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Smithsonian takes a shine to Post editor Richard Johnson’s raw images of life in war zones | News | National Post

Smithsonian takes a shine to Post editor Richard Johnson’s raw images of life in war zones

Dec 16, 2011 – 9:17 AM ET | Last Updated: Dec 16, 2011 7:31 PM ET

Richard Johnson/National Post

Richard Johnson/National Post

By Juanita Bawagan, National Post

With relatively little pomp or circumstance, two era-defining conflicts came to an ostensible close Thursday. In Baghdad, U.S. forces formally ended their nine-year war in Iraq with a low-key flag ceremony, while across the globe, the last Canadian soldiers to leave Kandahar arrived in Ottawa.

Brigadier-General Charles Lamarre, Commander of the Mission Transition Task Force in Afghanistan, and members of his team arrived at the Ottawa International Airport Thursday afternoon, signifying “the successful close out of military operations in southern Afghanistan,” according to Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

Yet there are thousands of stories from those conflicts still to be told, something news illustrator Richard Johnson hopes to help change. Johnson, the Graphics Editor for the National Post, has spent almost the past decade ensuring such tales reach war-weary readers. After tours in Iraq (2003), Afghanistan (2007) and another six weeks in Kandahar this past summer, Johnson has amassed a wealth of hand-drawn, subtle illustrations detailing the lives of both civilians and soldiers.

This past week, Johnson donated 20 of these pieces to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, in the hope his artwork can continue to tell these stories for generations to come.

The 45-year-old says his initial desire to head out into the field was born more out of frustration than anything else. “I find it at times personally very frustrating how little attention is paid to certain aspects of stories and for me the artwork is a way of making people pay attention to something they would normally not read,” he says.

With the long operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Johnson says readers were growing numb to the “sanitized” images they saw of burnt-out cars. “Nobody wants to be traumatized by seeing too many dead bodies,” he says.

Instead, Johnson’s images capture the everyday reality of life on the ground through a more “raw,” artistic approach, according to Jennifer Locke Jones, chair and curator of the Smithsonian’s division of armed forces. “He never goes back to it, or fill it in, and do the ‘prettying up’ that other artists do,” Jones says. Instead, she says, Johnson draws in the field, sparking an “immediacy and freshness” that traditional war illustrations lack.

When the Smithsonian learned Johnson would be returning to Afghanistan this year, Jones asked him if the museum could be the first to look at his work when he came back home. After viewing his latest illustrations, the Smithsonian ended up choosing 20 pieces, which represent not only the lives of individual soldiers but their day-to-day interactions with the local civilians. While the Smithsonian does not currently have an exhibition date set for Johnson’s work, Jones says she would like to co-ordinate something as the United States makes its way out of Iraq.

For his part, Johnson, who studied at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, Scotland, didn’t start out his career aiming to cover war zones. Working at the Detroit Free Press in 2003, Johnson proposed the paper fly out a war artist to Iraq.

“The war in Iraq was perhaps the most organized publicity war that I think that there has ever been,” he says. “Every news organization knew it was coming and knew they were in competition with every news organization, so they knew they had to find a way to make their work stand out.”

A newly hired editor, Joe Galloway, had fought in Vietnam and got behind Johnson’s proposal. Galloway had worked alongside combat artist Howard Brodie, one of Johnson’s idols, and believed illustrations were the greatest documentation of the war. One month later, in June 2003, Johnson was on the border of Iraq with 150,000 British, French and Australian soldiers. He lived with the troops day in and day out, attending patrols and being exposed to the same risks.

When Johnson returned to Afghanistan earlier this year for the Post, he says his experience was vastly different, as the mandate of Canadian Forces had shifted from combat to project-type work, including the building of schools and roads. This shift comes across clearly in many of the illustrations donated to the Smithsonian. One such image depicts a scene from the village of Salavat during an early morning patrol. Children are seen everywhere – working, collecting grass, getting water or going to school.

While Johnson says photographs can be striking, the process of illustration allows him to build a human connection with readers. “I think that stroke by stroke, line by line, it’s that kind of intensity of connection that comes across in the artwork.”

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Smithsonian takes a shine to Post editor Richard Johnson’s raw images of life in war zones | News | National Post