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Graphic Memories: a multimedia novel on the forgotten futures of child soldiers

An image is worth more than a thousand words. This is the motto that best describes the work of Marc Ellison. The Anglo-Canadian photojournalist has just published his interactive graphic novel Graphic Memories, following years of work with ex-female soldiers in Uganda. Through a mix of illustrations, videos and photos, Ellison tells the story of four women who spent years at the mercy of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The European Journalism Centre talked to him about his findings and unique story format.

You have been reporting from Uganda since 2011. During these years of fieldwork you have deeply investigated how the Ugandan Government and severals NGOs try to reintegrate female children soldiers into society. Have you perceived any changes regarding the policies adopted by institutions to solve this issue?

Ellison: ‘When I first arrived in Uganda in 2011, I visited a few reception centres such as Gulu Support The Children Organisation (GUSCO). Back then, women could stay there for about six months. They received professional training, trauma counselling and a reception package. This package included basics things that could help them to resettle upon returning from the LRA, such as a hundred dollars, blankets, mattresses and cooking utensils. Over the past few years, the number of returnees has drastically reduced. The same thing has happened with the funds and the donations to centres like GUSCO.

I wanted to compare the experiences of the recent returnees and those who returned about ten years ago. I found that women returning now had—what I called—a double disadvantage. Being a returnee is always difficult, but without resources to integrate back into society it becomes even more problematic. Women like Grace and Jacinta, two of the protagonists in my graphic novel, were allowed to stay in the reception centre for a maximum of one week. They had no access to any training, and since they were abducted as early teenagers, they were not trained for any profession. It had been eight months when I met them and by that time they had not received the one hundred dollars yet.'

Your project is based on the personal experiences of four women that served to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) during their childhood. How did these women answer to the proposal of being the protagonists of your project?

'Maybe in the past some of these women would think, "why should I tell my story to you?" They were really wary of journalists, whom they believed simply made profit of their stories whilst the women themselves did not benefit directly from sharing their experiences at all. For me, it was easier. I was clear about what I was planning to do. I explained the context of the comic book. I really wanted to stress that I was less interested in knowing what happened during their time with the LRA, because I wanted to focus on what has happened to them from the day they left. It was clear to them that I was not interested in the gore details. Of course some of them still ask how they benefit from all this.'

Why did you decide to present your findings as an interactive graphic novel?

'At first I relied on a sort of traditional reporting, but I wanted to do something more interactive. The graphic novel The Photographer was an inspiration to me. It tells the story of a photojournalist in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It is a mixture of photos and illustrations. When I read it in 2012, I thought "this is such as an amazing way to tell a story!" Soon I realised I wanted to take this idea further and create some sort of a 2.0 version: an online production with embedded videos and audio. In the final product you can watch these videos. They give a a voice and a context to the women’s experiences. It took a while to fund this project, but thanks to the European Journalism Centre I could develop this project as I imagined it.'

You previously described your method as anthropographic. Can you elaborate on what this means?

'Anthropographic refers to the combination of anthropology and photography. The idea is to get embedded in a community, so you can be a part of people’s lives. This helps to take more natural photos. Usually when you turn on the camera, people do not act naturally at all. When I first arrived to Uganda, I followed the anthropographic approach, but I used a slightly different method for this project. I tried to live with these women for a longer period of time and tried to take it further by giving these women their own cameras. This allowed them to document their own challenges. For example, they were able to take photos when visiting the help centre for HIV tests or medications. They took photos and documented their lives working in the fields. It empowered them to tell their stories in a personal way. It was not just me taking photos.'

You said you want to turn this story into a conversation with the audience. What did you do to achieve this?

'My aim was to engage in a visual conversation with these women. I did that through the moving parts of the graphic novel. Readers can scroll down and learn about the women’s experiences. I try to make the audience feel part of the story when they are drinking their morning coffees.'

What properties make graphic novels a good tool to cover social and human right issues?

'I think most of us have grow up with comics books, so we have an affinity with the illustrated form. Images by their nature are worth more than a thousand words. We respond to illustrations and photos in a way we can never do to a written text. A graphic novel can condense and simplify complex topics. You can also include external links to resources. In this way, I hope to provide readers with the basis background of a story, whilst they can further explore the issue if they want.'

How can drawings and other visual resources such as graphics or illustrations enrich traditional journalism?

'I gave a presentation in Toronto last week. I started off by giving a short overview of who I am and what I have done. The first four slides were just pictures of places where I worked, like Mali and Sudan. Afterwards, I asked the students how many were actually listening to what I said and how many were just looking at the pictures. They laughed and got my point. People are visuals-oriented. A modern audience expects that long journalistic pieces include videos and images. They demand interactivity. If I would have just presented a 1000-word-piece, people would not have read it to the very end. My hope is that graphic elements can encourage people to explore every chapter.'

The Ugandan artist Chris Mafigiri has been responsible of illustrating the insights of your research. How was the experience of working together and, also, of getting organised with such a big distance between the two of you?

'It is always mutually rewarding to collaborate with someone else. Chris is a local and he fully understands Ugandan culture. I already met him last year and we established a bond right away. For this project, Chris was asking the people involved all kinds of questions, digging deep into their memories. He asked the women what the people in their memories were wearing and how they looked. Or what the weather was like on a specific day. When Chris drew the little girl appearing in Christine’s story, she saw the drawing and said: "that’s me."’

Do you think that graphic novels like yours could also be used for educational purposes?

'Slowly, the world is becoming more and more tablet-oriented. Interactivity will be increasingly used as a teaching aid in schools or universities. Graphic novels can help students to engage with the topic alongside textbooks. They could also help students with learning disabilities who are not comfortable reading texts.

In the South of Uganda a lot of young kids did not know much about the LRA at all. As Ugandan schools rarely have Wi-Fi, I think it would be great to present it as an offline project as well. The one good thing about the graphic novel is that the story stands alone. You do not necessarily need access to the video, you can simply download the whole project, print it and use it in class.'

Although their popularity is increasing little by little, it is still hard to find journalistic comics in mainstream media. How did you find a publisher interested in your project?

'Some of the organisations that I approached did not really get the concept, so I showed them some masterpieces of people like cartoonist Joe Sacco. Still, some editors did not get it and said no. Other organisations explained that they had spent lot of money on this format in the past and, despite some big successes, it took them a lot of work to develop such projects. They ended up saying no as well, even when I stressed that I would be responsible for the web production. All they had to do was publish the story.'

In any case, it was a hard work to find outlets, but eventually I managed to publish with Canadian newspaper Toronto Star and German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. Without the EJC grant, there was no way I could have developed this project. It has taken me about five of six months and I worked on it around a full-time job. Perhaps time and money are the reasons that we do not have more projects like these.'

On your web page you recognised that it would have been a better idea to collaborate with other journalists, as you have been doing many different tasks at the same time, like editing the videos, shooting the photographs and the web development. What would you have done differently in hindsight?

I have worked really, really hard on this project. Collaborations would have made things easier. I would have asked for an additional amount of money to pay a web producer to develop the website. Ideally, I would have also developed more chapters. Initially, I wanted to talk to six women but it would have taken a couple of months extra. I would have also needed more money to pay the artist. But I am happy with the final project.'

Are you planning to continue working on similar ideas?

'Yes, I have a grant from the Aga Khan Foundation Canada and the Canadian Association for Journalists. I will be researching child marriages in Tanzania from December 2015 until January 2016. The Ugandan project has helped me a lot to get these grants because it serves as the backbone of what I want to do in the rest of my career.'

If you had to select one of the passages of Graphic Memories that makes you feel especially satisfied, which one would you choose and why?

Tricky question. If we talk about animations, I think I would pick one of the latest chapters because I started to feel more comfortable with those as I progressed. But in terms of the content, I think Christine’s story is very compelling.

It was hard to express something that cruel without being sensational. I am really looking forward to hearing what the readers think.

Andrea Abellán is an intern at the EJC headquarters in Maastricht. She studied journalism in Spain and Italy and has extensive working experience abroad. She is now finishing her Master in New Media and Digital Culture at Utrecht University.

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