IN CONVERSATION WITH GEORGE BUTLER
Back in 2004, I started my degree in Illustration at Kingston University along with George Butler. George stood out, not because of his long blonde hair, but because of his ambition and love of drawing. Since graduating in 2007, George has had an incredible career specialising in reportage illustration.
His work has seen him depict powerful images of conflict with an incredible representation of the devastation caused to people within these nations. He has since gone on to set up a charity with some of his friends called Hands Up Foundation where they focus on raising funds for people in Syria.
I took a punt and reached out to George to catch up and find out more about what he’s been doing. He kindly agreed to take the time out of his busy schedule without me even offering to buy him a pint (but I can still do that, George)!
Thanks so much for agreeing to chat to me George! Keeping it reasonably brief, can you tell us more about your career and what you do?
I am an artist reporter, which means I use drawings about life to tell stories in the news.
You graduated from Kingston University back in 2007, how do you feel the course (BA Illustration) equipped you for your career?
The BA course, above anything else, was really a chance to practice. I miss that about it, but like with all careers the real work starts afterwards. Once I worked out that there was such a thing as reportage illustration at university, that became the moment to gear everything towards doing it.
It was really clear that reportage illustration was a natural route for you. However, getting into the industry must’ve been reasonably challenging. Especially with the subject matter that you moved into, how did you do this and what would you recommend to someone that is also looking to move into a similar field?
It's challenging because I don't think there is a reportage illustration industry. No one is commissioning it, not regularly. This means that before I sell my drawings, I have to have sold the idea that illustration might have some value alongside a piece of immediate news.
"Why not just take a photograph?" Is usually the next question.
However, there are advantages to the uniqueness of reportage illustration, and the same rules apply for most creative careers. It takes time. You need to list the people you want to work for and then get in a room with them; work out what you are selling and then, when you think the phone isn't going to ring, do it for another year. Don't write emails - no one replies!
How important do you feel reportage is today, especially with how accessible photography has become?
Photography has freed up the illustrator to be more expressive. I know that someone somewhere has already taken a photograph of what I'm drawing, and that I can interpret that scene as I see fit.
In that sense illustration is more important than ever, its slow, considered, less influenced by cash, it involves the subjects, it engages audiences and evokes emotional reaction.
In many ways I think it can depict an equally accurate picture as a photograph. There is something powerful about depicting war, in a way that makes it look beautiful enough for people to see. I'd like to explore that further.
Let's look more at the subject matter. You specialise in travel, current affairs, and particularly conflict and how it has impacted life in areas caught up in these places. What draws you to these stories?
There are two answers to this: the polished journalist out loud answer and my own. The first is that I think it’s important to tell these vulnerable stories of misunderstood places for the news. The more regularly they are told, the more chance we have of connecting one side of the world to the other. There has to be value in that. We are more interconnected than ever, but we run the risk of having a far shallower understanding of the world. That gap is not going to be decreased by being on Instagram.
The second answer is more narcissistic, we all want a 'piece of the action' as Antony Loyd describes one of his books. For me that action is the emotional response I get from a person sitting in front of me and being drawn in the most unlikely place. These are situations that, without drawing, I would never otherwise see. And it's from those conversations in the street, in someones home, that the best illustrations come from.
There’s nothing like someone trusting you with their story to concentrate your mind on doing a good drawing.
A question you probably get asked loads is whether you feel safe while you're visiting these places, and have there been times that you've been caught up in any trouble?
I don't think of what I do as brave. I go to places where millions of people live and work each day. But there are inevitably moments of difficulty. I caught a bloke trying to pick pocket me once on a bus in Lagos. I once got a call from a newspaper I was working for saying I was about to be kidnapped in Algeria and that I should leave immediately, but I got the call on voicemail a day later and had, by chance, left already. A Romanian man ripped all my drawings in half and punched my friend, Stefan, because I drew his horse... But these moments are far outweighed by the feelings attached to all the other memories - the generosity of spirit, the intimacy, the equanimity.
Do your family worry about you when you're visiting these places?
I hope so!
You're planning a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan later this year where others can travel with you. Can you tell us more about this trip and what the trip will involve?
Yes, this is exciting. We think of Iraq as a place that is riddled with danger. In fact, in the right places with the right people, you can visit, move freely, sit and draw. There’s something wonderful about the totally nonthreatening nature of drawing that I hope appeals to people. It's being organised by the safe pair of hands, Ishkar, which buys artisan goods from places like Syria and Iraq and sells them in the UK.
Who has been the most inspiring person you've met on your travels and what made them stand out?
The ordinary people I have met along the way. The more mundane the better.
I remember them because they treated me as an equal. They never felt sorry for themselves, never demanded sympathy or asked for the world, they laughed, they cried, and made me feel like I could do both without judgement. They influenced the drawings and reasons for starting a charity,
You have also set up the charity with three friends called Hands Up Foundation - why did you set up this charity and what's your mission?
We had all spent time in Syria in different places and, after the war started, we found that people wanted to do something but were uncertain of how or with who. Hands Up started collecting cash around kitchen dinner tables and then grew and grew. We have raised over £4 million and now support medical staff and teachers in and around Syria. Ordinary Syrians that need a helping hand, its not designed to make you feel guilty, its practical support for a short time.
If anyone of your readers would like to come to our next event, I will be auctioning a map of the middle east for charity. Tickets are available here:
The work you're doing is fascinating as much as it is inspiring - what do you think has been your greatest achievement so far?
I'm proud to be part of the charity and I think working for yourself is often completely overlooked as a achievement - it is really hard to do it everyday.
Thanks so much for chatting with me George!
You can find out more about George Butler’s work at:
You can also find out more about the great work his charity, Hands Up Foundation, are doing at:
To find out more about the week-long trip to Iraqi Kurdistan with George Butler visit: