Harnessing the graphic

Call the medium what you will, but harnessing comic book journalism or graphic storytelling to highlight human rights and social issues is increasingly becoming the norm.

Just this past weekend Benjamin Dix published a graphic novel-style piece in the Guardian about the very real story of a young woman being trafficked to the U.K.

And, long inspired by the fantastic reportage of Joe Sacco, Dan Archer and Dan Lafrance, it’s taken me three years to find funding to create my own graphic novel.

Funded by the European Journalism Centre and the Gates Foundation, the Graphic Memories project will tell the stories of four women who have very recently returned from the Lord’s Resistance Army.

I’ve worked with female former child soldiers in northern Uganda since 2011, focusing not only on the trauma they underwent in the bush, but also honing in on the challenges they face upon their reintegration into their post-war communities.

My work on this topic has featured in The Toronto Star and MTV in traditional forms – but I wanted to try something totally different that would (a) tap into the increasingly tablet-oriented generation and (b) utilise a format that could potentially be used as a teaching aid in schools – particularly for students with learning disabilities.

So I’m currently working on an interactive product that interweaves the past and present day through illustrations and photography to tell these four women’s stories.

But it’s more than just a story – it’s a conversation.

Embedded within the panels are video interviews with the women to drill home that these are not comic book characters, but real people, undergoing very real challenges.

Now, I make all this sound very easy but the learning curve has been nose-bloodying.

The first hurdle was pitching the idea to would-be funders and editors because I’ve found people only grasp the concept if you develop a prototype or they’re pointed to similar examples.

Storyboarding was the next challenge. How to tell someone’s story in 30 panels? How to give readers context to the conflict without detracting from the compelling narrative? How to navigate accusations of sensationalism and depict traumatic events tastefully?

Next, there’s the small matter of the illustrations. I, to be generous, struggle to draw stick figures. So thankfully I came across the work of a very talented Ugandan artist, Chris Mafigiri. Storyboarding and relaying precise instructions about the illustrations has been challenging to do via Skype due to often very limited bandwidth in Uganda. So poor Chris has the thankless task of translating the stick figure screenshots I send him by email, into pencil sketches which are then eventually transformed into marvellous, Technicolor panels for the web.

Which brings me onto another significant hurdle – I didn’t want this to be a static comic strip. I wanted it to be a dynamic form of storytelling. Inspired by the Guardian’s America: Elect! piece, I wanted elements of the women’s stories to move, rotate, fade in and out. I wanted to embed sliding video icons on panels, to embed photos and galleries.

So I turned to the brilliant (and, best of all, free) Javascript Skrollr library which gives you the power to do just this by manipulating CSS and HTML5 data attributes. The documentation is great and, aided by Petr Tichy’s great tutorials, I figured it all out in one rainy Glaswegian weekend.

And finally, my greatest hurdle has been myself. In hindsight, I should have collaborated on this project with other journalists, and other web developers. In addition to doing all this project work in my spare time (fitted in around a full-time job), wearing the multiple hats of photojournalist, storyboarder, developer, manager, video editor, and publicist has been frankly exhausting.

But, as the first two chapters near completion, I’ve got to say it’s going to be worth it. The stories of Christine and Grace have come to life in a way I could never have imagined.

Want a sneak peak?

Sorry – you’ll just have to wait and see the finished product in October…