Cartoonists and the Work of Healing

As an American editorial cartoonist in New York City, my life is relatively safe. I love attending cartoonists’ conferences in far-flung locales and meeting colleagues from around the world. Even if we don’t share a spoken language, we share a visual language, and are bound by a passion for our profession.

It is humbling that many of my colleagues are in danger simply because of the work they do. This was made all too clear in January, when Muslim extremists attacked the Paris office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people, including the top editor and several cartoonists.

Following the attack, the global cartoonists’ community united in anguish and outrage. I sought the opinions of my colleagues, and took solace in their friendship. So when, last month, I was invited to the fifth annual Rencontres du Dessin de Presse, a two-day cartoonist’s symposium in Caen, France, in April, I was thrilled.

The festival is organized by Stéphane Grimaldi, director of the Caen Memorial Museum, in consultation with Kianoush Ramezani, an exiled Iranian cartoonist. This year, over 40 of my colleagues from around the world planned to come. I’d attended the third gathering, where I’d met and spoken with many people, including cartoonists from Siné Mensuel, a French paper that, like Charlie Hebdo, has a reputation for provocation. Group discussions were not without disagreement, but we remained connected by a belief in the power of cartoons. We had time to draw — alone and together — debate, and publicly present our work. This year, we would create a memorial for, and spend time honoring, our slain French colleagues.

In 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten commissioned and published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. That decision enraged many Muslims and unleashed a spate of violence — including an assassination attempt, years later, on Kurt Westergaard, one of the contributing cartoonists. At the time, discussions among colleagues were animated. I remember disagreeing strongly with my friend Ann Telnaes, a cartoonist for The Washington Post. While we both thought freedom of speech must never be curtailed, her position was more absolute than mine. As editorial cartoonists, she said, we have a duty to say what must be said, without fear. I was more guarded; I felt we had a responsibility to exercise caution, particularly if our work could potentially cause harm to others.

I still think so. While we must be forceful, inflammatory images or words are not always the answer. Personally, I would probably not have accepted the assignment to draw Muhammad. But these decisions are intensely personal, and I defend wholeheartedly my colleagues’ right to do so. Certainly, their cartoons did not merit deadly retribution — nor did those published in Charlie Hebdo.

In many cartoons that appeared immediately after the Paris attack, pens and pencils were represented as swords or guns. I may be naïve, but I don’t see my pen as a gun; I see it as an olive branch. While my work may sometimes seem more subdued than that of my colleagues, we need all voices at the table.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Grimaldi emailed to inform us that the Caen festival had been canceled. After the shooting last month in Copenhagen at a gathering promoting freedom of speech (presumably targeting Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist who had also caricatured Muhammad), safety concerns had intensified. Mr. Grimaldi felt he could not in good conscience host the April meeting.

This saddened me; I’d been eager to see old friends and make new ones. But sadness was soon overtaken by anger. I understood the decision, of course; the danger to Caen was simply too great — not to mention the risk to the cartoonists. Still, I couldn’t help but feel this was a victory, however small, for the terrorists who targeted our community.

Happily, the victory is only temporary: The festival has been rescheduled for October. Cartoonists from around the world will gather again, exchange ideas and continue the work of healing our wounded community. I’ll be there with pen and ink, ready to draw.

Liza Donnelly is an editorial cartoonist for The New Yorker and Medium, and the author, most recently, of Women on Men.

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