USk Reportage Grant Projects 2021

Visual storytelling lies at the heart of the USk movement. Urban Sketchers reportage grant program highlights stories from around the world that tell a story by capturing an event and showing context, characters, and setting. They highlight an aspect of local culture, moment in time, industry/trade, societal change in drawings and writing. The program is designed to highlight the best examples of drawing reportage in our community and inspire a new generation of artist reporters. 

We are happy to present the final projects that were completely through 2021.

The Room, Paris (France) by Mathieu Letellier (aka. Mat Let)

Mat’s project brought him face to face with a new vocabulary, medical products, people and experiences that are unknown to most or depicted misleadingly in films and the media. ‘The Room’ was founded in 2016 and gives drug users a safer, supervised space to consume drugs, an activity usually done ‘in the shadows’ out on the street. Knowing the power of sketching to ‘humanize’ and break down stigma, the French charity Médecins du Monde (Mdm) asked Mat Let to do a series of sketches at the Drug Consumption Room in the Barbès, Gare du Nord and Porte de la Chapelle neighborhood in Paris. 

Many who come to The Room do not want to leave as this is almost the only place where drug users get respect and care instead of stigmatization and violence. There was a surprising amount of laughter, solidarity, care and respect here, all of which Mat captured in his sketches. He felt privileged to meet the staff and those they help at this unique centre. And though his visits were usually challenging on several levels, he says, “Just like my fellow human beings, I feel a little better after each visit.”

Chawls of Mumbai: “The Social Network”, Mumbai (India) by USK Mumbai

The epic diversity of Mumbai ‘chawls’ – humble inner city tenement dwellings once designed to house migrant workers but now supporting generations of families – called for a collaborative approach. Four members of USK Mumbai joined forces to sketch the many faces, architectures and experiences of these locations – from light and colour-filled celebrations such as the dressing of holy basil (tulsi) trees, to the everyday lives of hardworking women tailors and lantern sellers, as well as the efforts of one artistic resident to beautify his small balcony.

Here, people live shoulder to shoulder with only small balconies and shared courtyards for breathing space; residents have to leave any hopes of privacy or solitude behind them. They benefit from the togetherness, conversation, laughter and community support of this style of living, but there is the flip side, too: the strain of subsistence living at such close quarters and neighborhood feuds and petty squabbles that are difficult to ignore or block out.

Chawls also have a fascinating social and political history, their raw energy giving rise to political movements and activists, as well as to movie stars and mafia members. Many chawls are now being cleared to make way for new city infrastructure and accommodation, so the Mumbai sketchers knew they were recording a way of life that may be under threat. Many shared time with residents and listened to their stories. Their combined work, coming from multiple perspectives and passions, shows life in all its kaleidoscope color and variety, a fitting tribute indeed to life in the chawl.

Ripple Effect of a Historic Market, Pune (India) by Farah Irani

Farah Irani had been sketching her neighborhood in the city of Pune for some time, on a road full of historic buildings built during the colonial British era. For this project, she concentrated on a unique historic market, to understand how the local people have reclaimed and repurposed it, and how the British and Indian influences have evolved during the pandemic. According to laws put in place by the British, vendors can only sell what they are licensed to at the century-old Mandai market – but they find ways to adapt their wares to the ever changing festivals and customer demands: “For Diwali it’s brooms, for the Ganesh Festival it’s creative pedestals for the installation of the idol, for Dussehra, there are mountains of marigolds,” says Farah. One memorable day, Farah drew the broom vendor at right, who was perched high on a pile of his wares: “It looked like he had attained nirvana there, as he took his calls and handled his thronging customers in a peaceful manner…. he even tried to see that I had a cup of hot tea, organized a chair for me to sit on despite my protests, and ensured his men directed the chaotic traffic around me just so that I could sketch.”

The market stalls mirror India’s many festivals, and the broom vendor was catering to the tradition of sweeping away poverty in the home. This happens on the day before the traditional financial year ends, when Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, visits around midnight and tries to find the cleanest house. “Through this type of storytelling I have learned to dive in deep to look for those untold stories, to spend time with the subject to appreciate and highlight the need for conservation of an aging structure,” says Farah.

Night People Street Portraits, Berlin Kantstraße, Berlin (Germany) by Rolf Schröter

Rolf Schroeter got to know one street in his neighborhood intimately – Kantstraße, which connects the Berlin Fair and International Congress Center with the Beitscheidtplatz in the center of the Berlin district of Charlottenburg. A hub for restaurants, bars, theatre and “overall intense nightlife”, he’d walked through it countless times but only started exploring it in great detail with this project.

He started at an uneasy point continuing through periods of greater restrictions. As he is by no means an extrovert, tackling portraits was a challenge: “My method is to quite openly start a drawing of a situation, always containing a capture of some person in a habitat. So I already catch a bit of context and at the same time sometimes attract attention that can be a starting point for a conversation. Sometimes this leads to a portrait sitting (right away or scheduled on another date); other times I only collect some info, thoughts and views from a conversation.”

Is it a right, a privilege, a reward, or a necessity to have a safe, dry home? Homelessness has become interwoven with the Seattle streetscape; over 11,000 people are experiencing this destabilizing way of life, and thousands of businesses have closed in the wake of COVID-19. For those few, like Daniel Winterbottom, who do not walk by with eyes fixed on some other place, there are stories to be heard, heartbreak to be witnessed or imagined, and myriad unexpected details that jolt our perceptions and prejudices – like people’s efforts to keep their campsites clean without running water or storage materials, some placing bouquets of wildflowers placed at their entrances to make them more homely.

Daniel says his year-long project began “as an unintentional act of art therapy – a response to the pandemic’s containment and alienation”. He felt it was important to learn about homelessness from the people impacted by it, and to provide “evidence that it is real, and that we as a society have, in part, turning away allowed it to happen”. One silver lining was that he found a renewed passion for sketching “as an act of observation, documentation, and expression”. Each sketch of a dwelling, shelter, or abandoned piece of furniture is so detailed and sensitive that it makes us wonder about the individuals and families linked to it. The sketches seem to ask us to see the human impact, the wasted potential, and the obligation to do more than just turn away.