Sunday, November 19, 2006

Joe Sacco says NO to objective journalism

Joe Sacco, award winning comic illustrator and writer, spoke at the Nieman Foundation conference on Friday at the Sheraton hotel in Boston. Sacco, most popularly known for award-winning “Palestine” and “Safe Area Gorazde,” went to Israel and the Palestine for 2 months before writing and illustrating his book. Inspired by Hunter S. Thompson, Michael Herr and George Orwell, Sacco is a frequent illustrator for Robert Crumb’s “American Splendor.”

Often a character in his own work, Sacco said, “It is almost organic that I would do comics about my experiences traveling, let’s say in Gaza or the West Bank." The comic artist expressed his desire to give a human angle when talking about his experiences going into Palestinians’ homes, drinking tea.

Sacco is not a fan of objective journalism. He said that when he went to the Middle East, he had prejudices as a Westerner among the Palestinians. “Women to me felt like pidgins,” he said. They were just faceless beings in headdresses until one woman talked to him in good English and asked him educated questions. That for him broke some of those prejudices.

Sacco said that he was very insecure about the journalistic part of his job. He expressed some uncertainty about what he was doing, but eventually figured it out. He shared advice with the audience when he said, "you have to find out what is important to the people you’re interviewing... if you know what’s going on around you, you’re in."

On the question of journalistic integrity Sacco admitted that some people dismiss his work as just comics, but over the years people have been more willing to see it as legitimate. He studied objective journalism at the University of Oregon, but said he didn’t think he could get the story across in that way. One thing about Sacco is that he did not pretend to function without having his own politics. He said he strives to be honest in his work.

When asked about why he only painted one side of the picture in “Palestine,” he said it was because the American media had already shown the Israeli side. “I’m not afraid to show that I empathize with the Palestinians.”

To my surprise, I learned Sacco hates the expression “graphic novel.” He said that both he and Pulitzer Prize winning comic writer Art Spiegelman hate the reference. A novel to Sacco posits fiction and he sees his work as non-fiction.

Sacco mentioned in his talk that his goal is to be honest. If that is true, why doesn't he paint both sides of the conflict? Isn't an innate part of journalism to produce fair and balanced reporting, even if one is trying to show the other side? Lastly, is it even true that the American media has only reported one side of the conflict? These are serious questions that must be asked before and after reading Sacco's work.

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