Joe Sacco, the graphic journalist whose previous works include Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde and Footnotes in Gaza, seems drawn to warzones and refugee camps, areas of extreme poverty and serious political unrest. His intent, it seems, itself always political, is to offer a different view to the view we are spoonfed by the media, a view grounded in history, a view whose foundations rest upon the testimony of the people he speaks to. It is also, as he himself admits, a view refracted through his own; it’s why we see Sacco himself in the work he produces. He doesn’t want you to forget that this is what he has seen and what he thinks you should see (and what’s more, as Sacco explains in the introduction, ‘I mean to signal to the reader that journalism is a process with seams and imperfections practiced by a human being – it is not a cold science carried out behind Plexiglass by a robot’). It’s a Brechtian device but one that hopefully ensures you keep thinking as you read, questioning, debating.
Journalism is a collection of shorter pieces that have appeared over the course of the last decade in the likes of the Guardian, Time, Harper’s, the New York Times, the Boston Globe and a half a dozen other places. These range from a short and somewhat frustrating piece (frustrating because Sacco himself is frustrated by various individuals) generated by two weeks he spent in Uttar Pradesh in India (which offers us a glimpse into the lives of the Dalits, the lowest caste it seems possible to be in India, and a group of people who gaze hopelessly into a future that – one interviewee tells Sacco – will not include them) to a longer piece about the lives of mostly Chechnyan women who live in various refugee camps, making do on whatever they can provide for themselves and their families, the threat of forceful repatriation a constant worry. There is a terrific piece about his native Malta which is struggling as a result of a huge influx of illegal immigrants from Africa and strong, shorter works on the war crime trials at the Hague, his tour in the company of various marines in Iraq and three additional footnotes, if you will, to the situation in Israel.
Sacco’s undoubted strength is in rendering impossibly complex situations understandable to the common reader. The downside to this, of course, is that you also see how intractable, how far away from resolution these situations, these predicaments, are, if indeed they can be resolved at all. We see a few small bullets in an Israeli house, we see a bulldozed Palestinian house, each side equally certain that they are the worse off. We see bureaucrats blocking stories, military men determined by their ferocious certainty, young smirking boys who know their own destinies are set in gold – and we see the haunted faces of those who have lost everything, again and again and again. The difference between Journalism and, say, Footnotes in Gaza, is where Footnotes had time to breathe, Journalism is filled with cumulative strikes, short bursts that aim to get the particular horrors of a given situation across quickly – and the misery is infectious. Sacco’s great skill in rendering complexity simple has a flipside – resolution is complex, we can’t do anything but absorb and thank our lucky stars we were born where we were born. As such, Journalism is best read slowly, alongside other reads. Read some, go away, come back, read some more.
Arguably, the seams and imperfections are more on show here than in Sacco’s other work – as a result of the pressure of deadlines, as the result of him trying different things out (he says he isn’t too pleased with a sort of graphic photoshoot in Gaza). Including the different textures, the experiments, the colour work alongside the black and white work, makes for a certain unevenness but it’s a commendable unevenness all the same, unfiltered, honest, the work of a man who is looking for the line of truth in what he does, a line of truth that shifts according to the dictates of what is known at any one time. Like all of Sacco’s work, it’s worth reading, it’s worth considering, it’s worth discussing and it’s worth applauding because it seems the me the world needs more even-handed people like Sacco if any of the messes discussed within the pages of Journalism are to be resolved.
Any Cop?: Journalism is a tough read, no doubt, and I can’t decide if it’s a good first port of call if you’ve yet to dabble with Sacco or a book best left until you’ve dipped your toe in Palestine or Safe Area Goradze, but for committed Sacco fans it’s a must.