-style journalism had not done me a service in helping me understand what was going on in there [Palestine]. This style of unquestionable ‘objective’ journalism had deceived me, and I felt angry. So, those were the two reasons why I went to these places, but it boils down to the oppression of people I somehow feel linked to, in some way. Also, because I used to think Palestinians were all terrorists. When I realised that might not be the case, I needed to go and discover what is going on there.
In our attempts to discover the truth about conflict, are we trying to discover something of ourselves? If so, what might that be?
The truth, at this point, is that I have gone through a period of not wanting to write about conflict. So, I started writing about other things like poverty and migration, and then all those things also turned out to be about conflict, because poverty is also a form of violence. So, in the end it always comes back to that. It almost seems like our default state of being. Or it might seem so because once you’ve done something, and you get known for it, you keep getting pushed into doing more of the same.
I find myself doing work about conflict again because I realised journalism doesn’t answer all the questions. I am much more interested in psychology now, and how it fits into things. I would like to know the ‘why’ now. You can explain a lot with journalism but you can’t explain why that person pulled the trigger.
There is always something reliable and suspicious about your cartoons. What would you say about it?
Yes, in a way it comes out of journalism. If you are going to describe things accurately, you will have to draw them pretty accurately. This is problematic in many ways because it just involves so much detail and you can’t always portray it accurately. But that is just my aesthetic. There are other cartoonists who can approach the same subject and be a bit more abstract and get the point across but for me, if I draw a town, it has to be the right town. It is not like I am drawing building by building exactly as they were, but someone from that town has to recognise enough of the things I am showing to be able to say “Yes, that is Goražde — it isn’t Bihac — its Goražde.”
You feature yourself in your reportage. Is it important to put the journalist out there? Is it important to know that the person perceiving the facts is not absent from the experience of discovery?
As I mentioned in one of the panels, I came out of the autobiographical tradition and it wasn’t such a leap to think that if I did a comic about Palestine, it will be about my experiences in Palestine. But that seemed correct and smaller than trying to pretend that you’re a fly on the wall, pretending to see everything and know everything. A lot of journalists I know or I have met don’t know what is going on, or they are relying on other people to tell them what’s going on. There is a lot of miscommunication, a lot of deception in negotiating some of that stuff. So, you know, I want to think about the reader as someone who is sitting across the table from me and asking, “So what was it like in Bosnia?” and you say, “I met someone.” You do not say, “Well, in 1991 Croatia was doing this and then in 1992 this happened.” I mean people don’t have conversations that way. That is why I want this informality to appear, through the process of having me as a character.
Also, another really important reason is that so much happens because you’re a foreigner in a place, and the way they perceive you says a lot of about their situation. The fact that in Gorazde, people were giving me packages to take to relatives they hadn’t seen in years because I could break the siege with the convoy and they couldn’t. How can you tell that story? You can tell it in a dead and lifeless way or you can tell it as a story of human beings interacting with each other. I simply choose to do the latter, whether it involves me or not. The idea is to show something about their lives through their interactions with me, through what they ask of me.
You wrote a very thoughtful piece on the Charlie Hebdo issue. What are your thoughts on the right to expression and the way it is being exercised and contested in the current political context?
To me, the way I understand it, is that a lot of European Muslims are not that religious and a lot of them don’t know anything about Charlie Hebdo. Even in France, it wasn’t selling that well. Clearly, the intent of those cartoons was provocation and to attack religion, and they opted for the easy way because they know that depiction of Muhammad [PBUH] is not allowed under Islam. So, its an easy way of riling people up. But I think it was a massacre.
Ultimately, freedom of expression is like a rock. I understand and I think people have the right to do certain things but I’d really question why they would do those things. I mean in practice, a lot of Arabs and Africans in France are marginalised, I don’t really understand the purpose of going after the marginalised communities that live among you. What is the point? Ok, you have got the right to do that but I would really question why you would go kick a marginalised person.
I think it is a much more healthy use of satire to attack power. And you know sometimes religion can be power, in the true sense.
In terms of clerical power?
Yes. I mean some of their cartoons were about the hijack of religion by fundamentalist forces, like ISIS. I think that was good satire. But whatever the case, the reaction to the more tasteless stuff should be healthy outrage, or trying to explain why you’re offended — not killing people. Then you’re simply playing into their provocation, becoming the stereotype.