20 Minutes with Laura Breiling

The illustrator about a new inclusivity, Instagram censorship, Berlin and male gaze

What gets photoshopped in commercial advertisement, campaigns and editorials, usually is non-existent in the medium of illustration. In conventional media, there is no space for body-hair, period-blood, cellulite or wrinkled lesbians. German magazines often want white, heteronormative women and men on their covers with a person of colour safely hidden in the back of their issue, merely to meet a ratio and prevent a shitstorm. Laura Breiling is different: She actively turns cliches against each other, presents an inclusive human image, does not shy away from allegedly messy topics and breaks with social taboos. Laura Breiling is bold, colourful and political. Her illustrations show a realistic rendition of our current world including important but supposedly sensitive topics like breastfeeding in public spaces, black history, the ups and especially the downs of motherhood, LGBTQ+ rights or female masturbation. Her work made it into the likes of New York Times, Glamour Magazine, The New Yorker or DIE ZEIT. The popularity of her work does not only show that representation matters but that times are changing: We are longing for a new perspective that does not drive apart but unites – and Laura's could be it!

Nele Tüch: Your illustrations are always also a capture of Zeitgeist. If you look at your early work in comparison to your current one – what has changed?
Laura Breiling: In any case, I draw more clearly political content. More environmental protection, more feminism and more colour above all. Most of my customers want very colourful works.

NT: You and your illustrations are political, you draw attention towards sexism and misogyny, you represent all ages, colours, genders and sexualities, you break with traditional roles and beauty ideals and you keep track of current affairs. Is it easier to be political now that the awareness of those topics grows?
Laura Breiling: I think it depends on the environment you are in and who you work for. Personally, I can say that at the beginning of my work as an illustrator I had to discuss more in order to integrate the mentioned topics into my commissioned illustrations: Less "the wrinkles have to go", "Make her calves thinner", "Why are there so many black people, it looks like America?" While now, I'm getting booked for this very purpose. That is a positive development. I hope that on the side of the clients it won't stay at a once-in-a-lifetime pink-, green- or similar washing but rather develops into the direction of more awareness.

NT: You have been published in some of the biggest national and international newspapers and magazines. Do you still pitch ideas or do you let them come to you?
Laura Breiling: For a while now, I haven't had any time at all for acquisition, so it's rather the latter. But I actually think that it doesn't hurt to draw attention to yourself when things are going well. So thanks for the reminder :)

NT: If it comes to commissioned work, how free are you?
Laura Breiling: That depends very much on the customer, the assignment and the topic. With advertising, there is usually less freedom, with editorial it can be a bit more. Especially in Germany, there are a few art directors who want to decide everything and leave very little leeway. They see us illustrators as "brushes" for their ideas. As you can guess, nothing good usually comes out of it. Fortunately, I haven't worked with people like that for a while.

NT: I could imagine that Social Media, especially Instagram, is specifically important for illustrators even though at the same time, Instagram restricts creative freedom by banning female nipples or sexually connoted content. What’s your take on that?
Laura Breiling: Instagram can be very practical for the portfolio, but of course it has its drawbacks. Companies like Instagram are not concerned with morality or fairness, but with profit and clever calculation. What generates interaction and brings advertising space, what doesn't, is what counts. Such companies usually don't fulfil their social responsibility, if they had that on their agenda they probably wouldn't have become so big. As a user, however, in the best case you also have certain creative options: An illustration of mine was deleted, again and again, with every upload. You could see drawn nipples. I complained and a journalist contacted me and wrote an article about it. Instagram called me and uploaded the illustration again. I found that exciting. But nothing lasts forever, I am curious about what the platform will be replaced by in the future.

NT: As a freelancer, you are quite flexible, how do you keep a structure to your day?
Laura Breiling: Deadlines, meetings, lunches and conference calls are my structure. I think without self-discipline you can't do the job. This is perfect for me, I like to divide my time myself, without rigid core-working-hours.

NT: Everyone who starts out in the creative industry has a dream-goal – what was yours when you started out? Did it change now that you are experienced?
Laura Breiling: I wanted to make a good living from work. Now it's been possible for a while and I can refuse jobs that don't fit my morals or my way of working. This is great and I am very grateful for it.


"As long as patriarchy exists and editorial offices and agencies are full of old, white men, the male worldview is present."


NT: If you look at the industry you are working in – how much is it still shaped by the male gaze?
Laura Breiling: As long as patriarchy exists and editorial offices and agencies are full of old, white men, the male worldview is present. I have the impression that it is changing and awareness is increasing. I very much welcome this. But we still have a long way to go.

NT: You have a lot of international clients and probably you could work from everywhere – why Berlin?
Laura Breiling: I know of no other city in Germany that is politically and culturally more interesting and diverse. And there are many lakes. Staying in Germany is important to me because I want to see my family regularly without having to fly. Maybe one day I'll move out of Kreuzberg to a more rural area, we'll see.

NT: Personal leeway (=Freiraum) - what does it mean for you and where can you find it?
Laura Breiling: I find freedom and leeway in my free works that deal with political events and are not subject to censorship, in nature and in my freedom to organize my day at any time.

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