ILLUSTRATION, IRRESPONSIBILITY, AND RACE
Representing visual difference is a tricky thing in the illustration business.
It would be nice to get to a place in our society when we can represent the diversity of the people on our planet simply as they are without people feeling as though you’re making a comment specifically on who is being represented. The default is inevitably middle-class white men; deviating from that norm, in the public eye, often means that you must be saying something pertaining to that non-normative person you’re representing. For instance, if you depict a person with a disability in your illustration, the illustration must be making some sort of comment on disabilities or folks who live with them. I’m of two minds about this issue – I wish that our society was at a point where a disabled person in an illustration could just be interpreted as reflecting the diversity of humankind rather than a comment on disabilities. However, we’re not.
The illustration industry reflects that. What’s in an illustration must be there for a reason. Good illustrators are in a constant state of paring away the excess – they start with a good idea and an image or two in their heads and work constantly to distill that idea and its visual representation to its most simple and clear form. All the information that viewers need, they should get from deciphering the illustration. If it’s not clearly communicated visually, your viewers won’t get it.
Enter: the illustration/cartoon below. This was published in the Toronto Star on July 17th, 2012 – just after a recent surge in gun violence in the city, but in particular after a large shooting in Scarborough. The illustration is by Michael de Adder.
I have a lot of concerns about this piece, both on an ‘is it a good (effective, concise, communicative) illustration’ level but also on a social responsibility/representation level as well. As illustrators it’s vital that we’re mindful of who we are representing, why we’re representing them, and how we’re representing them. A lot of folks are reading this work as – to put it kindly – irresponsible, and to put it not-so-kindly, racist (racially irresponsible and/or ignorant). I’m inclined to agree on both counts, and I’d like to tell you why (especially since ‘racist’ is a loaded term, and not everyone may read this work in that way).
Let’s pick this apart. What are some signifiers that exist within this cartoon? Well, there’s the representation of class via middle-class clothing (this child looks rather put-together and not scruffy in my opinion), and there’s the representation of race via the child’s skin colour and facial features (she is depicted as having some stereotypically black facial characteristics). We also have an image of someone who is young. That’s about all we have to work with here – those are the only three things being represented. Whatever else you’re seeing (“this could be about all children!”) literally isn’t there. There is no signifier of universality.
The lead-in: “Things to expect before they are two:” also begs some questions. Who are “they” and what exactly can they “expect”? Once we read the cartoon we understand that “they” can expect a bullet wound to the head. But again, who is this “they?” Children? Middle-class people? Black people? Notably the only category which has (misguided associations in popular culture) with gang violence is the latter – and so the illustration seems to suggest that black kids (regardless of their social stature or any other characteristic) can expect to sustain a gunshot wound, as though it is predetermined by skin colour. The illustration paints gun violence (and most gun violence is gang violence) as literally a black problem (again, since no one else is represented here).
Now, I’m no expert on policing, or gangs, or gun violence – but one thing I do know is that a person’s skin colour doesn’t determine whether or not they’re in a gang or engaged in gun violence. Gun and gang violence effects people of all colours and all racial backgrounds (and living in Toronto, where there’s been a bit of gang-related gun violence in the news lately, there are many gangs in the city which are not black) – but one common denominator seems to be a complex combination of factors, including poverty and social circumstance. What is the real issue here? I’m pretty sure it’s concentrated in a variety of social factors, and there are different ways to signify those rather than skin colour. In illustration, representation needs to be specific, otherwise it seems as though you are making a grandiose statement about All Black People – which is why this illustration can be easily read as/construed as racist and/or racially insensitive.
If the illustrator wanted to represent the poverty of the area(s) in which shootings occurred, then he should have taken the care to represent lack of financial privilege as a signifier in this piece, or made some sort of visual representation of the poverty of the neighbourhood(s) in which the violence occurred. But he didn’t, so as viewers all we can really take away from this is that all black kids can expect to be shot, because all gun violence is black. (Newsflash: it isn’t.) The differentiating factor about this shooting should, in a more thoughtful illustration, not have been represented as being about skin colour. Furthermore, many comments on the cartoon (on Facebook) have pointed out the incredible racial diversity of the area in which the shooting occurred. It’s not a predominantly black neighbourhood – so why was a black child depicted? We need to be careful to not reinforce systemic racism with our illustrations, and to carefully consider our responsibility as image makers to both our audience and to our ethical code(s) as thoughtful human beings.
It’s also important to consider the implications of representation. Sure, some individuals involved in the recent Scarborough shooting happened to be black. But is that really significant? If as an illustrator you decide that it is, it’s important to be wary of racial profiling and reinforcing negative stereotypes about different types of people.
I also want to make it clear that this is not an attempt to demonize Mr. de Adder. That is not my motivation for writing this commentary. But, as illustrators, as visual people, and as consumers of visual media, I do believe it is important to have these conversations, learn from one another, and work to improve our visual literacy, particularly when representation of minority groups (who often suffer marginalization, misrepresentation, and misunderstanding) is concerned.