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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!

Forget me not – portrait photography in the smartphone age

Xin Yuan Wang16 April 2021

One of my previous blog posts talked about photography as a hobby among older people in China, where the protagonist Mr. Shou brought up the question of the ‘sense of ritual’ in the digital age. In the newly released short video in this blog, I invite you to listen to the same Mr. Shou and what he thinks of his photography, a hobby he has managed to develop as a professional occupation after retirement.

‘Photographic memory’ has long been the subject of anthropological inquiry. In our project’s forthcoming comparative book, The Global Smartphone: beyond a youth technology, we argue that nowadays, smartphone photography is the opposite of traditional photography, whose aim, historically, has been to restore memories. Smartphone photography, on the other hand, is more about taking the opportunity anywhere, anytime to ‘put a frame’ upon anything that people notice in their daily life.

In a way, it is through smartphone photography people experience life. In the short film above, Mr. Shou’s case provides a different angle to this story, enabling us to appreciate the co-existence of both smartphone photography and ‘pre-smartphone’ photography in people’s lives. For example, in Mr. Shou’s case, his professional portrait photography would not reach many people without the successful WeChat blog he runs. Therefore, it is important to observe that ‘smartphone photography’ and ‘pre-smartphone photography’ do not necessarily rival each other, as both of them have found a niche in today’s exuberantly visual world.