How comics journalism is helping to humanise migration

The negative portrayal of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the media have led to some people not considering them as fully human. A more careful, sensitive approach is crucial and the old art of comics journalism is proving a powerful way to tell these stories in a way other forms of storytelling cannot.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | February 16, 2016

Image by Jules Calis from “The story of a Syrian refugee”

Graphic storytelling lends itself particularly well to humanise migration stories, says Eva Hilhorst, a graphic journalist and Editor-in-Chief of Drawing the Times, a new platform for graphics journalism. “It enables us to show that migrants and refugees are people like you and me, and not just numbers, or people that come over to benefit from the system,” she told the World Editors Forum.

It provides a unique way to go beyond statistics by telling individual stories, such as the story of a Nigerian woman who was tricked into moving to the UK for work, but then forced into sexual slavery. “At the end of that comic, reading about one girl who was trafficked to London from Nigeria, you can then go into all the other articles in The Guardian about modern day slavery and sex trafficking,” Ben Dix, the founder of graphic journalism organisation PositiveNegatives, which produced the story, told

Bringing anonymous stories to life 
Due to its visual nature, comics journalism provides an immersive experience, and can be particularly useful when sources wish to remain anonymous.

One example is ‘A Guard’s Story’, in which a former employee of Serco, the global security company that runs Australia’s immigration detention centres, took a significant personal risk to share the wrongdoings that went on inside the facility. In his first-hand experience, he claimed it was run like a prison where asylum seekers received deliberately harsh and humiliating treatment, they were self-harming and drugged up.

Rather than running this story the conventional way, the – now-dissolved – publication The Global Mail, decided to have two illustrators visualise the story. Collaborating intensively with the informant, they went back-and-forth to ensure the accuracy of their drawings. With no cameras or lighting involved, comics journalism allows for great access – while maintaining impact – thanks to the visual narrative that brings the story to life.

In some situations, illustrators draw portraits on the spot, holding only a sketchbook and a voice-recorder. Jules Calis, a graphic journalist, noticed that people respond to it very well: “They feel that they are being listened to. It’s disarming, and they often start telling me more than I actually asked for.”

A narrative with a personal touch
The Australian story gained 50,000 shares in less than a fortnight. Comics stories seem to attract more attention, they are eye-catching. “In a world of information overload, beautifully crafted, hand-illustrated comics provide clarity and emotional resonance,” Erin Polgreen, co-founder of comics journalism platform Symbolia, wrote for Niemanlab.

This personal touch may make comics seem more subjective, but, as Hilhorst explains, “with the news becoming very impersonal due to the internet, hand-made drawings give a sense of personalised contact,” which she compared it to receiving a hand-written letter, as opposed to a typed one.

If the notion of objectivity is a much-debated issue in journalism, it is particularly relevant to comics journalism. While this is probably the biggest challenge to overcome, another – more technical one – is to provide graphics that are compatible with all platforms. “Rather than thinking in traditional print comics, including graphics in digital multimedia productions is the way forward,” said Hilhorst.

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