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Illustrating ASSA’s findings with comics

Georgiana Murariu26 May 2021

By Georgiana Murariu and Laura Haapio-Kirk

Towards the end of last year, when the collaborative The Global Smartphone book was was nearing completion, we started to think about how to take some of the key findings presented in the books and turn them into ‘discoveries’ on the project website. Presenting key findings in such a way required that we nuance the broad findings with stories from our fieldsites. While, of course, it is possible to do so in text, we wanted to continue the ASSA project’s commitment to pushing traditional tropes of academic dissemination by embracing visual storytelling. At the moment there is lots of exciting work being done in graphic anthropology, as demonstrated by the vast amount of quality work submitted to the Illustrating Anthropology exhibition that Laura co-curated last year, supported by the Royal Anthropological Institute. We decided that we wanted to experiment with comics as a form of research-driven storytelling. After receiving generous advice from Dr Gemma Sou who contributed to the exhibition, we approached the illustrator John Cei Douglas, whom Gemma had collaborated with for her comic ‘After Maria’.

In the recently published The Global Smartphone, when we talk about findings and theoretical contributions such as The Transportal Home or Beyond Anthropomorphism, we always try to illustrate the finding with evidence and vignettes from the field. But what if we could actually illustrate these concepts through comics? Working with the ASSA team to tease out particular stories and observations from their fieldwork, we set to work scripting a series of comics that depict the local ways that 10 of our key ‘discoveries’ manifest in our 10 fieldsites. Working with John closely on these scripts has been an invaluable learning experience, as we soon discovered that scripts had to be pared down to the essentials, and text kept to a minimum in order to make the format work and make the most of John’s sensitive and evocative drawings.

Transforming the researchers’ analyses, observations, and stories into short comic scripts has prompted really valuable discussions about representation, anonymity, and the nature of creative responses to research. What seems like a vital quote in an ethnographic story in a monograph cannot always be included in a cartoon and can actually be more powerful when illustrated without words. Equally, there may be panels in the comic where one may feel like ‘not much happens’, but which are important to conveying the feel and atmosphere of the fieldsite, or the internal experiences of a character.

We will release one new comic every couple of weeks and will reflect on the process of creating anthropological comics here on the blog. We hope that you’ll join us on this journey!

Below is our first comic, drawing on the research of Shireen Walton, who conducted her fieldwork in Milan, Italy. In this comic, we see how the concept of the transportal home plays out in the life of Heba, a migrant from Egypt. Shireen worked in a diverse inner-city neighbourhood, and met a number of migrants who had a particular relationship to their smartphones. Their devices connected them to their families in their home countries and were their ‘constant companions’.

In this cartoon, the fictional character of Heba is inspired by the people that Shireen worked with. Heba is living a busy life in Milan, raising her two teenage children. She is connected to Egypt, where she was born and grew up, through her smartphone, and through various interactions she has with her family throughout the day. As much as her physical environment that surrounds her in Milan, the smartphone is a place in which she ‘lives’ while carrying out her daily activities such as listening to Egyptian music and communicating with her family throughout her day. ‘Home’ is located simultaneously in the physical and digital domains, which are interwoven and integrated. You can read more about the concept of ‘the transportal home’ on the project website here.

We hope you enjoy the comics and would love to hear your thoughts!

Illustrating Anthropology

Laura Haapio-Kirk23 September 2020

Last week I participated in the ‘Anthropology and Geography: Dialogues Past, Present and Future’ conference which was jointly organised by the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Royal Geographical Society, the British Academy, the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at SOAS, and the British Museum’s Department for Africa, Oceania and the Americas. I was invited to join a roundtable discussion on ‘Public Anthropology and Geography’, chaired by Dr Joe Smith, the director of the Royal Geographical Society with IBG. Joining me were geographer Dr Ella Harris (Birkbeck University of London) and Dr Simon Underdown (Oxford Brookes). It was a lively discussion featuring many questions from the 90 delegates in the audience, exploring the ways in which anthropology and geography can be – or should be – ‘public’, ranging from engaging beyond academia, informing public policy, through to ways of constructing knowledge with publics. Ella presented her work on interactive documentary making during COVID-19, and Simon called for greater communication within and between the disciplines of Anthropology and Geography for better engagement with the public.

I used the opportunity to talk about my interest in visual approaches to public anthropology, and to launch an exhibition I have been working on, alongside Dr Jennifer Cearns, supported by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Earlier in the year we put out an open call for illustrations of anthropological research and were overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of the response from anthropologists all over the world. We spent a long time working our way through the entries, along with guest judge Dr Benjamin Dix, Founding Director of PositiveNegatives, who produce comics, animations, and podcasts about social and humanitarian issues.

Maxime Le Calvé’s fluid field sketches that capture the ‘atmosphere’ of a situation.

Jennifer and I are both Leach Fellows in Public Anthropology at the RAI, and this year have been organising a variety of public endeavours. The pandemic has made it a strange year to try to arrange public activities, but perhaps a positive side effect of having to refocus our attention on online events is the possibility to reach larger and more wide-flung audiences. Another side effect is that we have had to prioritise visual media that will engage people online. The online ‘Illustrating Anthropology’ exhibition explores human lives around the world through comics, drawings, and paintings of anthropological research. From those who use illustration as a fieldwork method to others who partner with artists and research participants to tell stories, this exhibition draws together a wide range of ways that contemporary anthropologists are illustrating anthropology.

Tom Crowley’s illustrations of a story told to him by a member of a community in the Kalash Valleys, Pakistan

Drawing has long been part of anthropological research and communication, in the form of maps, field-note sketches and kinship diagrams. But now anthropologists are increasingly recognising the phenomenal storytelling power of illustration as a way to return their research to the communities they work with and to share their findings far and wide. Illustration can be a powerful way to contribute towards the public imagination of anthropology, and also to work with publics in the production of knowledge, including through participatory methods.

I invite you to take a look at the exhibition website where we will be releasing new illustrations every week over the next ten weeks. You can also follow along on the @Illustrating_Anthropology Instagram account for our daily updates. Hope you’ll join us on this journey! And if you are exploring illustration in your anthropological work, then share it with us on Instagram with the hashtag #IllustratingAnthropology.