Anthropology goes Comics by Hannah Wadle

03 Feb

While film and photography have fallen on fertile ground from the early days of Anthropology and moulded the sub-discipline of Visual Anthropology, comics has not yet become an equally respected and applied ethnographic methodological tool and format of presenting anthropological knowledge. There are a few individual artists-anthropologists, who contribute to a discussion on comics and anthropology, but thousands of anthropologists returning from fieldwork, with their numerous little diaries, filled not only with written notes, but also with sketches and drawings, leave their graphic work behind and begin with their “real work”, the writing, as soon as they are back in their home universities.

So I got quite excited when I opened the reading file for my postgraduate research seminar (Social Anthropology Department, University of Manchester) on commercial and non-commercial sexual encounters between gay men in The Village in Manchester and found myself looking straight into the eyes of an informant from Michael Atkins’ PhD project, or rather a powerfully pencilled representation of him, drawn by Atkins himself.

Image from ‘The Dark Side of the Village’ courtesy of Michael Atkins.

On nine pages the anthropologist told me an ethnographic tale about the “Dark side of The Village”, in which he visualised and narrated the role of the gaze for sexual encounters in public areas of The Village – performances that are invisible in public discourses and for those who do not engage in them. Into photographs of empty settings in The Village he had inserted drawn acting characters, created as fragmental and anonymised aliases of his informants.

[Click here to read Michael Atkins’ nine-page comic. Reader discretion is advised; comic includes a small amount of sexual content.]

Methodologies: Communicating through drawing

Sally Gallman (2009), who conducted a study of trainee teachers’ identities by drawing what she calls a graphic novella with her participants, emphasises the processes and intimate nature of drawing. She found that by letting young teachers-to-be draw what they imagined about their private and professional futures, she could evoke emotions and worldviews that would have remained unexpressed in oral narrations.

Whereas in her case the intimacy of the creative process sometimes caused her problems as teachers feared to fail in the performance of drawing, for Camilla Morelli (2011) drawing turned out to be the first language of contact with the Matses children in the Peruvian Amazon, the main informants for her PhD study: Morelli, who was at first not able to communicate with the monolingual children in their mother tongue Matses, gained an insight into the daily life, perceptions, dreams and fears of the children by engaging with them in common sessions of drawing, during which she also started to learn Matses.

Artist and Anthropologist Manuel Joao Ramos often experienced what Gallman and Morelli also described as beneficial for their research: Carrying his sketchbook around on travels and on fieldwork and making use of it by drawing openly, he evoked communicative moments with his environment. He emphasises the open character of making drawings and sequential graphic narratives and sets it in contrast to photographing or videoing:

It generally strikes me that, whereas taking photographs or using a video camera frequently creates a barrier between me and the people I work with, when drawing I become the subject of a more benign form of curiosity, by many of those that I address. (2004: 149)

While Gallman (2009) and Morelli (2011) asked their participants to draw themselves, following a more experience-led route in which the researcher was not intended to be involved in the physical production of the drawings, Ramos and the anthropologist Ana Isabel Afonso worked from a different angle: While participants told their stories and Afonso interviewed them, Ramos openly took notes – in form of drawings. These graphic notes, which visualised the stories of the people were then discussed with the participants and refined, extended and redrawn by Ramos on the basis of the given feedback. The first step of narrating and note taking thereby developed into a mutual collaboration, in which the informants were closely involved in controlling the recorded narrative and a representation of their stories, which were visually accessible for them. Michael Atkins, whose project was cited at the beginning of this article, followed a similar route to Afonso’s and Ramos’s: During his fieldwork in The Village he made drawings as he observed and often discussed them with his informants, asking them for their feedback.

Ethics: Does graphic mean anonymous?

Anonymity and the protection of the informant being among the key discourses and reasons for concern in anthropology, and this question was especially important for Atkins, whose informants were particularly vulnerable. The need to protect their anonymity excluded the possibility of photographing them in action right from the start of his research. Drawing them in a graphically transformed body was his answer to this challenge. Nonetheless Atkins, who is also a professional photographer, did not give up photography completely for his PhD project: for the comic, he took pictures of empty settings, which he then brought to life with his drawings of the people and the stories he had encountered.

We can find the idea of graphic representations as a format and tool for guarding the anonymity of informants and protecting their person in the introduction to Bartoszka, Leseth and Ponomarew’s ethnographic comic study about the students’ perception of public space, information, accessibility, technology and diversity at Oslo University College (2010).

[…] we believe that the comic book format with its convincing visual style and its preservation of anonymity (i.e. informants do not have to reveal their identity on screen or in photos, thus preserving their identities) may be a great solution. (Bartoszka et al, 2010: 8)

However, Bartoszka et al emphasise that the transformation of the informant into a graphic character cannot be the complete solution for an ethically sustainable ethnography. They point out that a level of fictionalisation (within the limits of the blurry terrain of faithfulness and trustworthiness) is just as necessary to protect not only the appearance of the informant, but also his or her story.

Just as written ethnography, we have manipulated some situations so as to anonymize the informants. […] Our goal was to tell a trustworthy story and, thus, present a trustworthy scientific result. (Bartoszka et al, 2010: 8)

Michael Atkins found similar concerns urgent to his study. Thinking about the possible future use of his drawn material and his observations for educational purposes (leaflets, posters, books etc.) Atkins has now decided to merge different stories and to communicate his ethnographic experiences in the field to the reader in what is to a certain extent a fictionalised form.


Drawing on the example of the presentation of the Holocaust in Maus, Galman (2009: 201) promotes comics as form of representation, which can, in contrast to prose-only texts, take account of multiple and even contradictory viewpoints on events. Released from the linearity of a flowing text, and from the duty of challenging and breaking up this linear form through the content – one of the big tasks for recent ethnographies – comics ethnographies are freed from the restrictions of soloist scripts to represent orchestral pieces. And at this point I would like to argue that it would make sense to take Comics Anthropology further than classifying it as a subsection of Visual Anthropology. Anthropology should instead acknowledge the tendencies turning towards the material in comics’ scholarship (cf. Comics Forum 2011) and explore the physical resources of the formats of comics (cf. the research of Mel Gibson, Ian Hague and Ernesto Priego) both for the representation of anthropological knowledge and for the animation, bringing-to-life, of ethnographically experienced worlds. This is of particular interest as anthropology becomes more and more intrigued by studying the cultural and social dimensions of the senses and is therefore in need of adequate ways to address these issues in terms of their formal (re)presentation.

What I experienced and what came up in the discussion about Michael Atkins’ work in the postgraduate seminar was the accessibility of The Village, or to be more precise, the accessibility of Atkins’ experience and interpretation of a fragmental dimension of it. As a reader I was caught in the atmosphere of a world the researcher and artist had powerfully animated according to his observations, but at the same time I felt ready to draw back and read the piece of work with a Brechtian distancing effect at any moment. The possible concern about the directness and boldness of comics for the purpose of presenting ethnographic results turned out to be in favour of an academic need for possible distance from the findings of a research and the argument of the author.

This accessibility and the seeming directness of the work could become a painful, but also very necessary opening process for the anthropological researcher and a major challenge for the impact of anthropological research: Ideas and consideration, encoded in long prose texts, are often only perceived in academic circles, far away from the place where the research project had been conducted and written in a language inaccessible for informants. In the format of comics ethnographies could reach these groups of informants. Instead of excluding informants from academic discourses about their own culture and way of living, anthropology could benefit from their critical readership.

The authenticity of ethnographic fiction

I would like to make a last point that came to my mind when reading Bartoszka’s and Atkins’ comic. I was wondering about the level of trust towards comics ethnographies. This particularly caught my interest after I had read the words ‘trustworthy’, ‘truthful’ and ‘faithful’ many times in the texts discussed earlier in this article. Galman even entitles her article “The truthful messenger”. Why was there this continuous affirmation of trustworthiness that even evoked my suspicion?

To give an answer I would like to take into account Teri Silvio’s theoretical proposition (2010), which he presents in his article ‘Animation: the New Performance’. Silvio there argues for the evolution from a world imitation, supported through the media of film and television, to an increasing world making, through the rise of the creative sector and growing amount of newly developed fictional and virtual spaces. His reflection on the duality of performance and animation, different but inseparable nonetheless, can light the way to understanding the concerns about trustworthiness of comics ethnographies.

The authors of comics ethnographies locate themselves mostly in the field of Visual Anthropology, a domain dominated by film and photography so far. As Silvio argues, both film and photography present an imitation of the world, while ethnographic films, which use little stylisation and conscious acting often try to be closer to reality and as a consequence claim to be more authentic. Whereas the authenticity desired in ethnographic films is an emic authenticity, focused on the imitation of the ethnographic field, coming from within it, comics ethnographies can and should develop a stronger etic authenticity.

What I mean by this is that comics ethnography searches for authenticity mainly in the mimetic performance of the data. Certainly this aspect of authenticity also plays an important role in comics ethnographies. However, authenticity can also come from a different direction: it can come from the author, whose perceptions are laid open through the drawings and the argument and his way of perceiving becomes very clear. He consciously animates his research topic with the fragments of the world that he, a responsible ethnographer, wants to show. The authenticity of comics ethnography lies in the fact that the author and artist cannot hide behind a camera and behind his data, but that he is openly in charge of choosing what fragments of his fieldwork he animates and how to address the reader, to represent the voices of his informants.

The comic anthropologists’ fear of not being trustworthy or of having to explain oneself results therefore from a monolithic search for authenticity at only one end of the scale. If anthropologists want to feel comfortable with presenting their findings as comics, we need a paradigm shift: We need to understand that the ethnographic use of comics cannot only be understood in relation to films, but also and maybe even more in relation to animations. In the animation, the emphasis is put on the responsible and skilled researcher-artist, rather than on the ‘reality’ of the data.


Afonso, A. I. and M. J. Ramos (2004). ‘New graphics for old stories. Representation of local memories through drawings.’ Working images: visual research and representation in ethnography. S. Pink, L. Kürti, and A. I. Afonso. Routledge London. 5: 72-90.

Bartoszko, A., A. B. Leseth and M. Ponomarew (2010). Public Space, Information, Accessibility, Technology and Diversity at Oslo University College. Oslo.

Gallman, S. (2009). ‘The truthful messenger: visual methods and representation in qualitative research in education.’ Qualitative Research 9 (2): 197-217.

Ramos, M. J. (2004). ‘Drawing the lines. The limitations of intercultural ekphrasis.’ Working images: visual research and representation in ethnography. S. Pink, L. Kürti, and A. I. Afonso. Routledge London. 9: 147-156.

Silvio T. (2010). ‘Animation: the new performance?’ Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20(2): 422-438.

Hannah Wadle is a social anthropologist, journalist and philanthropic taking regular baths in human everyday and tourism culture in different parts of Europe. She graduated with a Masters in History and European Ethnology from Freiburg University (Germany), started her PhD at the Centre for Tourism and Cultural Change (Leeds Met.) about the socio-cultural impacts of post-socialist tourism on a small village in Northeast Poland and is continuing it now at Manchester University. Her interests in the medium of comics are comics as a new language for ethnography and comics and Socialism.


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3 responses to “Anthropology goes Comics by Hannah Wadle

  1. Kathy Kaulbach

    2012/02/04 at 12:28

    I am a designer/illustrator who has wandered into a MA Ed and is exploring the concepts do drawing as a communication and thinking medium. This article has set me off onto an exciting path particularly the use of drawing as a benign method of interviewing. Thanks so much for this article, I will now go read the bibliography and references.



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