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 © Olivier Kugler (detail)

Thomas Hummitzsch on "Mit dem Elefantendoktor in Laos"
Beastly strong

Olivier Kugler travels the world as a reportage illustrator. In Laos, he went into the jungle, accompanying a vet who takes care of the working elephants kept by loggers.

The French vet Bertrand Bouchard was 29 years old when Olivier Kugler got in touch with him. That was in 2010 and Kugler wanted to create a story about elephants in Asia. At the time, Bouchard was working for the organisation ElefantAsia as a vet for the elephants used by foresters in Laos. He invited the London-based artist to accompany him for a couple of days into the depths of the Laotian jungle and to record what they saw.

Said, done. In January 2011, Kugler travelled to Laos to accompany the French vet, his Laotian assistant, and an officer from the ministry of agriculture on a journey, deep into the jungle. To go to areas that were inaccessible to forest machinery, and where elephants were used as working animals for heavy forest work. His graphic novel "Mit dem Elefantendoktor in Laos" (With the Elephant Doctor in Laos) is a record of this journey.


Since then, Kugler has made several trips as an artist-reporter. He has reported for Oxfam on the famine in the Sahel Region in Burkina Faso; he has travelled to Iraq, the Greek islands, France and Great Britain on behalf of Doctors Without Borders to interview Syrian refugees. He has reported on a wide variety of issues for a range of different media. The results have included portraits of a former Mafioso and an Iranian trucker; a Christmas celebration for homeless people; a report from Tahir Square in Cairo during the Arab Spring, and travel diaries from Cuba and Shanghai. His diploma thesis was a graphic reportage of the Reeperbahn in Hamburg’s St. Pauli district.

The common thread running through all these projects is not just his curiosity for the world and the people he meets, but also his approach. Because, Kugler is a fact collector who collects countless details during his travels, and scatters them through his narrative. And so he is constantly shifting between specific details pertaining to the journey, and general facts about the country, people, and culture.

This is also the case with his sketches from Laos. He touches on the everyday – how people greet each other, what they eat for breakfast, living conditions in the province – as much as he does on the major geopolitical fault lines – for example, when he shows how globalisation is changing provincial life in Laos geographically, socially and culturally. His personal involvement can be deduced only from the selection of facts that he has included. Kugler does not allow himself to indulge in political commentary – as does Joe Sacco, for instance, or to be baffled and astonished, as is the case with Guy Delisle. However, he doesn't see himself as a journalist like Sacco, whose work he admires. In a portrait in Eye magazine, Kugler concedes that while Sacco goes out and collects facts for a story, he himself goes out to return with a couple of illustrative drawings.


In the graphic novel about his experience of Laos, Kugler calmly observes that the government is keen to make the country Asia’s energy powerhouse and is prepared to offer Chinese or Thai companies everything to make this possible, without first asking the people. Or that this development has brought prostitution and corruption with it and is rocking the foundations of traditional society. Where other reporters tend towards western hubris and make bold assessments of such developments, a portrayal is enough for Kugler. He is aware of the complexity of the situation. Everyone has to judge for themselves. His full-page, tightly packed scenes are replete with details that fit in beside, behind, or on top of each other. In the depths of the drawing one, therefore, finds innumerable pointers to what defines Laos and its society.

Kugler learned his art at New York’s School of Visual Arts, which is known for the technique of on-the-spot drawing. Kugler has developed his very own personal style, a melange of sketch-like drawings with colour highlights and free-floating text. Little of this happens in the field where he is fully focused on the people he meets and soaks up as much detail as he possibly can. He always has a camera and recorder to capture all that should be captured. Only in the studio does he start his pencil drawings based on his photographs. He finishes by scanning his sketches and adding the colours on the computer.


It is important to him that the colours do not cover the drawings completely, but have more of a transparent effect. This is often reminiscent of watercolour or gouache with the drawings shining through. He usually dispenses with clear lines and complete strokes, which is why clarity is blurred, and the images flow into one another. The overlying layers of colour intensify the effect. Kugler also adds colour to specific details and by doing so, he cleverly shifts the readers' gaze. He finishes by inserting his hand-written texts into the drawing with some of the details glowing behind the text. This artistic aesthetic gives rise to a subjective feeling of being overwhelmed by these impenetrable, crowded scenes.

Kugler’s Laos story revolves around sick animals and their owner. Here, the narrative swings like a pendulum back and forth between the individual and the universal. The first elephant presented is 43 years old, weighs almost four tonnes, is called AyBounpheng, and has to be treated for an infected wound in the foot. Just by the way Kugler tells us that in their third year of training, all work elephants in Laos choose a name by deciding in favour of one or more pieces of sugar that carry names. On his trip of just under a week, he watched a total of 45 elephants being treated. Almost as many are spread out across his reportage that covers approximately 30 pages. All unique characters, some that emerge majestically in all splendour from the jungle, some just suggested with broken lines. Regardless of how they appear, you can’t get enough of them.


Laos was previously known as Pathet Lan Xang, the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’ which is why even the Buddhist temples are decorated with elephants. When Kugler visited the country, there were only about a thousand elephants. A brisk illegal trade in these animals has developed with China, Thailand, and Korea. In order to curb the trade, ElefantAsia doctors have injected a microchip under the skin.

Kugler documents several conversations he had with mahouts, the traditional elephant keepers, whose profession is gradually dying out, even though it provides a steady source of income. They often have to leave their families for several weeks to go deep into the jungle with their animals to areas inaccessible to trucks and lorries. Moreover, the work is dangerous, some mahouts have been killed by aggressive elephants. Mohn, who is 52, says he will probably be his family’s last mahout. His two sons are not interested in becoming elephant keepers. One of them will be a monk, the other a tourist guide. Nobody knows what will then happen to the elephant the family owns when Mohn can no longer do the hard work.

By collecting such stories, Olivier Kugler gets to the heart of the people and the society in which they live. He brings them out of anonymity, gives them a face and a voice tied to a destiny – a method that has a much wider impact in his refugee portraits, collected in Escaping the War and Waves. Like many of his other works, they reveal just how much empathy he has for people who open up to him on his travels.

Olivier Kugler: Mit dem Elefantendoktor in Laos (With the Elephant Doctor in Laos). Edition Moderne, 48 pages, EUR 19.80