A panel from the comic “Abike”, artwork by Gabi Froden.
Can journalism work in cooperation with the principles of art to produce stories of survival? That is the question a team of researchers and illustrators grapples with everyday at PositiveNegatives.
Based in London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, PositiveNegatives is a small organisation that blends humanitarian advocacy, academia, journalism, and art. The name comes from these “negative” stories of human tragedy can lead to a “positive” outcome through their unique methodology of storytelling. PositiveNegatives sometimes receives commisions from larger NGO’s, like Amnesty International or the United Nations Development Programme, or media, like The Guardian or BBC, but also works independently on their own ideas.
Founder and director Benjamin Dix had been a communications liaison with the United Nations in Sri Lanka for four years before foreign staff was evacuated. He left with the stories of so many people suffering through the civil war that were not being told by global media. In 2012, he founded PositiveNegatives and worked with an illustrator to bring to life some of the photos he had taken. That project turned into “The Vani”, a 200+ page graphic novel funded by Arts Council England.
Most of PositiveNegatives’ creations are much shorter, with many intended to be viewed on webpages rather than in print. They have even produced a few video animations, where a camera zooms over the illustration and voice and sound are added.
Throughout each iteration, PositiveNegatives emphasizes its particular methodology of working with the narrators of the story. Instead of referring to the inspirations for the stories as simply “survivors” or “sources”, they are “participants”. Part of their mission is to keep the participants at the center of each production and encourage lasting relationships between them and the teams of artists and researchers. Although PositiveNegatives is not in the business of providing participants with psycho-social support, many also describe their experience working with the team as form of catharsis.
Sarah Wong, Research and Project Manager at PositiveNegatives, tells me that comics were the ideal format for interviewing people who had been through serious trauma. “When you put a camera into a situation like this, there can be a perception of an imbalance of power,” she says. “It can give an impression of voyeurism, whereas a sketchpad does not.” She refers to a lot of the images of human suffering currently in circulation by charities or the global press as “development porn”.
This eschewing of the “voyeuristic” and “pornographic” can be especially tricky when the subject concerns sexual assault. But above all, PositiveNegatives is concerned with the wellbeing of the participant before and after publication of their story.
“Abike” is the story of a young Nigerian woman trafficked into sexual slavery in the UK. Facilitated alongside the POPPY Project, PositiveNegatives worked closely not just with the voice behind Abike herself, but also her lawyers. Abike, who had her power taken from her through sexual assault, was given an opportunity to take it back through direction of the images in the comic. Only female artists are hired to work with female sexual assault victims.
Some basic rules for the audience also serve as guidelines for the content: the comics need to be fit for readers of at least sixteen. This means there can be no nudity and a heavy reliance on suggestion rather than showing the act of rape itself.
In one panel of “Abike”, we see hands reach and grab the narrator by the throat. Her shirt is torn and unnamed characters shout abuse at her, telling her to stop resisting and to “turn over and shut up”. In the next frame, Abike is lying in bed with a sheet over her nude body. Her description of the events that passed in between the frames is simply “That man…he abused me.”
Another panel shows men in various states of sadistic thrall. Each are shown from the torso up, their hands either adjusting their tie or completely out of the frame. Abike suffers nightmares featuring the faces of these men, they are ghostly white outlines in a sea of black. A more abstract image shows disembodied arms pulling on chains attached to Abike’s limbs.
Other depictions follow a similar formula. In the comic “Almaz”, the titular character, an Ethiopian maid in the Gulf, is assaulted by a member of the family she works for. Most of the images on the page where this event occurs are about the lead up and aftermath of that assault. The assault itself is only two images, where only Almaz’s protestations and the placement of the bodies makes it clear what has happened.
For “What The Girls Say, where an unnamed narrator tells us about sexual abuse of young girls recruited to militias, there is no depiction of sexual assault in the illustrations. Plenty of the images show men with guns threatening and kicking the girls but stop short of sexual violence. A panel closes in on her face and her tears as she relates how horrible her life among the militia was, and how girls were lucky if they only had one man.
Positive Negatives is not just concerned with producing comics, but also providing research to support their inclusion mainstream media and humanitarian advocacy. “Comics are a growing medium,” says Wong. “They naturally lend themselves to complex storytelling and empathy building.”
A few weeks ago in this blog, we visited the idea of animation, that is, moving video, to present stories of violence. Although PositiveNegatives does sometimes use video, the bulk of their work is static images. The ethical principles of animation and comics may be the same, but there is a different function to a video with sound and music than a page full of silent images where audiences must read without an auditory emotional guide. While legacy and digital news publications are quickly “pivoting to video” to engage more audiences, we shouldn’t underestimate the power that stationary images and the written word have in communicating complex stories of violence.
Christa Blackmon is an American expat and freelance human rights journalist living in London. You can follow her work as @TheOdalisque.