VICE editor explains how art and journalism can intersect in ‘reportage art’

“I dropped out of school and I got my training as an artist by drawing sex workers and underground performers, and by hanging out at night clubs till dawn … [M]y first real published essay ever was about my arrest,” said Molly Crabapple, contributing editor at VICE, during a Nov. 11 talk at Linsly-Chittenden Hall. The event was sponsored by the Poynter Fellow in Journalism.

The title of her talk, “Drawing Blood,” is also the title of her memoir, which will be published in December by HarperCollins. Crabapple’s memoir includes sketches of her “reportage art” in Guantanamo Bay.

Crabapple spoke about her early years, shared some insights she gained through her art and journalism, and talked about the future of journalism.

“I was a terrible student. I didn’t get into a single academic college. … It’s probably not surprising that I never worked an office job [too],” remarked Crabapple. “Instead of doing my tests, I filled the blank spaces where the answers belonged with pictures of Kurt Cobain, my imaginary boyfriend.”

Crabapple then was sent to “a school shrink” who diagnosed her with oppositional defiant disorder, which she described as the “clinical basis of being a journalist.”

The first lesson Crabapple learned “by being a bad kid, being a failure early on,” she said, was that “trouble is the best school for an artist and a journalist.”

“Being the bad kid teaches you to work from an ‘internal compulsion’ that propels you to do something you want to or need to do — you don’t do something for external validation or an external reward.”

Crabapple’s “internal compulsion” propelled her to draw. “Through it all, I drew. I was terrible for the first 20 years that I drew pictures, but I kept doing it because I was obsessed. I drew … and even if I was locked up in a room, I would draw,” she said.

She continued developing her drawing skills and eventually landed a job as a documentarian working in nightclubs. “I got a gig as a house artist for The Box — the sort of place where in 2007, bankers blew $10,000 a night on champagne and where performers were doing these angry and sometimes pornographic acts on stage,” she told the audience.

Crabapple said that working at The Box taught her “how to draw harsh, draw fast, and draw lines right even in the dark,” skills which she would later utilize when drawing prisons and refugee camps. She noted that her speed drawing ability also came in handy when, as she was passing through Israeli checkpoints, she could “draw the soldiers without them noticing.”

To date, Crabapple has reported from Guantanamo Bay, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Hebron, as well as places “from Turkish street protests, [to] migrant labor camps in Abu Dhabi, [to] the courts where they try sex workers in New York.”

Crabapple shared with her audience three major insights gained through her experience as both an artist and journalist.

First: Art, like journalism, is a “paradoxical thing,” she said. “Both fields are one part empathy and one part objectification. To do either well you need the empathy to see what’s going on in other people’s heads, and then you need the sort of sociopathic impulse to take that and take the inner things you got out of them and put them outward into a painting or article that will ultimately benefit you.”

Second, she said, journalists should their own “subjectivity” and not confuse the notion of objectivity with the notion of “seriousness.”

“In journalism, sometimes there’s a fetishization of objectivity — transcribing your facts without bias and not adding opinions,” she said.

However, Crabapple argued, achieving true objectivity is impossible. “Your bias and perspective are written into your DNA and by pretending you don’t have it … all you’re doing is pretending that your view is the correct way to view the world …

“And at its very worst the notion of objectivity gets confused with the notion of seriousness — [which] often means speaking in deliberately neutered prose,” she continued. “It means transcribing your NSA press release; it means doing an article about the murder of Eric Garner and not writing what anyone who watched the video can see — ‘a man who was choked to death by a police officer’ — but instead writing ‘Mr. Garner, who had 28 arrests, died during an incident in an arrest.’ It’s something that’s deliberately emotionless in the service of power. I think there’s nothing more fatal than that sort of seriousness.”

Third, she said, “The world is far bigger, more exciting, complicated, and vast than [you] ever thought it was.”

“Most Americans think Africa is a country, not a continent. There’s this notion that [American visitors] know what they’re going to see — poor people, sad people. They have this sort of fetishization of pain and expectation of [what they’re going to see],”

Crabapple said. “I think we can do better than that.”

She told the audience that the worst kind of story is one that only introduces “the poor, sad person” and gives “nothing else — [nothing] about that person’s internal struggles, values, complexity, or humanity.” 

“When we create our stories, we should think about the vastness of the world and how we can shed a tiny window on that,” she said.

At the conclusion of her talk, Crabapple said that in the future, the field of journalism will be filled with a multiplicity of voices. “The really big change in the future of journalism? It’s that now almost everyone has a megaphone — their smartphone.”

She continued, “People tell their own stories, and these tools are cheap and ubiquitous now, and they’ll just become cheaper and more ubiquitous. This multiplicity of voices is both glorious and confusing. It makes facts both more available and harder to verify. It makes the job of a professional journalist in some ways more important than ever. It’s a journalist’s job to make meaning of multiplicity, to fact check, to do the beat reporting that creates larger narratives, to apply specialized skills, and to give their stories the time, depth, rigor, and craft that you have to devote significant time and patience to achieve.

"But the communities they cover will speak up, in ways that are just as valid.”