“Infuriating doves of peace”: an interview with Plantu and Reza

Regards croisés
Plantu & Reza
Gallimard, 2021
Published in French

The renowned photographer Reza and Le Monde’s iconic cartoonist Plantu have just published a book in which they revisit eighty or so of their respective photos and cartoons. The publication, which covers a vast range of historical events and global issues – from the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 to the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 by way of the environment, climate change and the situation of women and children around the world –, is a work of both remembrance and creativity. Each coupling of one photo and one cartoon takes us back to past events while generating a new and singular work of art calling to mind the style of certain collage artists. The reader’s appetite is also whet by an excellent foreword by art critic Pierre Bongiovanni, in which he offers his own take on this original work. We met Plantu and Reza to find out more about this project which prompted an engaging and lively interview – also condensed below in writing.

Humanitarian Alternatives – On reading your book, we were struck by the parallels between your perspectives and the way in which your respective analyses are complementary, aligned. How did you meet and why did you decide to produce this book together?

Reza – You could say that we met some forty years ago. Plantu was already drawing cartoons for French newspaper Le Monde when I first started reading it in Iran in the late 1970s, during the Revolution. I remember very clearly the first time I saw his drawings. There was something very powerful about them compared with what other cartoonists were doing: I could see he had the soul of a great artist. And the amazing thing was that, through his use of humour, he was expressing almost everything I was thinking. His work really showed what was happening on the ground – including things that weren’t necessarily being reported in the newspapers. In my photographs, I also try to show events from my own perspective – things that are not usually portrayed in the media. So, yes, we met a long time ago, even if the encounter was purely at a visual and intellectual level. I imagine that Plantu had also seen my photos thirty or forty years ago, before he actually met me. Between visual artists, as between writers or poets, we first make acquaintance through our work. That’s what brings us together. When we met in person fifteen years ago, it was clear we’d become friends because of our very strong intellectual relationship. That’s why it seems like these photos and cartoons were done together, when they weren’t. It’s because we share the same thoughts. As for the idea of doing this book, it came from Plantu.

Plantu – The complicity was there from the outset, that’s for sure, because Reza’s work has always struck a chord with me. I’ve admired what he does for a long time. And when we met, I told him I’d like to put my cartoons alongside his photos and do exhibitions and a book together. He agreed to the idea, and I did the matchmaking. At that point, I got two surprises. The first came when he asked me to dive deeper into his photos, with oil paint or a graphics palette or whatever. I didn’t dare touch his photo of Commandant Massoud! But he told me to go for it, not to hold back! And the second surprise was when I discovered that, while Reza is from a Muslim culture and I’m from a Christian culture – although I’m not religious –, we both like mixing things up. For my part, I’ve always managed to mix Christian, Jewish and Muslim cartoonists. And when Reza told me about this place in Azerbaijan where, when there’s a Jewish holiday, they invite Muslims and Christians, and when there’s a Christian holiday, they invite Muslims and Jews and so on, I liked that story. We didn’t meet by chance. The complicity was already there. We were meant to come together – in the form of a book.

H. A. – Does this mean that both of you have surpassed the other’s almost sacred nature as an artist?

Plantu – Absolutely, and sacred is the right word. When I see exhibitions by photographers, I’m not just impressed – I envy them. Almost all the places that Reza has been, I have been too. But I’m a guy who flies above them, whereas he is down below, under the bombs! I try to imagine what’s going through the head of a photographer who’s experiencing an event firsthand. I’m lucky enough to be able talk to journalists who have been in the field. They tell me lots of things that they don’t always put in their papers. I draw on all these conversations. Readers know that a cartoonist is someone who uses their imagination, but sometimes we get quite close to what is actually happening out in the field. Sometimes I think I’m making things up, whereas in fact that’s really what happened!

H. A. – It’s interesting to see some of your photos and cartoons again in the book but also to read what you’ve written. For each cartoon or photo, there is a text by Reza telling us about the circumstances in which the photo was taken and another by you, Plantu, explaining your state of mind when you drew the cartoon. So you offer us two analyses that we don’t always get in your usual work…

Plantu – Reza had this photo of a statue of Prometheus with a bird flying away, and I realised that I also had a Prometheus – an Iraqi Prometheus! We put them together, I blended in the colours, and it worked. He told me how he took this photo and I told him how I’d liked to play around with it, how I realised that I could marry it with another image telling a similar tale. I think cartoonists often mix two things together that have nothing to do with each other. But here, we’ve mixed a photographer and a cartoonist and created something altogether different, something surprising. We’ve created one piece of work that looks at two others. We’ve invented something through our complicity.

H. A. – You cover many subjects in your book. Which ones are particularly meaningful to you?

Reza – It’s true that there are many themes, but for me, all of them are linked to the words “social injustice” and “inequality”. The root cause of all the problems humans have today, even wars, are these inequalities and social injustices. I’ve seen it in Afghanistan, in Israel, in Palestine and in Africa… My fear is that as long as there are these inequalities and injustices, our problems will continue.

Plantu – And I’d like to add the word peace… People often make fun of me because I love peace. But we’ll get there in the end! I’ve noticed that whenever there have been injustices, inequalities or wars, they never lasted long. There always comes a time when the parties in a conflict decide to make peace. When I draw a cartoon and Reza takes his photo, we might think things are not looking good, but wherever I’ve been, I know that the ones who negotiate peace will win the day. In the book, there are lots of cartoons about the Palestinians and Israelis. When I say that one day they’ll make peace, I get shouted down by both sides. But when I was young, I used to go to Germany, and some of my family didn’t understand why I’d go to see the “Krauts”. Now, when my children go to Berlin, nobody says that anymore because it’s behind us. We don’t forget History, but we move forward, and it all works out. In fifty years, the Palestinian and Lebanese kids whom Reza captures in his photos will be in Ramallah with the Israelis and on the beaches in Gaza… I don’t have a crystal ball, but everything we want and everything we dream of in this book will happen.

H. A. – Perhaps in fifty years’ time, we’ll remember this photo that Reza took on the Esplanade of the Mosques of three children – a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian –, all with a different version of the same first name: Abraham.

Reza – Yes, that’s it exactly! Sometimes people ask me how I still manage to smile with all that I’ve seen. But it’s what I’ve seen that makes me optimistic. When I look at History, I tell myself that humanity is headed in the right direction. For example, I work with Arte from time to time and the TV channel’s premises in Strasbourg are near a canal where there were horrible massacres during the war… Yet now you hear French and German being spoken in the Arte building, and you meet people who have discussions, make films, and develop ideas together. Whenever I go there, I think to myself, one day we’ll see the same thing in the Middle East.

Plantu – Of course we will! As for me, I accept the idea of indecency – because when I say that one day there will be peace, many people think it’s indecent. But that’s why I’m very proud to draw doves of peace that infuriate people because, in fact, the dove is going to win. It’s so easy to draw a Kalashnikov or a tank… But I want to add an infuriating dove. Of course, the aim of this dove is to make peace, but it’s also to infuriate all those people who say that we should bring out the Kalashnikovs. They’ll calm down one of these days.  As Arafat once said to me, “One day the fighters will be tired”.

H. A. – It’s true that your book often takes a poetic look at some of the most serious issues of our time. Is it important to you not just to be chroniclers of conflict?

Plantu – Of course. There’s a reason why I matched the photo of the three little Abrahams that Reza took in Jerusalem with my cartoon of an Israeli child and a Palestinian child sitting on a swing with an Arabic proverb underneath saying: “The strongest swings hang from the stars”. It’s poetry, this Arabic proverb, and I like it.

H. A. – This book is also an opportunity to learn things about you. Many celebrities lend their support to charities, but another thing that you have in common is that you do more than just lend support. You have long been deeply engaged in certain causes. Reza, you founded Aina, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Afghanistan, to provide media training for young people to help them along the career path, and you also run workshops around the world to give young people opportunities. And you also helped us illustrate an issue of our review in its early days.(1)See Humanitarian Alternatives, no. 8, July 2018, https://alternatives-humanitaires.org/en/issue-8-july-2018 Plantu, you founded an amazing NGO called Cartooning for Peace, which defends the freedom of expression of press cartoonists worldwide. And you have recently launched your own foundation in support of “the Republic’s forgotten youth”…

Plantu – Reza’s engagement is a genuine intellectual gesture from a guy who wants to do something to help others. Me, on the other hand, as a lifelong slacker, I didn’t see it coming. When the Danish cartoonists received fatwas in 2006, it was Kofi Annan who picked up the phone and asked me to come to New York with other Christian, Jewish and Muslim cartoonists… Then he told me to set up an association – I had no idea how to do that! In fact, I’m a frustrated slacker: I love drawing cartoons and leading a quiet life… But, thanks to Kofi Annan and all those Christian, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic and atheist cartoonists, I ended up inventing a sort of ship without even realising it. A ship that carries us in the direction of what I consider to be the ideal of debate with others. And I realised that it’s not a corporatist thing just for cartoonists… it’s for everyone. With the forums for discussion that we invented with the Tunisian and Venezuelan cartoonists and with the cartoonists from Moscow and New Zealand, we realised that we were creating spaces for debate that could be useful to the citizens of the world. And this is where I join my friend Reza, who does this sort of thing in a more intellectual way: he is the promoter of his own idea, I did it as someone who has never been involved in non-profit work before… and actually it’s great!  Thirty years or so ago, when I knew nothing about NGOs, I found myself with Reporters Without Borders in Thailand, in the Khmer refugee camps, and I was full of admiration.  But I would never have seen myself doing the work of an NGO – and yet, here I am. I think it gives you a better understanding of the world and encourages you to try to be more positive.

H. A. – Are there any issues that the media have overlooked and which, in your opinion, should be publicised?

Plantu – Arms sales, for example, nobody gives a damn about that. From time to time, we hear about bombs being dropped on the Yemenis… Well, these are French weapons that we sold to Saudi Arabia… Perhaps we could talk about that from time to time? It’s all in the book.

Reza – The media functions like a street parade. When it passes by, people take an interest in it, but once it has moved on, when the show is over, everyone goes their own way. Unfortunately, world events are treated in the same way. One day, something happens in Kabul, and everyone heads to Kabul. Three days later, something happens in Beirut, and everyone rushes off to Beirut. Meanwhile, we hear nothing about what’s happening in Kabul, and so it goes on. I was a photographer for TIME Magazine, Paris-Match, Life and National Geographic for forty years, but I always stayed independent because I also wanted to cover subjects that none of the media were interested in. If had been tied to a newspaper or magazine, I would’ve had to do what they told me. By being independent, I always managed to shine at least a small light – focus my lens, so to speak – on subjects that nobody else was talking about. After the Russians left Afghanistan in 1989, I kept going back to the country for twelve years. Whenever I returned to Europe or the United States, I would harp on about the need to do something for the Afghans, insisting that just because the Russians had gone, the battle wasn’t won, that there were things going on over there which were going to have consequences for all of us… And in 2001, the whole world suddenly woke up to what was happening, to what I’d been telling them for twelve years! I’ve been doing the same thing in Azerbaijan for the last year and a half. The media only covers the Armenian side, so I go over there, and I take photos… That’s another thing I like about the work of a cartoonist like Plantu: he always manages to dodge the diktats of the news, the media and the editor to find a way to speak his mind.

Plantu – Of course, we should cry over the fate of the Armenians when they are being oppressed, and we should help them. But while dozens of photographers are covering the Armenian side, Reza is practically the only one showing the sculptures, frescoes and graves in Azerbaijan being defiled by a small but effective minority of Armenian fighters. If I draw a cartoon illustrating this destruction, I’ll probably be told that I should only be shedding tears for the Armenians, whereas I feel like shedding tears for both populations: the Azeris, most of whom are Muslims, and the Armenian Orthodox. This also raises the question of the amount of information available to the public. I once asked Jérôme Fenoglio, director of Le Monde, whether people were better informed today than they were thirty years ago, and he answered with a resounding no. I still haven’t got over that! I also remember seeing a TikTok video made by some media outlet about the deadly floods in Germany last summer. They had written something like “awesome floods”! Do they think teenagers are idiots, or what? When I saw that, I thought it’s no wonder they don’t care about what’s going on in Azerbaijan. In France, in Europe, in our democracies, we don’t have censorship like in Iran, for example, but it’s almost worse: what’s covered by the media is determined by marketing budgets and ratings.

H. A. – While I was preparing for this interview, I remembered something William Daniels, a photographer who had a harrowing experience in Syria a few years ago, said in the interview he gave us in our last issue.(2)Interview with William Daniels, Humanitarian Alternatives, no. 18, November 2021, pp. 198–219, https://alternatives-humanitaires.org/en/2021/11/15/perspectives-on-a-fractured-world He told us how, at one point, he had been angry at his job for putting him in the situation in which he found himself. Reza, you have been persona non grata in Iran since you left in 1981. You spent some time in prison there. Khomeini’s Islamists wanted you dead. And you have often taken risks when reporting. Plantu, you have been under police protection since the attack on the Charlie Hebdo staff. Have either of you resented your jobs at any point?

Reza – For my part, I can’t imagine not doing what I do. Once you’ve witnessed an event, you become somehow responsible for passing on what you saw. I don’t see what I do as a job and never have. I studied to be an architect and if I had wanted a job, I would have stayed in architecture. It’s something very powerful, something inside me. I don’t know by what miracle I manage to tell stories with my photographs that touch people so much, provoke so much thought and emotion in others. But as long as I can do that, I’ll keep doing it. I don’t remember, even in the most difficult or dangerous moments, ever having any doubts about what I was doing.

Plantu – I’ve never even thought about it because drawing is second nature to me. People think that my hand has five fingers but in fact, it has five pencils: you can do whatever you want in a drawing.

Visuals of the book reproduced with the kind permission of Gallimard, Reza and Plantu © Plantu/Reza

Interview by Boris Martin, editor-in-chief

Translated from the French by Mandy Duret

1 See Humanitarian Alternatives, no. 8, July 2018, https://alternatives-humanitaires.org/en/issue-8-july-2018
2 Interview with William Daniels, Humanitarian Alternatives, no. 18, November 2021, pp. 198–219, https://alternatives-humanitaires.org/en/2021/11/15/perspectives-on-a-fractured-world