Updated: Feb 20, 2021
Sergio Peçanha on visual storytelling, journalism in the Trump era, and keeping your head up in the face of absurdity.
By Dominy Gallo.
On a recent Sunday, as I was enveloped in a History midterm, my mother tore my laptop away and placed hers in my lap. “Look at this, Dominy!” she said. “How great is that? Hilarious!” It was a piece in The Washington Post entitled “The Trump era, so far, in 10 drawings and fewer than 200 words.” In it, opinions graphics columnist Sergio Peçanha mockingly lambastes the president for his failures these past four years in office. My mother spends upwards of two hours a day—easily—reading and watching the news and not infrequently presents me with articles and segments, head hung low in despair or arms flung up in frustration. As I told Mr. Peçanha in an email, “I have not seen her light up reading about politics like she did that day in a long, long time.” He graciously agreed to speak with me, and the next day, we were on Zoom, chatting about his childhood in Brazil, his trajectory toward a career in visual journalism, the birth of his column, and how he stays positive and productive in the “absurd America” he loves so much. The following are excerpts from our dialogue.
B&W: You’re very humble on your website, describing yourself simply as a graphic designer, journalist, and illustrator. If no one were listening, how would you describe what you do?
Sergio: I think the same way. I’m just a journalist who can draw a little bit.
B&W: When you’re doing visual journalism, how much of that is data visualization, and how much of that is artistic rendition?
Sergio: I try to have more of the visual illustrations and other types of visual storytelling than data. I did a lot of data-driven graphics, of course, but… [m]y passion is visual storytelling and mixing images and words, because when you choose the right image and the right words, one has the power to alter the meaning of the other, and, together, they can guide whoever is looking at it to a different perception that’s their own.… So that’s what I am most interested in, how people perceive information, how the story is told.
B&W: You segued perfectly into the next question, this relationship between visuals and words. When you set out to tell a story, how do you decide what to present to your readers in visuals and what to present in words? What does that process look like?
Sergio: Well, there are two different things. One if I’m doing the column, and one if I’m doing more formal storytelling. The column is a very personal thing where I can figure out whatever solution I want. For the other, I’m trying to tell a specific story that sometimes I’m writing, sometimes someone else is writing and I’m just making the charts. So it’s a collaboration.… Say that you’re using numbers to tell a story. I would try to select the minimum amount of words possible that would help people to understand the image that they’re about to see, because you want to have to do all the work yourself—to have the minimum work possible for whoever’s reading. Now, on the column side … it’s a mix. Sometimes, it comes out quickly, but it’s always a very familiar, very painful process…. [W]hen I first took this job, I didn’t know if I would be capable of delivering the column that I thought that I, maybe, could do. So I had this very blurry idea of a column that would mix news and visuals and maybe some level of poetry, definitely a little bit of humor. That was my pitch for the column, and that would focus, in this case, on things that don’t really make much sense in this country. Hence the name, Absurd America. But I didn’t really know because it didn’t exist and I hadn’t sketched it…But I thought that there was something that I could do along those lines, mixing it with more hard, news-driven information…and I was seriously concerned that I would fail.
B&W: I’d like to know what the inspiration for the column was, if it came to you in an instant, if it was slow or if it revealed itself to you in stages. What was it that set off that vision that you had for Absurd America?
Sergio: OK, I will tell you the whole story. So I was working at the Times and I had been there for a decade. I really enjoyed the job there … but I felt like I wanted to do something more personal… [T]here was this opportunity at the Post, and I came and I spoke with Fred Hiatt, who is the opinion page editor there. We were having lunch…. We were just there to meet each other. They had this position that they were trying to fill with somebody who would be a graphics columnist for them, but … they didn’t really have a template. Nobody had ever done it, so they didn’t know what to expect. So it could be anything. I knew that part of what they expected was something that I was very comfortable doing, which is doing information graphics … but also there was the other thing that was something that I wanted to do that I didn’t know if I could do, and since they didn’t really know what to expect, I thought there was a window that I could try to do it there. So during lunch … at a certain moment … I said, “Look, I know what you need, I understand what you need, and I think I’m capable of doing that. But there’s something else that I want to do. I want to do a column.” And I really didn’t know that he would let me because I found it kind of a big deal at that time, doing an opinion column at a place like the Post.… I just kind of threw that on the table because really, for me, that’s what would be the thing that would make me come, just a chance to pursue that. But he says, “Oh, yeah, sure, of course.” It was like that.… I was expecting, probably, a “no.” But he said, “Sure, of course! What would you like the column to be about?” And I was kind of caught off guard because I had no idea. I hadn’t thought about that. And then I had a sip of water because I needed to gain a few seconds. I said, “Mmm, good question.” So I’m making time. I said, “Ummmmm,” and as you have already noticed, sometimes I mumble, but I took it to my advantage in this moment, and I said, “Hmm, so …” and I’m thinking. I thought, well, the Washington Post, politics, National. All right. “How about….” I’m still thinking, I was literally gaining time. Thirty seconds.…
Illustration by Samia Menon
I said something like this: “There are many things in the U.S. that happen but simply don’t make any sense. I was born outside of the U.S. and I look at it and I think, this is the richest country on the planet, and some people don’t have health care or some people don’t have some basic things. So strange. How is that even possible?” And then I have an idea. I started mumbling these things and then … I said, “How about if the column was about everything that doesn’t make any sense in the US but happens anyway?” And then he looked at me and said, “Hmm. Good idea. Like, ‘Absurd America!’” That’s how it happened.… When I walked home, my wife said that she could see on my face that I had to go.… I feel very lucky, fortunate that I had this opportunity and also very happy that it’s starting to become something that is less blurry.… At least now, I have something that I can look at and try to aim for.
B&W: You live and work as an American journalist. Being both of a place and not of a place gives one both a conscious connection and a more refined awareness of the given situation in a country. Absurd America reports, quote, “on the idiosyncrasies of life in the United States.” Do you feel as though your childhood and education outside of the US gave you a clearer understanding of just how absurd America really is?
Sergio: That is really the heart of what that page that day was. I’m talking about something that is so crazy in this country that right now is the president himself, who is really an extreme, unusual person.… I live here and have been living here for a long time … I love this country, too. But I also feel very much what I’ve always been. You can see I speak with an accent and I write with an accent and that kind of guides my writing style in English…. I can already be fairly eloquent, but not to the same level of other people who are native, I think. So I figured out a way of using fewer words, which is already my way of speaking.
B&W: Many of our readers will be anxiously anticipating the results of the election. Can you speak to the precise experience you mentioned that our current president is … particularly absurd. Is there something unique about the experience of reporting on this administration compared to all of the other things that you’ve had experience reporting on?
Sergio: I’ve been doing journalism for about 20 years, and … with Trump … there’s news all the time. He is always making headlines because of something either radical that he said or something absurd. And I don’t think I had seen that in my career before that. Before that, you know, you sometimes have … major events … things that happened and they’re extraordinary. But those generally last a few news cycles…. Trump is just every day, there’s a new headline of something weird. For example, like you had that debate and he was terrible and so aggressive and did poorly. And then, just three days later or so, he fell sick from Corona, and then two more days and he is having a joy ride around the hospital, and then three days later he is taking off his mask while he’s still sick, and another three days he is in the rally … It’s nonstop. So that is … what I find different from covering Trump.
B&W: Your column especially is bitingly funny. I think much of Columbia has sort of descended into despair, reading upsetting headlines, and you somehow manage to make us laugh about these things. Can you talk about the role of humor and satire in the specific work that you do?
Sergio: Oh, yeah, I think it’s very important to be able to look at everything that happens and put it in perspective. For example, Trump. I think he has been doing some really terrible things…. Now, we are about to have an election and maybe he’ll lose, maybe he’ll win … While that may be a scary thought for some people, the reality is that in another four years, he will be gone for sure. So if you put things in perspective, everything passes. Life passes, time passes, and you need to make the best of what you can today with what you have.… Find something to laugh at, because otherwise, life, it becomes too difficult. You need to smile, and I think it’s very important to smile.
Another thing that is important for this is that I’m from Brazil, right? Brazil is a country that is messed up as well. The president there is Jair Bolsonaro, who is a mini-Trump. He is kind of like Trump but just considerably dumber…. I actually kind of think he’s like the crazy uncle that went too far. He is like that guy at the Thanksgiving table that says absurd things and then one day he’s elected. That’s who he is. How did he get there? I don’t know. It’s not like I would hate my crazy uncle. I can get along with him. I can laugh. I just don’t want him to be the president. This is in Brazil, but … Brazilian people make fun of everything, everything, everything…. And that is something that we just do because, over there, life is much harder than here. The basic things, to get a job, to pay the bills, everything gets harder … everything is more difficult to afford. If you lose your job it is probably going to be much harder to get another one, no matter how good you are. So the way people manage life there is by making a lot of jokes about things…. You can see people laughing at each other and laughing at themselves. I think it’s important to laugh and I think it’s important to take it easy and try to see the beauty of things.
B&W: your most recent installment in your column, “The Trump era, so far, in 10 drawings and fewer than 200 words,” hilarious, but also brilliant. I’m curious as to how you distilled four years of a presidency in which, as you said, every three days, something absurd and horrifying was happening.
Sergio: This one, I confess that it came fairly fast, the text. I struggled a lot in this one with the drawings.… Sometimes the drawings come first, sometimes the idea comes first, sometimes the text comes first, and then I change it completely once I start doing some drawings. In this case specifically, I just started with the idea.… We’re about to get to the end of the first term…maybe of the presidency. So, what would be Trump’s list of accomplishments? That’s how I started writing. And then I just started to remember things that he had done. Of course, you can write thousands of words, but other people will do that. I’m the one who will make some drawings and write just a few. So I just wrote a few…. I showed it to my wife.… She’s a journalist, too … so very often she will tell me, “This sucks. You can’t publish this.” Just like that.… And some other times — in this case, she read it and said, “Huh. This is good. Get it done. Publish it.” … Then I said, “Can I send it to Duffy (my editor)?” She said, “Yeah, yeah, send it to him.” So she’s always my first line of defense when I have an idea. And then I send it to Duffy—Duffy is a great guy … but he is not a guy of very many words. So he replies, “Keep going,” which to me makes the obvious evident. First, he thinks it’s an acceptable idea that, if I pursue, maybe we’ll get somewhere. And second, it’s definitely not done, even though I may think that it’s close to being done. So after he says keep going, then I start to organize that story a little more in chronological order, to put it into a shape that I thought would make it better. I add some drawings and start figuring it out. In this case, at the end, I thought, OK, I’m done.… I am generally very demanding of myself, but sometimes when I’m tired … or when I have struggled too much, I try to, maybe, move it in. Then, it’s really fortunate that I have somebody like my wife or my editor who will say it sucks…. For me, that’s what I need, because deep inside I know it sucks and I need to fix it.
B&W: You mentioned insecurity, which I think many creative people share. And … you mentioned that sometimes you have a feeling that something’s ready. What does that look like for you? How do you know when you’re ready to put something out into the world?
Sergio: Hmm, that’s a good question. I’m both very secure in the sense that I know what I want to try to get and, at the same time, terribly insecure that I feel like I can fail at any time and people will finally uncover me and I’m going to fail completely and I will be unemployed forever…. I’m laughing and smiling about it, but it can be excruciating sometimes. When I was doing this column, I knew that I was trying to get to something that, on the first two or three installments, I hadn’t got to. And I was just having this sensation of failure because even though they were … good enough for publication … they weren’t what I was trying to do. I almost gave up. The only reason why I didn’t give up is because … I wasn’t born rich, so I can’t not work, and suffering is my thing.…
By now, I am starting to get some confidence that I may be capable of sometimes achieving something that I want. The first time that I ever felt like that while I was doing this column was when I did the love story, “A Viral Love Affair,” and the one that came after that—“Lessons from the Confinement.” When I did the first one, “A Viral Love Affair,” I thought, Ah! I can do it. There is something, it’s here. It’s this way. Then, I did the other one, the “Lessons from the Confinement,” and I thought, Yes! That wasn’t just luck, I can do it again. Then, the next one I did, I was so nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to do it again that it didn’t really turn out that good. It was fine, it was publishable, but it wasn’t really what I was trying for. But every single one I try to do something slightly different … because I keep pushing and pushing and evolving. Then, I was so nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to keep delivering like the first ones, these two that I mentioned.… I started to feel like, I’m a failure, it’s just not going to work, it’s never going to work. Too much suffering.... But this is growing pains. I was just suffering because I was growing, I think.
This is the answer to your question. If something is good, when you listen to your heart, you have to feel it. You have to feel like, look, this is fine. It may not be the best thing anybody has ever written on the planet, but perhaps it is the best that I can do for this subject at this time in my life. And for me, Sergio, as long as I can do the best that I can do, now, about that, as long as I give 100 percent of what I have to give every single time, I’m OK with taking some losses sometimes, because what I can’t do is give it 90 percent. I’m lucky to have some folks that call me out if I give 90 percent, but if you don’t have somebody who can guide you, I would say that if you do and if you do not, the same is true: listen to yourself first, try to listen to what you feel. And then show it to … somebody who you trust.