Left to right, John, Me, Mimi, Zoe (John’s daughter).
Shocked and deeply saddened by the death of John Pilger on December 30th, 2023 (b. 1939), I post the following in memory and tribute.
Marx’s genius, wrote the English writer John Berger, was his resolute insistence on the practice, refusing to be deceived or diverted by the rhetoric. If ever there was an apt description of John Pilger, that would do nicely, and although I don't really have any personal heroes, Pilger is one of the few people who comes close to meeting the requirements. His award-winning journalism and television documentaries have made him universally known – a champion of those for whom he fights and the scourge of politicians and others whose actions he exposes. Further to this are the demands he makes of himself as a journalist, and has consistently made of others in the press and media that so often fail in their responsibility to question the versions of truth that are disseminated by our political leaders. His 1979 film ‘Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia’ not only revealed to the world the horror of the Pol Pot years, it showed how Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s “secret” bombing of that country had provided a critical catalyst for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. All of his books are outstanding accounts of how we are continually betrayed by those we elect and at the same time testimonies to the humanity of the countless victims of rapacious power.
I first met John in 2003. His exhibition ‘Reporting the world : John Pilger's great eyewitness photographers’, an exhibition that explores his close association with some of the world’s greatest reportage photographers, was booked to be shown at the Portuguese Centre for Photography in Porto. I was particularly excited to hear of his pending visit and the prospect of meeting the great man. And I wanted to assure that his visit to Portugal did not pass unnoticed and so took it upon myself to contact him and arrange for him to be interviewed during his visit by the national newspaper Público. John agreed and the interview was published the same weekend.
Following the exhibition inauguration, after dinner together, I surprised him by putting two of his books on the table. The surprise was that the covers were new to him. He stared at them for a moment, surprised, asking what it was he was looking at, possibly suspecting or fearing they were some sort of bootlegged copies of his work. They were in fact redesigns of two covers that I had prepared in the weeks preceding his visit (below, pics 2 & 3). I had printed them and folded them over the original covers, in an attempt to give them as much authenticity as possible.
In prelude to this I should say that I have long been dismayed and disappointed by the poor design of political literature, in particular the covers. If you've ever picked up a book by Noam Chomsky, or Edward Said, or journalists like Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk, you'll know what I mean. And with all respect, John’s covers were no better. However, in general, as he seemed to confirm, authors usually have little involvement in the cover design. Understandably, they have other, more pressing priorities. But design is also not an area that they are likely to have a great deal of expertise in and are most probably content to let the publisher decide, voicing their opinion only if they find the design proposal particularly objectionable.
I knew that showing John new cover possibilities rather than talking about them, was likely to be more productive. He was very appreciative of the ‘new’ covers. So much so it turned out, that the following month I was delighted to receive a surprise of my own when John graciously invited me to design the cover of his forthcoming book ‘Tell Me No Lies’. I happily accepted his invitation.
I decided to adopt a type-only approach to the cover, simply because John is a wordsmith, words are his domain, as words made visible is mine. I worked on a few type-based variations (pic 4) and admit that the manner in which they were done was in some way conditioned by what I thought would be acceptable to the publisher. At John’s request I inserted a sort of background image into the final design (pic 5). Although not ideal, it is I believe, an improvement on his previous book covers. Most importantly, he was pleased with the outcome and so were the publishers.
We kept in touch and three years later in 2006, I was once again delighted when he asked if I would be interested in submitting a design of the poster for his new film ‘The War on Democracy’ — set in Latin America and the US, planned for cinema distribution in 2007. Again, I didn’t hesitate to accept.
I wanted to stay with the type-only approach even knowing such a solution would very likely fall outside of the expectations of the distributors (pics 06 & 07). John and I exchanged many emails and I shared many designs and ideas with him. He was always open and encouraging, describing the type based design as ‘wonderfully adventurous’. “My own feeling”, he wrote to me, “is that, displayed big enough, the all-print designs would be fantastic — such as on hoardings”. He recognised however, as I did, that the distributors Lionsgate were likely to be less open. Their response, which John later forwarded to me, was as we had expected “Andrew Howard has produced striking, impressive designs but they are not right for a movie poster, we feel. Please thank him for us”. Still, I have no regrets.
The last time I was with John was in 2007 at the premiere of the film at the National Film Theatre in London, to which he kindly invited me. In the film there is a notable interview with former CIA Latin America chief Duane Clarridge in which Clarridge openly and defiantly asserts that the United States can and will intervene and overthrow democratically elected governments whenever and wherever it wants. I remember asking John after the screening how he was able to keep his cool when interviewing this man (you need to watch the interview to understand why keeping ones cool might be an issue). He replied simply that to do his job, to expose the truth, he could not allow himself to be distracted by anger or embroiled in argument, he had instead to focus on getting Clarridge — and people like him — to say things out load, for all to hear. He was successful, as he usually was, and Clarridge may have regretted his forthrightness.
The world has lost a remarkable man, a fearless champion of truth who dedicated his life to a definition of journalism as a means to holding power accountable and of being a beacon of hope in a world of darkness. A life project motivated by his humanity and empathy. He will be sorely missed in a world, that more than ever, is in need of his commitment to exposing lies and deceit and giving voice to the voiceless. It was an honour and a privilege to have met and collaborated with him.