Drawing with gunpowder ink: Interview with Carlos Latuff

In the context of the PhD research “Consciousness-raising: Activism in Digital Art” (by Ana Barata, Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da UNL, Lisbon, Portugal) Carlos Latuff was interviewed concerning his political graphical work that focuses on present conflicts and issues. With the interview we intended to understand the author’s motivations to develop such works as well as assess the perception he has about the way his works affect or influence the public.
Carlos Latuff is a Brazilian activist and cartoonist who, already since 1996, has dedicated to drawing about social, political and economical issues affecting our world. With his drawings, Latuff unveils facts rarely presented by the conventional media. His work crosses borders, even those subject to censorship. It reaches the whole world travelling on the Web, and it is used in street demonstrations and protests, printed on clandestine newspapers, trade unions leaflets, or free publications, and, although rarely, sometimes also appears in the mainstream press, as the example presented in Figure 5.
Mainly known by his dedication and approach to the Palestinian cause (Figure 1, Figure 3, Figure 9, Figure 10), Latuff believes cartoons can be used as weapons, instruments to fight for a cause, to express a belief, to denounce. According to this activist, these images are also historical testimonies of a certain time, registering situations occurred in that period. Besides Palestine, Latuff’s drawings concern social and political aspects of other Middle East countries, like Iraqi and Lebanon, for example. And after the events that led to the Arab Spring in 2011, his work also focuses on Tunisia, Egypt, Yeman, or Bahrain related issues. Figure 4, Figure 5, Figure 6, Figure 7, and Figure 8 are some of the cartoons developed in this context.
When this interview was written down (in October 2012), Latuff’s account on twitter had almost the double of followers it had in February that same year: 132 316. He explained that twitter has been his most recent tool of choice to communicate with protesters and to publish his cartoons, and told us how he started to “put his drawing at the service of protesters.”

Ana B. (interviewer): You have many drawings concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and very often some of these works are used in street demonstrations in favor of Palestine. How did your interest about this particular situation start?
 C. Latuff: My dedication to the Palestinian cause started after a trip I did to the territory in 1999. After visiting Palestine, I decided to apply the same method and principle I had been using with the Zapatistas since 1997: to produce images that can be used by protesters and demonstrators and send them over the internet. In 97-98 I used to send my cartoons to the Zapatistas in Mexico by their political arm, the Frente Zapatista de Libertação Nacional (The Zapatista Front for the National Liberation). Although I already had internet connection, I used to send the drawings by fax at first. Then I understood that it would be much more effective if I put the images on the internet so that people could download them and also share and disseminate them on the internet. As that was a successful experience, after my trip to Palestine in 1999, I decided to adopt the same strategy with the Palestinian. And this is the same principle I have been using and applying in diverse causes. The Palestinian cause is my heart and soul cause, but I have also supported other causes. For example, I have just finished two images for the movement “Occupy Nigeria.” I have also been asked to draw about some issues in Turkey… So, I always put my graphical work at the service of these kinds of causes either in Brazil or abroad.

Ana B.: Since you have decided to adopt this principle of creating images to be used by demonstrators, besides your personal interest in Palestine and the work you develop about it, you also create images after people’s requests?

C. Latuff: Exactly. I intend my drawings to have a role that goes beyond entertainment or decoration. They are living works, instruments, weapons, to be used by protesters. (Figure 4)

Ana B.: From the causes and issues you have handled in your work, which are those that you consider to be more difficult to depict in a drawing in a direct and objective message? Is there any subject, any situation that you have been asked to explore in a cartoon that was more difficult to handle?

C. Latuff: There are a few themes that, because I am not completely familiar with them, I can’t take a side, form a valid opinion… I was already asked to draw about the issues between India and Pakistan regarding Cashmere. I had to refuse because I can’t take a side there. I don’t really know who is right in this situation, I really don’t know. The Palestine issue, however, is very clear to me. It is absolutely clear to me who are the aggressors and who are the victims. Israel isn’t an occupied territory. The occupied territory is Palestine. The difference between colonizer and colonized is absolutely clear there. So, I don’t have any problem in taking a side. When I draw, I’m taking a side; I’m choosing the side I believe in. I don’t believe in neutral cartoons. I’m not neutral, I pick a side; I believe and defend one of the parties. I don’t have the hypocritical discourse of impartiality. I’m truly partial, tendentious! If I believe in something, if I believe in one of the sides, I’m partial. I have never affirmed otherwise. And I can only choose and defend one of the parties if I’m sure that that is the right side. “Right” is not the most appropriate term…

Ana B.: The party you identify yourself with, the party you believe in?

C. Latuff: Exactly. In the Palestinian situation, it isn’t even the case of who is right or wrong, but of who the aggressor is, and who the victim is. Hence, for me it’s very simple, I know that easily. As for the issue concerning Cashmere, I don’t know. About the Curds in Turkey, I know; about the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, I also know; about the police violence in Brazil, I know. So, I can effectively discuss and express my opinion about these causes on graphical works. As for the others, I cannot.

Ana B.: Can we affirm that the main motivation that leads you to develop this kind of work is to give fighting instruments to the party you believe in, so that they can use them in some way?

C. Latuff: Exactly.

Ana B.: You have referred that twitter is at the moment your principal communications means. Besides this, are there any others that you use to publish your work and make it reach the public?

C. Latuff: Well, as far as dissemination is concerned, twitter has in fact been the best tool. There is a problem with facebook: censorship. Facebook has often censored certain contents that their administrators perceive as offensive. They are very clear in their censorship, including towards Palestine-related contents, which are systematically removed. That’s why I prefer to use twitter; if I published my cartoons on the facebook, they would certainly be removed.

Ana B.: Another question related to the way you share your work on the Web: taking into account the type of work you develop and its objectives, which are the advantages and the disadvantages of using such means to publish and disseminate it?

C. Latuff: Advantage: you reach a very large audience really fast. As I don’t have an editor to tell me what I can or can’t do, I’m free to produce my own cartoons. The negative aspect of this is the fact of being too exposed. You become a public figure, and public individuals usually have their life completely devastated. Even not being a Hollywood celebrity, or a show business person, you end up by being an easy target for personal attacks, threats, smear campaigns.

Ana B.: Have you experienced any situation of that kind?

C. Latuff: In 2006, I received some threats from a website connected to the Likud party in Israel. The website published a long article about me, and criticized the Israeli State for not doing anything to silence me. It incited the readers, the cybernauts to show some attitude. The excerpt I consider to be the most significant is this: “Israel should already have taken some measure about that Carlos a long time ago, in a way or the other.” This kind of threats is very common. At the level Likud (Likudnik) made, threats as clear as this, in an official manner, are not so common. But, for example, when I made a cartoon about the election in Egypt (Figure 5), in which the so-called Islamists got the majority of the votes, when I published that cartoon on twitter, I received a series of attacks, including threats as well . This may happen when you have an authorial work, a signed work; it is not a pseudonym, a fake profile. When you put your face online, you end up by putting yourself as a target too.

Ana B.: However, there are some authors that develop political work that hide behind pseudonyms and fake identities. What do you think about this attitude?

C. Latuff: I think that if you don’t sign your work or use a pseudonym for works of this nature, political militant work, when you use a pseudonym, your work lacks credibility. So, when you show yourself, assume your ideas, your authorship, when you literally (as we say here in Brazil) “give your face to be slapped”, that provides your work, your opinions, with a certain amount of credibility, because you are not only making a statement about your point of view, you are exposing yourself, you are honestly defending that opinion, giving it an author that can be questioned, interplead. This is different from a person that uses a fake identity, a pseudonym, an alias to express His/her views. How could I, for example, take part in a public debate about Palestine if I hadn’t a real name on the internet, if I don’t have a face? How could I participate in a debate on TV, at a University if I’m anonymous? I believe that is a double-edged sword.

Ana B.: What kind of results do you expect from this work? Considering it is possible to talk about results…

C. Latuff: The result is precisely this: when I see that my work is important for people, that it is not disposable, it is not a commercial product that you chew and throw away, or that you drink and forget. When it is a work that serves the militant today and that will serve people in the future to understand the era we are living now, that can be used by researchers in the future to understand, through the cartoons, the moment we are living, then I have reached my goal. My goal is to produce relevant images, relevant for the present and relevant for people in the future to be aware of and comprehend these times. Cartoons have that prerogative. Many historicists when studying a certain period or era use the cartoons because they summarize in an objective manner the events of a certain time.

Ana B.: What about the public’s reaction to your work? In general, what kind of reactions do you have from those that have access to your images?

C. Latuff: That depends on the public we are considering… For example, if my cartoons were humoristic, the public wouldn’t be so divided, let’s put it this way. Let me explain: let’s imagine that I had a cartoon about a nice character, a nice little puppy, humorous, funny, that drawing would probably be enjoyed and would have more people liking it than disliking it. However, when considering my cartoons, which clearly express political points of view, which involve conflagrated, polemic issues, the public will be divided for sure – you will have a group of people that identifies with the cartoon, who likes it, and another that doesn’t like it, who is against it. That group of people that don’t like it, is not impartial, they don’t have the attitude of “simply disliking” – they attack, shout against, fight against the cartoons. For instance, the cartoons I have drawn about the Arabian Spring, and for the Arabian Spring demonstrators, divide the public between “love him” and “hate him” – clearly two opposite groups, those that love the work I produce, and those that hate it. No one is indifferent to it, all of them are passionate about it, either in a positive or in a negative manner. This is the case of Egypt, and it’s also the case of Bahrain. People either say they support my work, that they like it, that they love my work, that they love me, or they say I am an undercover agent, that I have to die, disappear, etc., etc.. This type of cartoons raises passionate feelings, extreme feelings, and extreme reactions. You will difficultly see an image, a cartoon, about Palestine and be indifferent about it, have a look and ignore it – unless you are completely ignorant about what the Palestinian cause. There will always be some kind of reaction, either good or bad.

Ana B.: Do you have access to those reactions mainly in twitter or by other means as well?

C. Latuff: Currently, it’s mainly in twitter, because that’s the tool have been using more lately. While we are having this conversation, there are sixty-eight thousand six hundred and twelve followers online, and comments are always popping out. Twitter’s scope range is unbelievable, it’s extraordinary. It’s also interesting because it extends to facebook. People share my cartoons on facebook. If it was only me publishing my cartoons on facebook, my account would be shut down as we commented earlier. But as there are many people sharing these images, facebook administrators can’t close all those accounts. So, this ends up by being a guerrilla strategy, that is, the cartoons are on facebook (Figure 12), but they follow a different path from the one they would follow if I had a facebook account to publish them.

Ana B.: A question about the technical nature of your work: how do you develop your images technically? Using paper and pencil and then scans them, or do you develop everything immediately in the computer?

C. Latuff: I’m old school, let’s say this way. I prefer to draw on paper. First I make a pencil sketch on paper, then I perfect it with a pen, erase the pencil lines, scan it using LinArt, and then I save it into a program called PaintShop Pro. The PaintShop Pro version I have is from the 90s, the very first I got. It is really good; I have been using it till today. Once in Paintshop Pro, I convert to 16 colors, paint the drawing, basic colors, no middle-tons, and save in *gif, in more or less 300dpi. Next it’s ready to be published online. When putting the images online in 300dpi, any person can reproduce the image with quality, either on a newspaper, a magazine, or a banner, a poster…

Ana B.: As far as the dissemination of your work is concerned, can you point out any obstacles in this field?

C. Latuff: I don’t know if obstacle is the term… I feel the mainstream media, the mainstream press, has a certain difficulty in reproducing these images. Those that reproduce them are the cybernauts, common people, in the most varied forms: either printed on a T-shirt, publishing in a blog, printing a poster, sending by e-mail. The large press, the mainstream media… For example, in Egypt it took a long time for my cartoons to be reproduced. After a while, they started reproducing them, and then stopped, a lot according to the interests of the editorial board. My work is not developed to please an editor or a newspaper editorial line; therefore not being published happens many times. In Egypt and Bahrain… in Bahrain it is almost impossible to have this type of images printed in regular press because if you publish one of my cartoons there, probably the newspaper will be closed. The King is perceived as a mystical entity, similar to God, you can’t criticize him, you can’t attack him. He is Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary’s virginity – you can’t question, you can’t attack! The case in Egypt is a little different: there are newspapers that publish and others that don’t. But the ones that publish can’t publish everything because they can be attacked, and the responsible for the publications arrested. So, the press doesn’t publish a certain image either because it can’t, as there is the danger of suffering threats, and these threats are real, or because there is a conflict of interests between the editorial line and the messages in the images. I can give you an example: I made some cartoons to be published last year (2011) during the Arabian Spring events, in the Yemen Times, a Yemen English language newspaper. Some were published; others weren’t because they referred to Salé, the President of Yemen. A cartoon criticizing Salé, depending on the way he is portrayed, can lead to the editor’s or the journalist’s death – it is a threat to their life.

Ana B.: So, we can assume that as soon as the economical and political interests of those behind publishing are at stake, censorship prevails?

C. Latuff: Exactly. We can’t forget that a cartoon can be extremely violent, brutal. It rubs reality on your face. We can’t ignore the effects that some cartoons had, leading to unprecedented rebellions, like the ones on the Mohamed Prophet publish in a Danish newspaper. A cartoon depicting Mohamed Prophet as a men-bomb, a simple drawing – that drawing is not complex, it is simply a bearded man wearing a turban and a bomb –, was enough to propel a revolt with no precedents in Europe and in the Muslim and Arabian worlds. The power of cartoons is unbelievable! There was also the case of a plastic artist in Egypt, Ganvir, who was arrested due to a cartoon, an illustration he made criticizing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces; there was another case of a Syrian cartoonist who had his hands broken for making cartoons against the Bachar. And we can’t forget Naji al-Ali, the famous Palestinian cartoonist that was killed in London because of the type of images he developed as well… So, an interesting aspect: when there was the military coup that took down Zelaia, the President of Honduras, the two first persons to be arrested were Zelaia and MacDonalds, the most famous cartoonist in Honduras. A political cartoon is not a simple drawing; it is much more than that. It is explosive, it’s a drawing carved with nitroglycerine ink, a powerful weapon. Sometimes I’m still impressed by this power.

Ana B.: In your opinion, are there effective changes in the social contexts that have access to your work?

C. Latuff: Well, I can’t affirm that my work produces changes. I don’t have a way of measuring how effectively a cartoon gets on people, what it triggers in people’s heart and mind. I don’t have an assessment strategy for that, because it differs from situation to situation. But consider this: the fact that we are talking about my work, someone that doesn’t know me at all, that has no friendship or familiar bounds with me, that has reached me because of my work, shows that a political cartoon really has some kind of effect. It reverberates, it is used both in academic works (I have already given interviews and made lectures to students of History, of Communication) and in the streets by demonstrators.

Ana B.: Latuff, thank you very much for your time and for your caring work. I wish you all the best and hope you keep on that strength and will.

Posted by Ana Margarida Barata on