Carte Blanche

Graphic Ethnography and Its Multimodal Gifts

Dimitrios Theodossopoulos School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent
(Published March 31, 2022)

This special theme of TRAJECTORIA is published in ‘a special moment’ for Graphic Ethnography: a point in time when multimodal approaches to ethnographic practice have become not only popular, but also more widely recognised within Anthropology and other ethnography-friendly disciplines (Sociology, Human Geography) (see Back and Puwar 2012; Culhane and Elliot 2017; Dattatreyan and Marrero-Guillamon 2019). The special theme has captured this creative moment by making available a collection of short articles, graphic-ethnographic commentary, graphic-animations, sound-image installations, and video discussions—all of which provide thoughtful reflection upon graphic-ethnographic practice and showcase its collaborative potential.


As I am thinking in parallel with the other contributors in this issue, I feel obliged to provide some clarification about the term ‘graphic ethnography’. Is it a genre, a sub-field, an ethnographic tool? I prefer to describe ‘it’ as a mode of practice, which involves the use of images (hand- or digitally-drawn, or acquired through photography and video) to generate ethnographic insights. The use of images could be accompanied by text, often in the form of an image-text arrangement inspired (although not exclusively) by comics, graphic novels, political cartooning. The inclusion of text, and the particular combination of text and images can take various uncharted forms: artful, critical and/or analytical. As Haapio-Kirk (the curator of this section) reminds us, the definition of ‘text’ itself can be expanded from the written form to include audio narration—which makes possible the incorporation of sound (and personal narratives) on the graphic itself. In addition, I would like to note that text is not a required or irreplaceable component of a graphic-ethnographic composition; it can be minimal or absent. Similarly, there is not a definite rule about the centrality of images in relation to text. A standard, textual and heavily referenced article or book can be accompanied by graphics that add a critical/analytic dimension to written prose; or attract attention to what written text has left invisible.


The complexity outlined above has encouraged me to be weary of narrow definitions (or typologies) of graphic-ethnographic practice. We should not imprison or limit the immense creativity of what graphic-ethnography is (or can become) in a prescribed set of rules or guidelines. As the contributors of this special theme outline, the graphic perspective invites unexpected views, which are frequently lost or hidden behind words. These can be subtle cues to the feelings of our ethnographic collaborators or respondents. See, for example, the details (or memory-hints) hidden in Megumi Ito’s painting composition (on the right; Haapio-Kirk and Ito, this issue) or the facial expressions of a devastated Cambodian family facing a dehumanising bureaucracy (below; Rumsby and Thomas, this issue).


Many unexpected gifts come from the collaborative dimension of graphic ethnography, which is the uniting thread of the multimodal contributions in this volume. First, there is the collaborative relationship between ethnographers and artists, who join their creative skills to shed light on real life moment from different angles, artistic and analytical. As the contributors of this special theme testify, the originality of an artist’s perspective can fuel the ethnographer with renewed inspiration. This may involve going deeper into culturally intimate feelings and experiences, especially when the artist is indigenous to the ethnographic project, such as with the collaboration between Laura Haapio-Kirk and Megumi Ito (see article and video discussion Part 4, in this issue). Or it may simply relate to the explicit ‘framing’ of what is otherwise difficult to communicate cross-culturally, enabled by a neutral (non-culturally specific style of drawing), as we see in Ben Thomas’ sketching of Cambodian children (on the left; see article and video discussion Part 5, in this issue). In this example, the viewer/reader relates to the children studied by Charlie Rumsby (in this issue), through the universal experience of childhood—a perspective that evades the relativistic overtones of contemporary anthropology.


There is a second type of collaboration visible in the contributions of this special theme. It involves the relationship between an ethnographer-artist and the people in the field. José Sherwood González used his captivating drawings to illustrate Mexican stories of migration told by his family, but also, and more importantly, to elicit commentary and reactions from them. This generated a more nuanced view of parallel story lines (see Sherwoord Gozalez’s drawing on the right). In this respect, graphic art can serve as a methodological tool that enables self-reflection—not merely that of the author, but also that of the research participant. Laura Haapio-Kirk (in this issue) employed this tool to draw out perspectives from her respondents in Japan. In my own work I realised that drawing to storyboard the theatre play of a Greek playwright was not merely a gateway to participatory fieldwork, but also an opportunity to register the sociological insights of his respondents (see Theodossopoulos and video discussion Part 3, in this issue). In this collaborative manner, the narratives of the ethnographer and the playwright came closer together to articulate a critique of austerity from the grassroots (see sketch of recognisable European politicians and local actors impersonating impoverished Greeks, on the left; from Theodossopoulos 2020). Through its immediacy, the graphic medium can draw forth the analytical perspectives of people who are participants in the research process, unsettling the politics of authorship in ethnographic representation.


The gifts of the graphic perspective expand beyond collaboration. They are numerous and greatly uncharted. The artists and ethnographers in this collection outlined several of these (see video discussions, in this issue). They underline the capacity of the graphic medium to facilitate anonymity. We can see this more explicitly in how the ‘non-indigenous’ drawing of Ben Thomas protect the identity of Charlie Rumsby’s respondents. In contrast, José Sherwood González’s sketches (on the right) are deeply culturally embedded—Mexican skull-masks that cover the faces of story participants—yet they achieve a similar anonymising effect.


Another affordance of graphic dimension is its ability to disseminate knowledge more widely. This may not only involve reaching wider audiences, but also sharing knowledge with research participants in the field. Charlie Rumsby (video discussion Part 2, this issue) explains how graphic art enabled her to communicate academic insights to her respondents in Cambodia. I achieved a similar result in Panama, by distributing a graphic booklet to my indigenous respondents. The latter avoided long and wordy texts, but went through the pages of the graphic booklet enthusiastically, and debated its content (Theodossopoulos 2019). In both cases, academic knowledge returned back (in a graphic, approachable form) to the people who generated it in the first place. This, you may agree, is a rare but ideal form of public dissemination.


Among the many benefits of graphic ethnography my favourite is its ability to unsettle power, representational authority, or even space and time. Laura Haapio-Kirk, in her introduction to this issue outlines the non-linear parameters of the graphic medium, which may include memoryscapes that evade chronological temporality, or make available parallel layers of multisensory representation, for example involving the combination of image and sound, as we see in her article (Haapio-Kirk and Ito, this issue). Such a deliberate collapse of time can parallel and represent (more closely) the views of the people we study. My own use of the drawing style of a political cartoonist from the 1950s and 1960s captured the manner in which my respondents compare austerity (in the present) with the poverty of the post-war period. By collapsing temporality—through the irony of the cartoon-medium—the critical lens of local historicity was refracted back and forth—between the graphic-ethnographer and the artist-respondents—to make more visible an evolving political critique.


Such, and many other gifts—collaborative and participatory—come with the graphic approach to ethnographic representation. The contributors of this special theme experimented with and reflected upon graphic possibilities, in a moment when graphic ethnography is becoming increasingly more widespread, but also, more legitimate as academic practice (see video discussion between Haapio-Kirk, Rumsby, and Sherwood González). TRAJECTORIA has assisted in this effort by providing a multimodal space to accommodate thinking and methodological innovation. Laura Haapio-Kirk’s (out of the conventional box) curating of the issue has made this multimodal experimentation possible. There are, undoubtedly, new unexpected lessons to be gained from future graphic-ethnographic practice, and knowledge to be re-discovered from the past, the time when ethnographers struggled to liberate themselves from conservative representational standards (Taussig 2011;Marcus 2017). In contrast, the present is bright and all inspiring—particularly for graphic ethnography. You can see, hear, and feel this message in the pages, images, sound recordings and video discussions of this issue.


Back, L. and N. Puwar (eds)
Live methods. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Elliot, D. and D. Culhane (eds)
A different kind of ethnography: imaginative practices and creative methodologies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Dattatreyan, G. and I. Marrero-Guillamón
‘Introduction: Multimodal Anthropology and the Politics of Invention.’ American Anthropologist 121 (1), 220-28.
Marcus, G.
"Ethnography." Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, March 29.
Taussig, M.
I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Theodossopoulos, D.
‘A Vision for Emberá Tourism’. Entanglements: Experiments in Multimodal Ethnography 2 (2): 7-26.
‘Iphigenia’s sacrifice: generational historicity as a structure of feeling in times of austerity.’ The Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute 26 (4): 842-863.