Molly Crabapple's Journalism is Artistic and Disturbing

From the decadently rich bankers on Wall Street to the exploited workers of Abu Dhabi, Molly Crabapple has drawn them all

Molly Crabapple will introduce Drawing Blood in Delhi on Wed, January 28,
at the Piano Man Jazz Club in Safdarjung Enclave,
Co-presented by theWire.in

File picture of the artist-journalist Molly Crabapple. Flickr cc

File picture of the artist-journalist Molly Crabapple. Flickr cc

Molly Crabapple straddles the worlds of political journalism and art. She is an illustrator and writer who combines reporting and non-fiction writing, with sharp, stylized sketches visually reminiscent of Ralph Steadman, to tell hard political stories. She has used her approach of  illustrative-journalism, to tell stories from Occupy Wall Street, Guantanamo Bay, the plight of construction labour in Abu Dhabi, Syria and Gaza. She is out with her first book, an autobiography, called Drawing Blood. She spoke to The Wire about her work, on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literary Festival.

What interests you as a journalist?

I am always interested in smart people who are fighting, against oppression or some sort of odds. Like, I did a story recently on these prisoners in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania. They were whistleblowers on the prison authorities (on beatings and abuse by the guards), wrongly charged etc. and came to be known as the Dallas 6. One man was in solitary confinement for 14 years , no window, nothing. It looks like a dungeon out of Man in the Iron Mask.

What drew me wasn’t just that they had suffered, but that they were so smart. Very politically conscious, very eloquent, they had a political rationale to what they are doing. This one particular prisoner, he is so smart that despite being incarcerated since he was 15, he got himself certified as a paralegal, and he sued the prison for violating his rights. He won 180,000 dollars. This is infinitesimally rare. It is this mix I think that excites me and that makes me want to write about them.

You seem to often perch yourself in interesting places and situations that lets you observationally tap into a big issue of the day. You did this in 2007, on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis, by documenting this exclusive night club, whose clienetele primarily consisted of Wall Street fat cats. Tell us a bit about that.

I worked as a house artist for this nightclub called The Box. It was frequented by rich bankers. It was the kind of place were you’d spend $20,000 on champagne just to prove the point that money was no object. The club was like a cabaret scene, a kind of variety show. I was obsessed with it because it reminded me of Weimar Berlin. 

My favorite act from there  was this artist who goes on stage dressed as a cartoonish prostitute and she is with a fellow actor dressed as an audience member – a banker. So then she ties him to the bed and she mimes like she is having sex with him. She gets off, she smokes a cigarette. She then takes a big knife and she goes back to the bed and stabs him to death and cuts off his head with special effects. So now he is dead. She lights another cigarette and she takes off her wig and clothes and she is a trans.  And then she takes his suit that she has neatly hung up and she puts it on. And so she is dressed as him now, takes his briefcase and flicks her cigarette onto the bed which goes up in flames.

The audience I don’t think got it, but the performers certainly did. The artists were very aware of who they were performing for. Thats why there was anger to their performances because they hated them.  I mean this was the nightclub where I drew the audience as pigs. That was my symbol for them. They were pigs snorting cocaine.

Your work – like the one on Guantanamo Bay, Gaza, Iraq and Raqqa – often deals with subjects that are usually the preserve of specialists and experts, like a seasoned foreign affairs or defence correspondents. What do you bring to the reporting as a non-specialist?

Sometimes I think not being a specialist can help you ask questions that are more relevant to your readers because its like the fish not seeing the water thing. Like for instance, I remember, with regards to Guantanamo, on the first day of the Khaled Sheikh Mohammad trial hearings, the lead prosecutor had a press conference. So at the press conference, this brilliant journalist who’s spent 14 years covering this, and she asks ‘how many people are chargeable?’ – and he’s like latest count 20.  

So I am like, I am sorry I am asking a stupid question, but what do you mean only 20 people are chargeable? He’s like it means we only have 20 people who we even think are able to be charged with crimes if we do indeed choose to charge them. Out of the 152 prisoners then in Guantanamo. Only about 8 have been convicted out of a total of 800 prisoners who’ve passed through Guantanamo. And so he goes on to give me bureaucratic definitions and he speaks in super long sentences that are really dry and I am thinking that maybe this is not publicly known. I didn’t know it and I think myself pretty educated. Because I wasn’t an expert, I was able to ask those sorts of questions that are better for readers who also aren’t experts.

What stayed with you from your experience of reporting from Gitmo ?

Guantanamo Bay was the most disturbing place I have been to because it was ours – in that it wasn’t like seeing someone else’s shit but like seeing your own society’s evil. Its all our own. Its so unforgivable, and I remember thinking about the guy I was profiling, who was being force fed at the time. And I remember thinking that America is never going to be redeemed from this. We will never be forgiven for Guantanamo in a cosmic sense. 

A sketch of Guantanamo Bay

An illustration of life in Guantanamo Bay by Molly Crabapple

How do you find your stories?

For instance the story about construction laborers in Abu Dhabi – there was this protest by artists who were being asked to show at the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi and they (which included Bangladeshi and Lebanese artists) were refusing it because of the living and working conditions of the construction workers. They had this one amazing protest action where they had gotten quotes from construction workers in Abu Dhabi about how shit things were for them, and then they started screaming those quotes at the Guggenheim in America as a form of protest. And I was interested in that because I think that we artists are just corrupt. Because, we work for kings. We fucking adorn Versailles. Because what is being built in Abu Dhabi is like the modern day Versailles. And artists will be showing very often liberal and edgy work, in a space that is being built by effectively indentured laborers in hideous conditions. So this corrupt dual nature of art is what first got me interested.

That was my first angle and then when I went there I met these amazing people, like this Irish journalist who is probably now banned from the country. He was using the cover of a fluffy entertainment guy to do some hard reporting on the sly. And then meeting this amazing young man, a blue collar worker from Pakistan who has been the translator for all the major publications – New York Times, Guardian, etc. The only reason I think he didn’t get caught is that the institutional racism against blue collar Pakistani guys is such there that they could not have imagined that this kid was working with the New York Times. That he even knew enough English to do that.

How do you keep your work honest ?

The thing that I can do that a photo-journalist can’t is that I can make formal and stylistic decisions. For instance, pictures that I did in Raqqa are yellow and we all know that Raqqa is not yellow. So my freedom is very often in informal things. But I would never take a figure out of a picture or add a figure that wasn’t there. If there was a building that was bombed, I wouldn’t make it look more bombed or less bombed. If I enhance the drama I would enhance it through colour choices or through light and shadow choices but through the emotional quotient of the illustration. I also take a lot of reference pictures – even as a kind of fact checking to see if I am bullshitting or not. And then I look at the pictures and search for the essence of the picture. And then how am I going to distill that – should I make the sky stark white as opposed to blue, should I use warm colours. The colours I use are often unrealistic like soldiers obviously do not have green skin.

How do you think your work can stand out in the media clutter today?

I think what art has is that people know art takes a long time and that it is done by hand and not a machine. This quality of it makes people pay attention.

What do you think of Donald Trump?

There was this book that was written in the early 1940’s called It can happen here. In the book, fascism comes to America through this folksy, plainspeaking, good ‘ol Presidential candidate called Buzz, who speaks for the silent majority. You look at what is happening now and its not very different. Trump is able to be so vocally racist in public, it shifts the acceptable, so that it seems reasonable to say life-ruining racist shit but in different words.

Molly Crabapple will introduce Drawing Blood in Delhi on Wed, January 28,
at the Piano Man Jazz Club in Safdarjung Enclave,
Co-presented by theWire.in