Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Meet Sergio Peçanha, Washington Post visual essayist

by Mike Rhode

One of the pleasures of the Washington Post's digital version, besides national treasure Ann Telnaes, is Sergio Peçanha's work, much of which recalls the promise of webcomics that Scott McCloud predicted so many years ago. I was absolutely thrilled to make contact with him on Instagram, and ask him to do an interview. As is our wont, rather than straining to find new words, we'll just lift the Post's biography of him:

Sergio Peçanha is a visual columnist at the Opinions desk of the Washington Post. He uses visual elements like illustrations, cartoons, maps, information graphics and videos to tell stories. Before joining The Post in 2019, he was a graphics editor at The New York Times for more than a decade, where he created visual stories for the International desk and the New York desk. Peçanha graduated in journalism from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. His work has been recognized multiple times by the Society for News Design and the Malofiej infographics awards, in Spain, including Gold medals

What type of comic work or cartooning do you do? I called it editorial illustration when I reached out to you - is this accurate?

I think I'd say I do visual essays. I use cartoons, photography or any other sort of visual elements, like charts to tell visual stories.  The language I use often borrows from the storytelling style common in children's picture books, but for an adult audience. The idea determines the visual and writing style I use. Sometimes I may not use pictures at all.  (The links in my answers are examples of what I am referring to.)

 How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?

I almost always do pencil sketches. Sometimes I use acrylic, pen and ink, iPad, Photoshop, after effects. I use anything that gets the job done.

How did you come to work for the Washington Post? Are you on contract, or on staff?

I studied journalism in Brazil and have been a visual journalist for more than 20 years. For 11 years, I worked at the graphics desk of the New York Times. I did information graphics, visual stories and multimedia. I came to the Post in 2019 to work doing multimedia, visual stories and graphics at the Opinions desk. But for me, the main reason to come here was to be able to do my column, where I can experiment with visual elements, humor and language. I'm on staff.

When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

1976, Rio de Janeiro.

Are you in Washington now?  If so, what neighborhood or area do you live in?

I live in Silver Spring, MD.

What is your training and/or education in cartooning?

No training in cartooning. I studied journalism in college and earned a masters degree in illustration a couple of years ago. 

Who are your influences?

Many. Some are... Sempé; David Shrigley; David Hockney; R.O. Blechman; Steinberg; H.M. Bateman; Laura Carlin; Bill Watterson; Glen Baxter; Serge Bloch; Liana Finck; Maira Kalman; Laerte; Chico Caruso; Mariana Massarani; and of course, Ann Telnaes and Michael de Adder, who I can't believe I can call "my colleagues."

If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?

I was born in a lower middle class family in Rio de Janeiro. My path to this point highly is unlikely. So I wouldn't change anything.

What work are you best-known for?

I don't think I'm best known.

What work are you most proud of?

I am proud of Absurd America at the Post and for some of the multimedia storytelling that I helped to develop at the Times.

What would you like to do or work on in the future?

I wanna do a book. Maybe more than one. I have some ideas. But I also need to work on my ADHD.

What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?

I freak out and think I am a failure. I always talk to my wife. Also to my shrink, and close co-workers. I fish for ideas, but mostly lament. They are so nice to me, they cheer me up. When I think no one can stand my lamentations anymore, I hide and fail alone for some time. At that point, I think about changing jobs, because the suffering is intense. I become confident that people will realize that I'm a failure and I will be fired. After a lot of that suffering, eventually something happens. It's like delivering a baby, I guess.

What do you think will be the future of your field?

I think AI will do a lot of pasteurized stories and illustrations and most people will be happy about it. Still, there will be space for us — because humans can fail in ways that machines simply can not.

Any thoughts on the Pulitzer recently changing the editorial cartoon category to one that you appear to qualify in?

The Pulitzer is important because it values good work. That said, there is a lot of good work that is essential to journalism in the 21st century that is not eligible for the Pulitzer. For example: multimedia storytelling, photo editing, videos, information graphics... Just like there are Oscars for Best Picture and for Best Makeup, I think the Pulitzer could be expanded  — and I see no reason to extinguish existing categories in that expansion. 

You and Ann Telnaes teamed up on at least one piece - how did that come about?

Imagine that you get to play soccer with Pelé? That's how I felt.

Your recent work on COVID was just a data visualization of the numbers of people who died in the US represented on a map. This seems a little atypical for your work; can you explain why you chose to do it?

At the moment, my job at the Post is divided into two parts. On one side, I do visual storytelling and graphics. The other part is my column, Absurd America. One day I might only do my column. But I'm not there yet.

What's your favorite thing about DC?

I think it's a pretty city, good quality of life and not too cold (although it is still too cold for me).

Least favorite?

It doesn't have a beach and the winter is still pretty cold for me...  Additionally, I think it's bizarre how it is racially divided. But that's not exclusive to DC...  

What monument or museum do you like to take visitors to?

I think the area around the Lincoln Memorial is pleasant.

How about a favorite local restaurant?

La Limeña Grill in Rockville. Peruvian food.
 Do you have a website or blog?


How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected you, personally and professionally?

Worked from home for 2 years and loved it. :-)

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