Picturing Refugees

Why Comics Are So Effective at Telling Refugees’ Stories

Our series Picturing Refugees continues with Poppy Ogier from PositiveNegatives explaining the power of illustrative storytelling and why it works in depicting human stories of refuge and migration.

Written by Poppy Ogier Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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Why would a medium some people associate with superheroes and Snoopy be useful in explaining refugee flight and contemporary migration? Serious comics are not something new and graphic novels have demonstrated the narrative power of illustrative storytelling. We have found that this power is particularly well suited to working with refugees to tell their stories of trying to seek safety in Europe.

Personal Narrative

Illustrative storytelling can tell stories about difficult, complex issues from a single person’s perspective and visually depict their past and present experiences. When it comes to telling refugees’ stories, this form of storytelling can make it a lot easier for receiving communities to empathize with the experiences of an individual refugee presented as the central character in a comic than to understand the experiences of 1 million refugees.

Meanwhile, for fellow refugees, seeing their experiences reflected in that of the central character can let people know that they are not alone in their experiences. This versatility of illustrative storytelling is that it can be either being a window into another person’s life or a mirror of your own experiences.

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A great example of this versatility can be found in one of our “A Perilous Journey” comics introducing Hasko, a dad and a husband. Hasko was getting by with his family and then suddenly he had to get on a boat and cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of a safe place for his loved ones. He was scared, sad, terrified and lonely. His experiences draw the viewer in and help you better understand the experiences of not just Hasko, but of the many other people who have made these dangerous journeys to Europe.

Anonymity and Amplification

The comic strip format ensures anonymity, making it easier for subjects to give testimony fully and candidly.

The comic strip format ensures anonymity, making it easier for subjects to give testimony fully and candidly. This is crucial for refugees who want to speak out but are afraid of the repercussions for themselves and their families. Images of people help readers connect with their stories. Illustration provides an equalizer for those who wish to have their stories documented but cannot risk being identified through photographs, while also providing a person for the reader to connect with.

This equalizing element enables people who would normally be silenced by circumstance to have their voices amplified to a wider audience. Beyond amplification, it increases accessibility, as visual narratives have the added value of transcending age, gender, cultural differences and literacy levels.

Memory and Detail

The comic medium allows us to access thoughts and memories as well as the events people experience in the here and now. This can be a powerful device in representing moments that would be lost or unrecorded without that person’s memory. In the telling of refugee stories this is even more powerful in depicting events that might be lost, or purposefully excluded, from the imposed narratives of the regimes or states they are fleeing.

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For example, in our comic about Antoni, which sees him applying for asylum in London after escaping the conflict in Sri Lanka, we see him going back to his bedsit and having a flashback of his experiences of the conflict. A conflict whose predominant chronicler otherwise is the victor of the war. Antoni’s memories would be much more difficult to visually and emotionally convey through other mediums.

These moments are not dramatic, but they are the everyday moments of a refugee’s experience after the dramatic, exceptional journey has ended, and seeing them can be the most humanizing.

Visual storytelling also allows room for the smaller details of people’s lives that would not necessarily make it into news reports. For example, we see Hasko in a supermarket in Denmark bulk-buying pistachios and searching for some decent hummus. We see the Skype conversation that he has with his family and how he’s watching his children grow up virtually. These moments are not dramatic, but they are the everyday moments of a refugee’s experience after the dramatic, exceptional journey has ended, and seeing them can be the most humanizing.

This ability to include the small details of people’s memories and current lives is what makes the comic medium a great way of communicating refugees’ stories, as they show people that refugees’ stories are people’s stories. They are tales of unexpected and dramatic shifts in the course of lives and the challenges faced in the search for refuge and integration.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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