German illustrator Olivier Kugler’s latest book Escaping Wars and Waves is an immersive exploration of the immigrant experience. It’s further proof of just how potent graphic journalism can be. Working with Medecins Sans Frontieres, Kugler spent more than three years gathering the stories of Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Greek island of Kos and the “Jungle” in Calais. He then transforms their stories into words and pictures.

Kugler’s style is visually dense yet carries an emotional punch. It allows him to get inside people’s stories in a fresh and compelling way. Here, he talks to Graphic Content about his approach to journalism and its challenges and rewards.

When did you first hit on the idea of using illustration as a way of making journalism? Where you aware of the likes of Joe Sacco or did you come to the idea yourself?

I was doing my masters in illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York when I first came upon the work of Joe Sacco. It must have been in 2001, when my teacher Mirko Ilic showed us the latest issue of Time Magazine featuring several spreads of a comic/cartoon reportage Joe created documenting the experiences of people he met, I think, in Hebron, the West Bank. I found the combination of his drawings and journalism powerful and inspiring.

Since I moved to New York in 2000 I spent most of my time drawing intensively on location, focusing on sketching people I observed in the subway, in coffee shops, bars and tattoo parlours on the Lower East Side. I already included quotes from conversations I overheard when I was drawing people before I was introduced to Joe Sacco’s work.

My first proper series of drawings including text happened when I was drawing Alberto, a homeless man who lived in a parking lot in Spanish Harlem. I originally just wanted to draw Alberto, but while he was sitting for me (I had to pay him a modelling fee of $10) he started talking about his life.

He was from Puerto Rico and he came to New York to work as a chef. he became a drug addict, lost his job, then his flat and started to live in an abandoned car, a wreck, on the parking lot in Spanish Harlem where I met him.

I found what he told me interesting and wrote quotes from what he mentioned into the portrait drawing I was doing of him. In the evening I showed this drawing to my tutor and class mates. They reacted very positively to the work and I wanted to find out more about Alberto, so I returned to the parking lot to create more drawings of the homeless man and his environment.

During my time in New York I created similar visual essays about an old Italian migrant barber in Spanish Harlem, a tattoo artist in the East Village and scenes I observed in a junk yard in the Bronx.

I showed these pieces to art directors at the Guardian and started to get commissions. At the beginning these were mainly portraits of writers for covers of the Review section and illustrations for David Aaronovitch’s column. Later on, commissioners at the paper assigned me to do more journalistic work for the G2 supplement, where I was asked to go and meet people in order to interview and draw them. At the beginning these were only half or full pages, but this work later led to a regular double page spread (Kugler’s People) also in G2, which I worked on until the financial crisis hit.

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What are the challenges and rewards of this particular approach?

Rewards: This approach allows me - it encourages me - to go out into the world, to visit places and to meet people I otherwise probably wouldn’t have been able to experience and to encounter. I have always loved travelling, but since I have started to document, to portray, people I meet on journeys, these trips have become more purposeful and horizon-widening.

Over the years I had the chance to meet and to draw interesting characters like an inmate of Kingston Prison who has to serve a life sentence, a shrimp fisherman in Florida, a prostitute in Stuttgart, a retired halal butcher in Bradford, a taxidermist in the Faroe Islands, a trucker in Iran, a former mafioso in Italy, men working with elephants in the logging industry in Laos, protesters on Cairo’s Tahrir Square…

Challenges: For my last project I have been working on drawings with texts documenting the circumstances of Syrian refugees I have met on location, for example, in Domiz, a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan or on the Greek holiday island of Kos. I found it hard listening to the sad and tragic accounts of the people I interviewed.

Later on, back in London, when I was working on the drawings portraying the people I met I heard on news programmes about developments in the Syrian war. I recognised the names of towns and neighbourhoods people I met came from and talked about.

When I heard that these places were bombed and under siege like, for example, the town of Douma in the Ghouta region, it touched me more because I spent time with people who used to life there, who told me about the lives they lived in these places, who/what they lost and left behind.

When in the news the numbers of people in Syria who were getting maimed, imprisoned, tortured or killed, were mentioned, I thought: 'These are family, friends or neighbours of the people I encountered.'

 So, on an emotional level this was quite challenging and a new experience for me which taught me to complain less about the problems I’ve got to face in my day-to-day life.

Talking about moaning and complaining ...  A main challenge is the financial aspect. My working process is not very fast.Though I consider myself mainly as an illustrator, as a draughtsman, I have to do, as well the work of a journalist, a photographer, a graphic designer, an editor and the type setter. I don’t mind doing the work, I love the combination and the contrast of going out into the world and the long hours of working on my own in the studio!

The problem is that the hard work isn’t getting rewarded financially. I was struggling over the last years and I was only able to continue working on Escaping Wars and Waves because I finally received a grant from the Arts Council England (it took me two attempts, six months of preparing the applications, to receive a £11,250 grant). Without the ACE’s support I wouldn’t have been able to afford the time to create the book which started as a commission from Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders and was published in Harper’s Magazine (USA), Le Monde Diplomatic (Germany), Internazionale (Italy).

What is the process you go through? How long does it take to transform your interviews into drawings? (And do you worry about the time it takes?)

On location I spend a long time walking around looking for people I would like to draw. I approach them and tell them who I am, who I work for and what is going to happen with the finished work. Once I’ve got their OK I take reference photos of them and their environment with my small digital camera. I also conduct interviews which I record with an audio recorder.

I then load all the photos on my laptop, go through the pictures and start to scribble small sketches for the compositions of the scenes I want to depict. Then, I send the sketches to my client. Once they are approved and I am back in my studio I start with the pencil line drawings on A2 paper using the photos on my computer screen as a reference. Then, I scan the drawing and place it in my layout program where I colour it digitally. The next step is to listen to the recording and to transcribe the interview which I then edit and send to the client. Once they have proof-read the transcript I hand-write the text, scan it and place it into the illustration. It takes me about a week, often a bit longer, to create a finished page.

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And, yes, it does worry me a lot that it takes such a long time. For future book projects I want to find a way of working faster by combining these large detailed and extremely time-consuming illustrations with quicker sketches and with possibly photographs. This process should give me more time to invest into the narrative aspect of my work and to hopefully working in a financially more sustainable fashion.

Can I ask you about visual density? One of the fascinating things about your work is the way you embed so many different levels of visual information on a page? I’m wondering how you came to that and what it allows you to do?

This wasn’t a conscious development. I think this comes from working on my drawings for Kugler’s People in the Guardian’s G2 supplement. I was asked to create double page drawings with texts portraying people I met.

I always returned with a lot of image and text material that I felt the urge to use. I felt that two pages are just not enough space, so, as a necessity, I crammed as many drawings and text information into the layout as I thought I could possibly get away with.

It was similar with the Escaping Wars and Waves project as many of the drawings were originally published in Harper’s Magazine in the USA. Over the years they published three portfolios from this project: one with three pages, one with six and the last with 10 pages of drawings. Again, because there was a limited number of pages I packed a lot of details into the pages.

So, the visual density comes partly from the space constraints that come with the territory of editorial work and partly also with my love for including a lot of details onto the pages. When I am on location and I take my reference snaps I make sure to have shots of all the details I see in the interviewee’s environment. I guess this approach allows me to create a rich and detailed picture of the people I meet and of the environment I found them in.

In the future I want to continue working on books. After finishing work on Escaping Wars and Waves I noticed that it would have done the book good if there were more quiet pages, with less details and less, or possibly, no text in order to give the reader’s eye a bit of a break! Guess I am learning by doing and this is something I want to explore when I am working on the next project.

I know this work began as a commission, but what was it about the story of Syrian refugees that interested in the first place?

My parents were travelling in Syria just a couple of months before the conflict started. When they returned, my father and mother told me how they enjoyed travelling through the country and the remarkably hospitable and generous Syrian people they encountered. I thought that I would really like to go there as well. In fact, several years ago an artist friend of mine and I considered the idea of going on a road trip from London to Damascus. We wanted to create work documenting our journey and the people we met on the road to Damascus. I regret that we never did that.

In the late autumn of 2013 Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Geneva asked me if I’d be interested to work on drawings documenting one of MSF’s many projects in one of the world’s conflict zones. The work was supposed to be exhibited at the Fumetto Comix Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, and to be published in the German edition of Le Monde Diplomatique. My first thought was to go to the Congo as I have read a lot about the place and would love to go there one day. But then I looked at the map on the MSF website that shows where else MSF was operating back then and I saw that there is a refugee camp in Domiz, Iraqi Kurdistan, not far from the Syrian and Turkish borders.

Back then the conflict in Syria had been already going on for about two and a half years. I decided that I would like to learn more about the situation of the Syrian refugees. So, I asked MSF if they could send me to Domiz. They were OK with it and to my surprise they asked me to focus on the situation of the refugees and their circumstances and not, as I feared a bit at the beginning, that they would like me to create drawings advertising the good work the NGO is doing in the field.

So, I spent the first two weeks of December 2013 walking through the camp, photographing and interviewing (with the help of a translator) some of the camp’s residents.

I was also interested in the subject matter of the refugees because my father was a refugee. He was born in Südmähren, now in the south east of the Czech Republic near the border with Austria and Slovakia. He was three years old when the family had to flee at the end of the Second World War.

There are so many heart-breaking stories in these pages. Is there one that really hit home?

There are two people who I can especially identify with. The first one is Habib who was earning money by repairing TV sets in a work shop he built himself in Domiz refugee camp. He told me that when he was a child he loved drawing, that he was the best draughtsman in his class. When his school took part in an international drawing competition organised by the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, his entry was chosen by the jury in Italy to be exhibited at the fair. He was invited by the organisers, they would have paid for his flight and accommodation, to attend the festival. But he wasn’t allowed to travel because he is from the Kurdish minority and like many fellow Kurds wasn’t issued with a passport.

Indeed, his teacher smacked him in the face when Habib told him that he would like to go to Bologna. After this experience Habib told himself to never ever draw again. I can remember that when I was a child at school we were also invited to create drawings and to submit them to the Bologna kids drawing competition. I am pretty sure that I took part in it as well and that my work wasn’t chosen to be represented at the fair.

I can also relate very well to Omar, the medical student from the city of Douma. I spent several days with him on the island of Kos where he was waiting for permission from the Greek authorities to leave the island and to continue his journey to Northern Europe, to Germany.

Omar speaks English very well and he patiently told me about his circumstances and helped me with interviewing fellow Syrians who didn’t speak English. When I told him about my many failed attempts of trying to interview women in Domiz refugee camp - for example, I wanted to talk with the ladies running two wedding dress rental shops and beauty parlours, but because of, I think mainly, cultural reasons they didn’t want to, or if they wanted they weren’t allowed to by their father’s, brother’s or husbands.

So, Omar was very understanding. He explained to Meran that it was important for me to portray more women, to give them a voice as well, to document the refugee’s experience from their perspective. Omar is in Germany now. He is continuing his medical studies and is learning German. When we exchange emails he already writes in fluent German. He is doing well. He has joined a trade union and Die Linke, Germany’s left-wing political party. He is also helping other refugees to gain a foothold in Germany.

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What has your research taught you about the issue of refugees? It’s such a huge political issue at the moment, what do you think politicians and the general public need to know?

I think it is important to know that one needs to discuss/approach the subject matter of refugees in a rational and objective matter.

It is important for politicians and the public, no matter on what side they stand on, to know as much as possible about the situation of the refugees. Why are they fleeing? What culture will the refugees bring with them? What are their values? What do we have in common? Where could problems arise? How do we react if these problems arise? How can we help in the most efficient way? If we let them into our country how much support can we realistically offer them? What will they expect from us and what do we expect from them in return for us granting them refuge?

I think it is crucial that there is a transparent and honest debate about this issue. It is necessary that the advantages of having refugees come to one’s country are getting highlighted as well as the problems. And one needs to be prepared to tackle these problems.

I guess my work on Escaping Wars and Waves has taught me a lot about the circumstances the Syrians who I met had to face in their home country before and during the conflict. And, of course, about their journeys from there to Europe. What I don’t know so much about is how they are managing to assimilate into their host nations? This will be a complex but hopefully rewarding challenge for the refugees and their host nations.

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Do you see greater scope for graphic journalism in the future and are you working on anything at the moment?

Difficult to say. On the one side I do see greater scope for graphic journalism in general. There seems to be a growing interest in this kind of work out there. In the UK mainly from other illustrators, graphic designers, from readers with an affinity for graphic novels and some journalists. I receive many emails from illustration students who want to know more about my approach.

But for this medium to develop and to flourish it needs mainstream outlets who are willing to publish and, very important, to pay for this kind of work. I am not aware of any magazines or newspapers in the UK who are currently supporting this kind of work.

Besides the Arts Council grant another reason that enabled me financially to work on Escaping Wars and Waves was the publication of excerpts in Harper’s Magazine in the USA. The magazine has a long tradition in publishing illustrated journalism and pays OK fees. Excerpts from the work were also published in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and France.

There was hardly any interest in the project from UK magazines/newspapers. PORT Magazine published some of the Domiz drawings. The Guardian published one page in G2 after the work was awarded with the World Illustration Award 2015, but I hardly got paid for it.

If you want to take a look across the Channel, in France it is a totally different scene. The country has an extremely rich culture of graphic and comic journalism. Not only do mainstream magazines and newspaper publish this kind of work on a regular basis, there are also two newer and very interesting magazines, printed quarterly, which focus on publishing illustrated journalism: XXI and La Revue Déssinée. 

These magazines are available in more or less every good book shop and news agent in France and pay their contributors a fair fee. I wish there would be something similar in the UK and the USA!

The magazine XXI has published two 30-page journals of mine before. One of them, a reportage about a French vet looking after the health of working elephants in the jungle and highlands of Laos, has also been published as a book in Germany, as well and the other one, about an Iranian trucker I joined on a three day journey from Tehran to the Persian gulf. Tea in Iran became the overall winner at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s V&A Illustration Award 2011.

I am about to start working on a new 30-page reportage for XXI magazine after the summer holidays. I am not allowed to really talk about this yet but I can say that over the last 16 years when I moved to England I spent most of my time working on projects portraying people I have met on journeys to other countries. For the next I want to take a close look on people’s lives in the UK. This project will have a very strong Scottish aspect and I would like to introduce it to you when I am at a more advanced stage with it.

Escaping Wars and Waves, by Olivier Kugler, is published by Myriad Editions, priced £19.99. For more information visit