On the publication of Fichez-nous la paix ! (Leave us in peace!) in the Cartooning for Peace collection, published by Gallimard and in partnership with Amnesty International, Kak and Vladimir Kazanevsky explain the importance of their profession: press cartoonists. Joint interview by Nicolas Foucher of Amnesty International.
The president of Cartooning for Peace, Kak is also a member of the editorial team at L’Opinion daily newspaper. He illustrates their front-page story every day. Vladimir Kazanevsky is a leading Ukrainian cartoonist who has won over 500 prizes in international cartoon competitions in over fifty countries. Following the outbreak of war in Ukraine on 24 February 2022, he went into exile in Slovakia.
In partnership with Amnesty International
Amnesty International – Do press cartoons have a special role to play in processing information?
Kak – If I could cite just one, it would be to encourage people to take a critical look at the news, particularly in terms of ridiculing the powerful. This may be achieved through humour, irony, caricature, seriousness, emotion, etc. Press cartoons resemble a balancing act: they say nothing untrue, while at the same time exaggerating a situation in order to awaken this critical perspective.
Vladimir Kazanevsky – Ukraine does not really have a tradition of political press cartoons. Press cartoons spread propaganda against “American imperialism” during the Soviet era. There was no critical thinking, never mind dissenting voices, as could be the case in the West. Therefore, the history of political cartoons in Ukraine is a very recent one.
Cartooning for Peace is an international association founded by Plantu in 2006 with the aim of fostering dialogue on divisive issues. Its three main aims are to promote and interpret press cartoons, educate the public so as to raise awareness about human rights and, through advocacy initiatives and campaigns, support press cartoonists who are under threat. It brings together 281 cartoonists from 74 countries worldwide.
Find out more: https://www.cartooningforpeace.org
A. I. – How do you select the events in the Ukraine war that you wish to depict?
Kak – The news guides my choices. For a long-running news story, like the Ukraine war, at the outset we draw cartoons that seem self-evident to us. Subsequently, we focus on the news within the topic: a new act of barbarity, a tense frontline, people becoming refugees, weapons being delivered (or not), etc. Each press cartoonist addresses one issue rather than another, depending on their individual tendencies.
V. K. – I didn’t depict political issues before the war. However, when the war broke out, I was no longer able to draw humorous cartoons, it proved impossible. A day has not gone by since the war started without me “drawing the war”. However, I am feeling less of a need to echo the news from the war on a daily basis; instead, I am seeking to explain more holistically the roots of this war, in a more philosophical tone. In fact, my latest exhibition was called “Philosophy of War”.
A. I. – What do press cartoons say that articles or photography do not say?
Kak – Press cartoons boil down a subject to its very essence, with a specific slant, and in a single image. They hit home a lot quicker than an article or a report. Cartoons are a lot more forceful in their criticism than what a journalist can afford to do. In fact, press cartoons enable us to zoom in on a specific detail of an issue. Above all, they provide a different critical viewpoint. For the war in Ukraine, because of their quirky nature, press cartoons are even more incisive than what other voices, both official and unofficial (columnists, commentators, politicians, etc), will be saying. The photographer’s gaze is naturally part of the shot. However, in press cartoons, faces are deformed, and situations are a lot more symbolic: for instance, the cartoonist may depict political figures interacting, when they never actually speak to each other.
V. K. – The main component of a press cartoon is the idea that it represents and how it is represented. It is an art form that differs from writing and photography. In my case, I spend more time thinking about the idea for a cartoon than I do drawing it. Press cartoons stand on the frontier between journalism and art. This means that we explain information in the way a journalist does, but we do it as artists. And not simply as an artist who draws, but as an artist who thinks.
A. I. – Why is the critical eye of press cartoonists so different when condemning the war in Ukraine?
Kak – There is something universal and cross-cultural in expressing a purely graphic point of view in a small drawing. However, press cartoonists in Russia cannot express themselves because the independent media has been completely silenced. Cartoonists who oppose Vladimir Putin have had to flee Russia as they are in danger in their own country, because the repressive legislation on freedom of expression in Russia is becoming more severe every single day.
V. K. – Western press cartoonists have greater freedom because they criticise both the Russian and the Ukrainian sides. This is a difficult issue for me because I am no longer a free cartoonist. Pre-war, my cartoons used to criticise President Zelensky, but since the start of the war, it has been morally impossible for me to criticise him. I cannot criticise my president or my army: my conscience prevents me from doing so. I will allow myself to get critical again in the future when we win the war.
A. I. – Why is it important to have views about the war in Ukraine from all around the world?
Kak – Our cartoonists’ shared ideological corpus is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, when dozens of opinions are held up against each other, there will inevitably be diversity. Regarding the issue of the war in Ukraine, it is interesting to see what a cartoonist will remember from the week’s news, and how she or he works their slant on the news, depending on whether the person lives in Europe, Latin America, Asia or Africa. The cartoons will end up being very different, as we do not have the same cultural references. That’s when you notice all the nuances of an issue. It’s a real wealth of views.
V. K. – Apart from the importance of having a diversity of views, it is more worthwhile and necessary than ever before. You could liken it to flowers: people prefer a bouquet rather than a single flower. My fellow cartoonists’ drawings also enable me to do some soul-searching, challenge my preconceived ideas, fuel my thinking and bring me face-to-face with other perspectives on the conflict. Publishing press cartoons from all over the world forces me not to look at this war in a blinkered fashion. It is vital for me.
A. I. – Do you see yourself as a fighter on the frontline of news?
Kak – With press cartoonists sometimes facing death threats, it is definitely the case that cartoonists who continue to express their views in their countries, criticising the powerful, are taking risks. This means that these cartoonists are on the frontline: they don’t have a gun in their hands, but the pot shots that they fire can lead to reprisals such as arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, etc. The frontline of news on which we work inevitably leaves us exposed.
V. K. – Yes, of course. I have felt like a soldier fighting against the Russian regime’s propaganda since day one of the war. The regime has been using large-scale propaganda for 10 years now. Therefore, we also need to find the strength to retaliate on the battlefield of disinformation. I think that some of my cartoons manage to do so because they cause a negative reaction among supporters of Russia, specifically on social media.
A. I. – What impact do you hope to have on the war in Ukraine with your cartoons? How do you think that your work may raise people’s awareness about the war?
Kak – Press cartoons really do the rounds. For instance, they are easy to share on social media. Therefore, they can reach a lot more people than a print newspaper. Their resonance is greatly increased. Someone who does not necessarily follow the news that much can therefore form an opinion and become keen to find out more about an issue. Cartoons are also a message of support and solidarity to the Ukrainian civil population. In our own way, using drawing pencils, we try to fight alongside them by informing as many people as possible about the injustice being perpetrated against the Ukrainian people.
V. K. – Yes, absolutely. I now live in Slovakia, and I know that some of the Slovakian people are not supportive of Ukraine. I manage to convince them and get them to change their minds through my cartoons. Sometimes partially, and sometimes completely.
A. I. – Can we laugh at war?
Kak – We can laugh at anything. It is healthy to be able to laugh at anything, particularly tough things. If we cannot laugh about a subject, it is because we have not gained perspective on the situation. In fact, laughter is an excellent antidote to different forms of suffering and fear. It is one of the reasons why press cartoonists are hounded by some regimes. Press cartoons help make things more bearable. Poking fun is a relief and even helps people let off steam: it offers a sort of release.
V. K. – A press cartoon has done its job if it elicits a smile as a first reaction. I find it very interesting that cartoonists are finding a humorous way of criticising this war. The hyperbole and exaggeration in the cartoons inevitably make you smile. And it is important that those who manage to arouse these emotions make use of them to condemn the war. I can’t manage this because of my closeness to the subject. In my view, a good press cartoon should make someone laugh, think and then cry.
A. I. – Why is it important to read Fichez-nous la paix !?
Kak – Because the book contains an unbelievable diversity of views. Also because injustice and war are topics that mean something to many people around the world. The press cartoonists’ humanist solidarity towards the Ukrainian people is what really shines through in this album.
Interview by Nicolas Foucher, Amnesty International
Translated from the French by Gillian Eaton
Fichez-nous la paix ! is the fifth special edition in the Cartooning for Peace Collection published by Gallimard, in partnership with Amnesty International. The album is also being supported by France Médias Monde. It is on sale in bookshops and from Amnesty International’s online bookshop.
Interview reproduced here with the kind permission of Amnesty International. Many thanks to Nicolas Foucher, publications officer, and Audrey Sala, responsible for managing and coordinating the strategy rollout, for their good offices. Drawings reproduced with the kind permission of Gallimard: our thanks to Sophie Gallet.