Around two years ago I attended a convention in Portland by the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists where I met some of the best cartoonists in the U.S. and the world. During my time at the convention, I met Tjeerd Royaards, a Dutch political cartoonist who was recruiting American political cartoonists to join the Cartoon Movement, a global website that Tjeerd launched to promote political cartooning and comics journalism. Tjeerd had been a political cartoonist for seven years since getting a masters degree in political science at the University of Amsterdam. In that time, his cartoons have appeared in the Dutch dailies NRC Next, Der Pers, and De Volkskrant, the German newspapers Handelsblatt and Hannoversche Allgemeine, and the Swiss weekly Weltwoche. In 2010 Tjeerd won the “Citation for Excellence” for the United Nations Political Cartoons Award.
Thank you Tjeerd for doing this interview. When did you become interested in doing political cartoons? What cartoonists had a great influence on your own work?
I’ve always loved to draw. When I graduated from high school I briefly considered going to art school, but decided that was too ‘arty’ for me. Instead I chose another field of interest, politics. During my time at university I started drawing again for the political science faculty newspaper, and the link between drawing and politics was made. I enjoyed making political cartoons so much, that after graduating I decided to try my luck at becoming a professional cartoonist.
Although my style is quite different, I’m mainly influenced by some of the great Dutch cartoonists, such as Tom Janssen, Peter van Straaten and Jos Collignon. I’ve always been in awe of the big international artists such as Kevin Kallaugher (KAL) and Patrick Chappatte.
When I look at the cartoons at the Cartoon Movement, I notice that European political cartoons seem very different from American political cartoons. What do you think are the differences between European and American political cartoons? Because of the decline in national newspapers and periodicals, American political cartoons seem to have a waning influence on national affairs in American and seem to be more influential on local and city matters. Do you think European cartoonists have a greater influence on their readers than American cartoonists?
The tradition of political cartooning in Europe differs from that in the US, especially if you look at cartoons from Eastern Europe. Cartoons here are far more visually oriented, using less text than US cartoons. They also go beyond the pen and ink line drawings that people often associate with political cartoons. Other materials are also used, and the line between cartoons and art is more blurred than in the US.
Unfortunately, I think the media landscapes in the US and Europe closely resemble each other. The newspapers are in decline here as well, and so is the influence of political cartoons. One might argue we have become complacent; in the Arab Spring, for instance, cartoons played a major role in shaping public opinion. Not only do injustice and oppression (a cartoonist’s bread and butter) dominate the agenda, the people here value political cartoons and are very adept at reading them. Because cartoonists in these countries often are not free to draw everything they want, they employ symbols and allegories. The people here have learned to understand this language.
You received a masters degree in Political Science at the University of Amsterdam. How has your studies influenced your cartoons?
Political science was an essential component in my decision to become an editorial cartoonist. When I was 18 and started college, I was considering becoming active in politics. Political science teaches you that politics is about power, and power always corrupts. The thing I took to heart most was that democracy and freedom can only exist when there are checks on power. A free media is one of these checks. Being part of the media, the so called ‘watchdogs of democracy’ really appealed to me, and it still does. And best of all, being a journalist (and a cartoonist in particular) means you can legitimately stand on the sidelines and criticise all the people doing the actual work.
Tell us about the conception of Cartoon Movement. What got you the idea to create the Cartoon Movement?
Back in 2008, Dutch video journalist Thomas Loudon came up with the idea of creating a global platform for video journalists (VJ Movement), to give them a place to share their perspectives on the world. By coincidence I got involved in this project, and one day we started talking about cartooning. He asked me if there was a global platform for cartoonists, and I said I didn’t know. It turned out there wasn’t, so he asked me if I wanted to try to set up an international network of cartoonists. Between 2008 and 2010, the cartoonists and the video journalists shared the same platform. During that time, the cartoonist community developed a distinct dynamic, so in the summer of 2010 we decided to build a platform dedicated to political cartoons, Cartoon Movement. Since the launch on December 15, 2010, we’ve grown into a vibrant community of more than 140 cartoonist from over 75 countries.
Last year you went to Haiti with fellow cartoonist Matt Bors to report on the state of the country. During that time you met Haiti cartoonists and used their work on the Cartoon Movement. What was it like in Haiti? What are the advantages of using local cartoonists to report on what’s going on in Haiti? Tell us why comics journalism works best in reporting of the situation in Haiti?
The earthquake of 2010 laid bare the immensity of the problems that face Haiti. To give an analysis as a political scientist: Haiti is what happens when there is no state. The country is caught in a vicious cycle, with no end in sight. The government has no money and is therefore almost completely powerless; because they have no money, the cannot provide their citizens with even the most basic services. But perhaps most importantly, they cannot provide education. Over 80% of Haitian schools are private, and expensive. This means the majority of the population is not educated; the consequence of this is that there is no economic middle class, only a small elite and an overwhelming majority living in absolute poverty. And this, in turn, means there is no tax income for the state, making them powerless to address the situation. NGOs try to better the situation for the Haitian, but there are over 8,000 organizations active, all absorbed with their own projects, and there is no overall coordination, severely limiting the impact they have.
We wanted to let Haitians themselves tell the story, because we believe stories are told best by the people who are closest to them. We wanted to hear the stories from the people living in the tent cities; local reporters can get closer to these people than foreign reporters. At Cartoon Movement, we are strong believers in the power of the visual message. Comics journalism allows you to visually chronicle the lives of the Haitian people without having to enter the camps with bulky cameras or other journalistic equipment; basically, all you need is a pencil and paper. If you want to hear more about the motivation behind the Haiti project, check out this video of an interview I did at a TEDx event in Geneva.
In 2010, you organized a project where you connect 300 students between the age of 15 to 18 to 125 cartoonist from around the world and asked the students to come up with cartoon ideas related to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Would you tell us a little something of the project and how that turned out?
This project revolved around a collaboration between high school students and professional cartoonists Around themes related to the MDGs (like hunger or poverty, or human rights) we build a digital class room (which we call a newsroom), where we invite students to think on a particular subject by coming up with ideas for cartoons on this subject. Together with professional cartoonists they talk about the ideas, and vote for the submitted sketches. The best ideas are taken up by the cartoonists and transformed into professional cartoons. Out of all these cartoons we selected 98 to be published in a book; this book is now used by high schools in the Netherlands to teach students about the Millennium Development Goals.
Last year you wrote an essay on the sorry state of journalism. It was in reference to a situation where the editors of Trouw, a Dutch newspaper, wanted to use a cartoon by an Egyptian cartoonist in the Cartoon Movement for free, rather than paying the cartoonist. The shrinking budgets of newspapers and other media have had a bad effect on political cartoonists who are trying to earn a living from their craft. Do you think the fate of political cartooning is ultimately tied to the fate of newspapers?
Short answer: no. Although I do not think newspapers will disappear, I think the media landscape will ultimately be dominated by online activities. The big problem at the moment is that no one knows how to make money from their online activities. I’m not sure how long this crisis in journalism will last, it could be one year, it could be ten years. What I am sure about is that a new equilibrium will be reached. And it is my sincere hope that political cartoons will be a big part of this new balance. Part of the mission of Cartoon Movement is to find a place for cartoons in this new balance, by creating the first financially sustainable, exclusively online outlet that pays cartoonists for their work.
You have a very direct cartooning style, with a direct message that is easily understandable. What is the process that you go through in making a political cartoon? How long does it usually take to make a cartoon?
For me, making a cartoon is all about the process of elimination. I like to convey a message as clearly as possible. I try keep the number of elements in a cartoon limited, making sure that each has a role that is essential in the cartoon. My style is also all about eliminating the non-essential, hopefully contributing to the clarity of the message.
A cartoon will usually take me about four hours, from start to finish, but I am a perfectionist, and a cartoon that involves more detail or more shading can take me up to ten hours to finish.
In your website, you did a great cartoon on October 19, 2011 on the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring. What are your thoughts on the many protest movements that have been going on around the world?
I think all these protest movements are a sign of the times; they indicate people are restless and fed up with the old structures of power. The important questions is: ‘where do we go from here?’ In the countries where the Arab Spring succeeded, an even more difficult task awaits: trying to build a working democracy and a free society. In Europe and the US, and often heard, but certainly valid, criticism about the Occupy protests was that they had no clear goals. Because without any real alternatives, we are stuck with the status quo.
You did a great cartoon on September 20, 2011 on the Europe’s dilemma with Greece, Italy and Spain. What’s the situation like in Europe right now?
The situation in Europe is still very uncertain. Greece has been saved by the EU, but the price for this ‘save’ will be paid by the common Greek. Severe cutbacks in wage, healthcare, and social welfare threaten the basic standard of living for the people. People in Italy, Spain and Portugal are also facing these kinds of cutbacks. They are angry; angry at the politicians that have created this situation in the first place, and angry because the political elite will most like not feel much discomfort from the cutbacks they have proposed.
In doing research to come up with questions for this interview, I had a hard time condensing what to ask because you do so much stuff. Just out of curiosity, what do you do in your free time to relax?
I had my first child (a son) about two months ago, so there isn’t much time to relax at the moment. When I do find the time I enjoy sailing (I own a small sailing boat with a couple of friends), walking and hiking (especially in Scotland and Ireland), and going to punk rock shows.
Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen
An Interview With Cartoonist Jesse Springer
An Interview With Cartoonist Steve Greenberg
An Interview With Eric Wilks
An Interview With Cartoonist Greg Beda
An Interview With Poet Melissa Tuckey
An Interview With Cartoonist Andy Singer
An Interview With Author Robert Balmanno
An Interview With Cartoonist J.P. Jasper
An Interview With Cartoonist David Cohen
A youtube video of an interview of Tjeerd Royaards for TEDxGenevaChange
A youtube video of cartoonists Tjeerd Royaards and Matt Bors reporting on the situation in Haiti
A youtube video collaboration of Cartoon Movement journalist Journalist Caroline Dijckmeester-Bins and Haitian cartoonist Chevelin Pierre
A youtube video of a Cartoon Movement of cartoons that students made for a CM project