“Through cartoons, you can visualise subjects that are otherwise difficult to cover”

Ever since he was a child, Belgian cartoonist Pieter Fannes had a special fondness for drawing. Although he obtained a master’s degree in History at the University of Leuven, he started a career as a cartoonist. He is currently working as a freelance illustrator and is at the same time writing a doctorate about creativity in education. Pieter Fannes has participated in the European Investigative Journalism Conference & Dataharvest twice, and will be practising visual reporting at the conference this May.

Pieter Fannes (© Cindy Monbaillieu)

 Do you think investigative journalism and cartoons go hand in hand?

I think it’s very useful to support things visually. You do have to distinguish between cartoons and illustrations. Cartoons are succinct and offer an alternative view on hard news, preferably with a humorous approach. An illustration however, is more personal and gives another dimension to a text that already exists. In that way, you can visualise certain topics and you can link certain things that aren’t visible in a picture.

In graphic journalism, reporters often work with sensitive groups. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Graphic journalism lowers the resistance of the interviewees. One such examples is Joe Sacco, who among others depicted war crimes in Bosnia. Those people are often not thrilled to be interviewed, but with pen and paper at the ready, they are less reluctant. The best part of working that way, is that by definition it goes slow. Cultivating that patience is a prerequisite for a comic journalist.

As an illustrator, there is always some kind of delay. You write and design things, but not at the same speed as a photographer. That creates a different atmosphere. Although illustrations might take up more time, I think they bring added value. In my opinion, the press should work more with drawings.

 How did you become a cartoonist?

I always had a thing for drawing and if you do something often, it will become a priority. The drawing ultimately led me to illustrating. I did not have a proper education as an illustrator, but I knew that I wanted to tell stories with my designs. Those two things were a deliberate choice. But the specific assignments that I did just crossed my path.

What does a regular week of work look like for you?

I am usually working on my doctorate about creativity in education for about two days a week. The second part of the week is more diversified. Sometimes I start drawing or coloring sketches, and on other occasions I have to work on freelance assignments. It also takes a lot of time to organise those different tasks. Apart from that, I often draw at conferences or concerts.


Mar Cabra’s keynote presentation at EIJC & Dataharvest 2016 (© Pieter Fannes)

What do you think of the European Investigative Journalism Conference & Dataharvest?

I have already attended a number of conferences, but I think this is one of the best and most challenging ones. The level is high and the speakers really have something to say. Most of them are full of enthusiasm about their topic. You get the feeling that they are on a mission, which keeps it interesting at all times. At EIJC & Dataharvest, a lot of research that you don’t always see in the newspapers is presented in a visual manner.

In what way can the presentation of data in investigative journalism be improved?

The visual aspect has to be taken into consideration from the start. That is something that rarely happens: the article is usually already written the moment an illustrator is addressed. The budgets are limited and the timing to think things through thoroughly is not always right. However, it would be a good thing to involve an illustrator right from the start. Especially in a complex story it would pay off to think visually from the beginning.

Some stories are so complicated that they do not even catch the headlines anymore. This could be improved by adding more visual material. Also, projects that are socially relevant, for example inequality, are not visualised enough. Those statistics are often shocking, but do not have a lasting impression if they are only put forward as numbers. If reporters used more metaphors and visualisation, they would provoke a different reaction. Us humans are not made to understand big figures, which emphasises the importance of the visual aspect.


Stephen Grey and Roman Anin at EIJC & Dataharvest 2015 © Pieter Fannes

What does visual reporting mean?

Visual reporting is a way of displaying what has been said in a meeting or conversation, preferably with a minimum of text and a maximum of visual links. There are various ways to do this, but in the best-case scenario it feels like you are being guided through the story via a certain route. The best pieces are those that resemble a comic book, so that you can see what the conference was about in one quick glance.

What do you think about investigative journalism in general?

The previous conferences made me realise the importance of investigative journalism. Things that are normally being kept secret and stay under the radar get exposed with research journalism. Knowledge, power and money is often concentrated among a number of people who are becoming increasingly powerful because of that. Sooner or later, you will reach a point where  democracy is no longer possible.

It is therefore important that there are people who are working to go public with delicate matters. Decent investigative journalism tries to fix the power relations. Of course, this will only solve part of the problem, but at least it gives a clear signal to the rulers. They have to be aware of the fact that what they are doing will be looked at publicly.

© Cindy Monbaillieu

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