By TOBY LICHTIG
One of the most frequently lamented, and lampooned, aspects of modern media saturation is the dulling of the audience's response, even to the most terrible situations. We all know how a newspaper report on the latest Syrian refugee crisis begins, or what a broadcast from the heart of the warzone looks like. Even new and extraordinary images and accounts can swiftly become simulacra, as Jean Baudrillard warned us over two decades ago when considering the First Iraq War. These ideas are now so widely discussed as to be clichés in themselves. And yet sometimes it is possible to tell the story differently.
Last Friday I attended a remarkable event at the V&A which showcased two unusual approaches to war reporting, standing somewhere at the crossroads of art and journalism. The evening was staged in conjunction with Refugee Week and focused on what contemporary journalistic convention would have us describe as "the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria".
The first exhibit – "Project Syria" by Nonny de la Peña – was an exercise in what its creator calls "immersive journalism". The installation, originally commissioned by the World Economic Forum, employs virtual reality based on real events to put the viewer "on scene". Given a headset and headphones you are invited to wander around a delineated rectangle (about the size of a small bedroom) as events play out before your eyes in real time. As you walk within the rectangle, you walk within the simulation, taking in the alarmingly lifelike sights and sounds.
Initially, I found myself on a quiet street in Aleppo. There were a few pedestrians, parked cars, a café; a distant sound of chatter and traffic, the natural thrum of city life. Then, shockingly, a bomb exploded. Fear and chaos choked the air. As the smoke cleared, I could see an injured man lying to my left, people running amid the blare of sirens. The scene then faded to reveal a refugee camp, rows of tents fanning out in all directions. Their denizens appeared ghostlike before me. The atmosphere was calm but muted, the sense of hopelessness palpable. A narrator in my earphones then provided her report.
De la Peña's exhibit engages directly with our voyeurism. Our sense of agency here is disquieting (we are more used to being passive news consumers) and yet it has its limits (we are still cordoned off, prevented from straying outside the rectangle by a firm hand here and there). The message is hardly subtle and part of the installation's impact is no doubt down to its novelty, but it was nevertheless affecting. It certainly made me think more deeply about the experience of being in a warzone – and the way I engage with the media describing it.
The second "reporter" used a rather more traditional technique which, in its very old-fashionedness, also made me reassess my relationship with contemporary media.
George Butler is an illustrator who works in pen, ink and watercolour. He specializes in current affairs, drawing in situ. I'd already seen some of his portraits of the Syrian conflict at a talk he gave earlier this year and was struck by their jarring beauty, once again so different from the "usual" run of news images. It has been a century since John Singer Sargent was commissioned by the British Ministry of Information to depict the battlefields of Europe but Butler's work shows that the medium still has much to give to journalism. Various media outlets agree: Butler's pictures have been featured by, among others, the BBC and the Guardian.
Butler's mini exhibition of new works, "Syria: Stories of devastation and hope", was staged in conjunction with Doctors of the World and introduced by Lord Rogers, one of the charity's trustees. The artworks were the result of eight days Butler spent earlier this year in various refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley in northern Lebanon.
Some focused on the possessions people took with them:
The arbitrary assortment of items, including that bathetic television remote control (the television being left behind) attest to the haste and confusion that marked the start of exile. "The objects were things they grabbed when the lights went off", said Butler afterwards.
Khalid appears once again, rolling around his broken bicycle wheel, in the picture below, which portrays the weekly visit of a mobile medical unit to a camp in Kamed el-Loz:
Much of the power of Butler's illustrations is wrought by absences, the blank or spare backgrounds seeming to attest to communities denied a complete human experience:
The illustration above dates from Butler's first visit to Syria. It was one of the first scenes he encountered after crossing the border, the vibrancy of the children playing on the tank standing in disarming contrast to the leeched-out destruction behind them.
One of Butler's chief assets is the trust his approach allows him to establish. The illustrations take time (generally at least a couple of hours) and require a certain level of intimacy. He talks about how his subjects tend to find the instruments of brush and paint less intrusive than camera lenses.
Butler also spoke movingly about the shift in attitudes he encountered between his two visits to the region. "When I first arrived in northern Syria the general view was Assad must go. When I returned two years later this had changed. It was now: We don't care who rules as long as we can go home."
Two of the illustrations are currently up for auction via Doctors of the World (closing at 5pm on Wednesday June 25) at a reserve price of £1,250 each. All of the proceeds go to the charity. If the reserve price isn't met, they will be reauctioned in October.