I am an illustrator, with a particular interest in the past – in how it is remembered, and mediated to us, and in how the past is passed on generationally. My interest is both in the public and in the private mediation of the past. Some of my work therefore looks at the past as it is mediated to us publicly – in archives, in monuments, or in history books. Other work has been more focused on exploring familial histories, and in contemplating the kinds of archival materials that are traditionally kept by families – photographs, letters, albums and official documents – and specifically in using those materials kept within my own family to engage with the experiences my Grandparents had in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s.
I have become particularly interested in how meaning and underlying power structures contained within public and private archival records can be interpreted through the act of drawing. As an illustrator, I also am interested in asking how the production and the consumption of sequential illustration can be used as an active tool for understanding, interpreting, and re-evaluating dominant narratives and discourse about historical events.
Within this paper, I would like to introduce a forthcoming research project, as a means to articulate some of my current thinking around the uses of illustration; both as a method and outcome, and also in relation to the interpretation of the past. I will also explore some of the approaches and thinking I have used in past work about familial memory practices to position my current approach.
Defining Illustration research
I have long considered myself to be an illustration researcher – someone who uses methods from the discipline of illustration to conduct, interpret and respond to research. In understanding more about what this means, and how it might be more distinctly defined, I have come to see illustration as having a dual nature – as being both something that we consume as viewers, and also a process that we engage with as practitioners. Illustration is often viewed only as the former – a product for consumption, that has become detached from the rigorous research processes that led to its’ production. In their 2021 book ‘Illustration Research Methods’, Rachel Gannon and Mireille Fauchon articulate many of the facets of illustration research, and their clear and thorough exploration of these themes have allowed me to position and articulate my own approaches with a lot more understanding.
Gannon and Fauchon explain that «within illustration the term ‘research’ is used to describe many forms of investigative and interpretative practices» (Gannon & Fauchon, 2021, p.18). These practices vary from research into illustration – a form of critical study into the field of illustration – to research that is for illustration – we might consider it preparatory, to inform an outcome. They also define a third variety of research that is conducted through the act of illustration practice, whereby knowledge is acquired through creative acts and/or described within a creative work (Gannon & Fauchon, 2021, p.20). I can see that within my own practice, all three varieties of research exist to some extent. As in this text, or in my role as an educator, I am regularly engaged in thinking about and critically examining what illustration is. And within all of my illustration work, the act of researching in order to visually inform my image making is often a central concern. But it is the use of research conducted through illustration that I am most curious to explore and further define in relation to my own practice.
Gannon and Fauchon go on to examine different forms of illustration research in more depth. It has been instructive for me to consider their chapters on “narrative research”, and “reporting”, as the two areas I align my own practice most with. They define narrative research as: «[using] strategies and approaches associated with storytelling to collect, contemplate, find and share meaning and knowledge about the subjects they are exploring» (Gannon & Fauchon, 2021, p.29).
Narrative research, as outlined by Gannon and Fauchon (2021, p.29), can be aligned to narrative enquiry – a qualitative research method, which is concerned mainly with understanding human experience, and in using forms of storytelling to arrange, interpret and explain situations and experiences; using story to give meaning (Trahar, 2022). Narrative research allows us both to conduct research, and to present our findings. Gannon and Fauchon (2021, pp. 30-31) break down a common process as being:
– collecting stories (be they interviews, oral history, or written account)
– editing / reorganising the information into a meaningful story
Narrative research, then, is not merely the act of telling stories through sequential image making, it is also the initial act of gathering, and later interpreting, information. Or, as Pinnegar and Danes outline, it is both the method and the phenomena of study (Trahar, 2022 cited Pinnegar & Danes, 2007, p.4).
Gannon and Fauchon define reporting within illustration practice as closely aligned to fieldwork practices, and say that illustrators working in this manner: «often place emphasis on observational image making but also include walking and/or listening as illustration interpretative practice» (Gannon & Fauchon, 2021, p.62).
Any researcher engaged in this kind of work will respond in a very human way to the circumstances in which they find themselves. This means that they will be aware on a very physical level, responding to things beyond what is immediately visible, such as «smells, sound, touch, emotion and instinct», and becoming a «conduit through which the understanding of their subject is described» (Gannon & Fauchon, 2021, p.62) – and all of these aspects will be processed by the illustrator, and have a bearing on the image or the sequence of images that the illustrator produces.
Contemplating illustration, photography and history
Within the discipline of illustration, photography plays an important role. For many illustrators, sourcing the right reference photograph can become a centrally important act of researching – a researching for illustration. Using photographs can also be a researching through. Searching for, and responding to photographic images can stimulate new understanding or insight. When we work with photographs, we inevitably transform their visual content. As illustrators, we have the ability to unlock layers within a photograph that may not be immediately visible – layers of emotional or felt understanding, or connections to our own or collective memories and experiences. In this process the content is also brought into contact with us, and filtered through us before being reshaped into a new image.
As well as using photographs as references or as sources within our illustration work, photography is also a discipline that we illustrators can examine to better understand our own – either by contrast, or comparison. Firstly, we can consider how photographs, like illustration, are perceived to have a truth to them. Even though photographs claim to show «reality in a past state» (Barthes, 1993, p.82) they are also always biased by nature, because they can always only offer one point of view within an image. The author is always present in the work, and will influence what is, and isn’t seen. As Susan Sontag states: «to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude» (2003, p.41).
Contemplating the inherently subjective nature of photography, then, allows me to do the same with illustration. The presence of an author can also be illustration’s strength – if we embrace our role as a conduit, and make it clear to the reader, it can allow us to have a much more nuanced conversation with our audience, than if we claim to be presenting an objective, and singular, truth. When we acknowledge our own presence, it allows us to highlight, and make use of these processes of distortion, framing, excluding, eclipsing – to add to the reading of the story. Drawing doesn’t need to tell an objective truth; instead drawing can subvert or re-frame meaning.
I’ve often contemplated what the act of drawing can add to our reading of a photograph. Can it subvert it? Can it change it? This act of drawing has, for me, a possibility of reframing the meaning and the purpose of the image. For example, when I redraw images of the Hitler youth that were used within propaganda, and made in order to celebrate, and to underline a certain kind of identity in the collective German consciousness of the time, I have the ability as an illustrator to change the tone of the image, whether through colour, through different framing, or through the way this image is positioned next to another. I can create a different atmosphere, or a different reading, of the image, and thus turn the original intentions of the image on their head.
Thinking about how we engage with photographs has also allowed me to contemplate how the discipline of illustration has an impact on how I relate to a subject matter. It is particularly interesting to consider this within projects that have an interest in history, memory, and the past. When we encounter something through a photograph, we are always at a distance to it, because we now exist in a different time – and often space. That distance becomes a part of our relating-to the subject. So photography allows me to contemplate that there is always a distance between me and my subject. The spaces within which we encounter photography are also an interesting point for contemplation. Many of my projects have been reliant on extensive image research, which usually takes place online, in national, local, and personal archives that have been digitised. In becoming dis-embodied, as I do my image research, I am exacerbating this sense of distance – and this allows me to better understand the relationships to history – the distancing and disconnect – that are already at play. So in considering photographs, I am also considering my relationship, and by the nature of this encounter, my distance, to the histories I am trying to engage with.
Finally, I have also come to see how the production of a photograph allows us to contemplate history. In evaluating Walter Benjamin’s writings about photography and history, Cadava (1997, p.xviii) came to conclude that the transformation of a moment in time into a point of historical significance can be equated to the reduction of a moment to a photographic representation. A historian captures a moment in time through his words, a photographer with his camera. Cadava thus argues that photography becomes a model for understanding history. I think it also becomes a model for contemplating our relationship to memory, which is an important contemplation for anyone working with family stories.
2. Illustrating history
«[stories] are the means through which we can make meaning and share our perspectives of the past and the events that are unfolding around us» (Gannon & Fauchon, 2021, p.30).
As an illustration researcher, who is particularly interested in researching through illustration, and with an interest both in reporting and narrative research, I have found myself returning to the stories within my family often, and applying these methods of research to my family’s stories. Collecting their stories and re-interpreting them is just as much a means of making meaning for myself, as it is for a viewer.
My family’s roots are in Northern Germany – though the routes that led to my existence also passed through Poland, Southern Germany, and most recently to the South of England, where I was born. The first meeting point between me and my family’s past was the spoken word. Aural re-tellings occurred frequently around my childhood dinner table, and usually centred on absent family member’s memories and experiences. I was later introduced to large volumes of photograph albums, which both my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather kept, but also to various letters and documents, that testified their experiences and memories. While my parents told me the stories of their parents and grandparents with an openness and interest, and a willingness to understand and interrogate both cause and effect within my Grandparent’s lives, it was only in uncovering these visual traces of my family’s past that I began to be interested in them on my own terms.
The etymology of the word illustration is to «’light up’ or ‘shed light upon’ – to ‘make clear, disclose [or] explain» (Harper, 2022). This speaks to me, as my work often aims to bring light to subjects or experiences that have not been verbalised or even acknowledged, and as such, my projects about my family are about absence as much as presence. Many of the things my grandparent’s must have experienced – especially parts of their youth, played out against the backdrop of Nazi Germany – have not been put down into words, and could not be captured in images.
My projects centred around these familial histories all aimed, through different methods and techniques, to arrive at understanding; they also consistently grappled with the impossibility of ever arriving at a conclusion, and they demonstrate my own ever-developing understanding that truth is not universal, and that understanding can take on many forms. What I do know is that my interest in these familial pasts comes from a strong desire to understand. There is both a want to better comprehend the rise and fall of Nazi Germany as a whole, but also to understand what my Grandparent’s position and potential complicity in the horrors of that time may have been. By extension, much of my work is also an examination of myself; asking myself that, if these histories exist within my lineage, then who am I?
Walking with Inge
My current research will take me back to earlier work that I first began in 2010. In May 1945, my Grandmother Ingeborg began the start of a 500-mile journey to return home to Hamburg, from a small town in what was then Czechoslovakia. The journey would take the best part of 3 months, mostly on foot, and was undertaken when she was heavily pregnant, accompanied by her 18-month old daughter. She documented the journey retrospectively in the form of letters to her husband. They go into great detail, describing her experience of the invading Russian troops, the people she met on route, and the general atmosphere of a defeated Germany. Ingeborg’s Reise was based on the wartime letters written by my maternal German Grandmother to her husband in 1945, and became a short illustrated book that depicted various stages of her experience.
I aim to walk the same journey she embarked on this summer, which will take 24 days. The journey will be undertaken on foot, and documented using a combination of sound, video, and photography as well as drawing and auto-ethnographic writing methods. Undertaking this journey is a means for me to contemplate the experiences she carefully documented: being a refugee, encountering concentration camp survivors, surviving on the kindness of strangers, and giving birth. It is also a means for me to question the things she didn’t document: her own complicity with the fallen Nazi regime, and her feelings around this.
In re-visiting this project, I am interested in bringing forward all I have learnt as an illustration researcher thus far. The project will have two parts: research, and response. Within the researching stage, a main focus will be to continue to use auto-ethnography. In contrast to previous work, I will be placing myself as the researcher much more centrally within the process. The length of time spent walking, reflecting, and collecting will I hope allow for an even greater immersion into the subject, and enable me to find more embodied responses to my grandmother’s experiences. In creating this more embodied research, it perhaps will also allow me to understand more about my very personal relationship to my Grandmother’s past. This project will also be a continuation of my own interest in contemplating illustration as a form of translation.
«Auto-ethnography ‘describes a form of narration in which the researcher-cum-narrator, is situated within the social dynamic they describe. [It] draws inspiration from literary devices such as imaginative fiction, memoir, poetic reference, use of metaphor etc. and is often associated with first-person narrative delivery. Here, the narrator’s ‘voice’ and ‘point of view’ is actively engaged to ‘make sense» (Gannon & Fauchon, 2021, p.36).
For me the most interesting aspect of narrative research and reporting within illustration is their ability to make the researcher such a central part of the work. I see Illustration very fundamentally as a process of an I, in relation to a subject. Sometimes the I is very central, sometimes we do not mention it, but it is always there. Gannon and Fauchon’s earlier description of the illustrator as a conduit for a subject perfectly describes this.
Auto-ethnography is a method I began to use much more consciously in my 2019 graphic novel Sunday’s Child. In this work, I sought to understand what the experience of being a young boy in Nazi Germany was like for my paternal Grandfather. I used a range of methods to interrogate his written and verbal re-tellings of his childhood: site visits allowed me to connect with specific places that would have been of importance to the Hitler youth; recorded conversations with other family members allowed me to search for counter-narratives or corroborations of his stories; historical research allowed me to re-frame his own accounts of being in Nazi educational facilities, to understand that a lot of the violence that took place there was not something he included in his own tellings of this time; extensive image research allowed me to find visual reference points of experiences that had not been captured pictorially in his family albums.
Auto-ethnographic illustration allows us to make ourselves visible; sometimes in the drawing, sometimes within the accompanying text. Working within auto-ethnography is an effective way of examining our own biases, and our own role within the process of researching. Joe Sacco, a prolific comic-journalist, says of this process that: «when you depict yourself, you’re able to have a conversation with the reader about your prejudices and their prejudices» (Culture Trip, 2022). Of my own work, I hope it stimulates conversation, more than anything else. I hope for the reader to come away with questions about themselves, about how the past is mediated, and about how the past still has strong echoes in the present.
It was in finding a form of narration for the graphic novel that I found my auto-ethnographic voice. I decided to give the novel three voices – my own, my Grandfather’s (based verbatim on his written recollections) and the images that I produced, which were based mainly on archival photographs. Writing from my personal perspective allowed me to bring some of myself, and my relationship with him, into the picture. I was able to give a voice to myself as the researcher, to ask questions of my grandfather, and to clearly signpost the different layers of the past that I was presenting.
The research trips I conducted for Sunday’s Child had a clear dimension of auto-ethnography to them, but I did not allude to my own journeys to these spaces in the graphic novel. Within this current research project, I would like this kind of fieldwork to become more central, both in terms of how I reflect on this process, and in terms of how I work with the imagery I collect and produce. Once the research journey is completed, I will be tasked with responding to the materials I collect, and no doubt I will be searching again for the voice of a narrator. But at the moment I can only speak from the place that the research will take place in, and I am becoming particularly interested in producing this on-site experience for myself, in the footsteps of my grandmother, and in seeing what the impact of researching in such an embodied manner will be.
Illustration is always, to some extent, an embodied process. There is always a hand that makes the image, and that hand is connected to an arm, a shoulder, and an eye. Researching on site in the manner that I plan is really just an extension of this process. Being in a space allows us to re-connect with our physical selves, to consciously be an “I” in a space, in relation to a thing in front of us. From my past experience, I know that it also allows us to connect very differently to the histories contained in certain spaces, than if we were viewing them from a distance. As an image maker, you become more embodied in the moment of drawing when working within and in response to a physical space, and the images have a different quality to them. Perhaps this is due to an added physical, felt understanding, a connection with our limbs and nervous system, that becomes present in the drawing.
A translation of experience
Illustration of any form can, to some degree, be conceptualised as being a translation process. Illustrators typically work within set parameters, and these translations may occur either as the translation of a client’s communication needs into an image, or in the translation of a self-selected text or stimulus into an image. Each illustrator finds their own “visual language” to do this, as well as their own methodological approach. Translation here is also about being an I in relation to a subject. Whether in commercial or personal practice, the illustrator is always tasked with responding to an external stimulus, and is often hired quite specifically because of their very specific I – their very specific mode of visual translation.
In this current research, I am interested in exploring how far this notion of illustration-as-translation can go. While I have undertaken field-work before, this has mainly been with an aim to gather visual information, and perhaps to understand something about an atmosphere that can’t be translated within a photograph. However, the more conscious acts of translation taking place in my practice thus far have consisted of translating photographic materials into drawn, illustrated images.
My series 1941 attempted to dig under the visible surface of a specific set of images taken in 1941, which were contained in the same Grandmother’s photo albums. This album contained some of the most explicit visual references in all her albums of her experiences in Nazi Germany. While information was given about some dates and places, very little else was articulated. In seeing these images, I wanted to understand how far my Grandmother’s involvement with and support of the Nazi party went. My drawings in this series re-interpreted these images, and was the first instance of using the process of re-drawing that I have since come to use frequently. Re-drawing here means drawing one image several times – each time referring to the previous drawing – each new image a refinement, but also a distortion, of the source image. In the same way as I was later attempting, in Sunday’s Child, to draw out the hidden meaning from written words, I was here attempting to draw out hidden meaning, and unverbalised experiences, from the images themselves. In this work I came to consider the role that drawing and narrative illustration can play in re-interpreting historical documents, and how the process of drawing and re-drawing photographic images can act as a metaphor for the re-interpretation and distortion both of history and of memory.
Mnemonic objects and the trouble with translating
As outlined above, my past research has looked particularly at the role that drawing can play in re-interpreting historical documents, and how the process of re-drawing can act as a metaphor for the re-interpretation and distortion both of history and of memory. Within this new project I want to test my hypothesis that the act of illustrating, and all acts contained within this process, can be viewed as an act of translation. I am interested in continuing to conceptualise this in relation to other parts of my process, not just drawing. So this project seeks to push this enquiry further, by incorporating other forms of re-interpretation: physical to digital, experience to documentation and image to object. In considering how past experiences are transmuted into different “memory objects” (letters, photographs, diaries etc.), I am interested in replicating this process by “producing” my own experience and “transmuting” this experience into a series of outcomes.
The first of these outcomes will be immediate, and digital, taking the primary research conducted during the journey to build a website, that is added to directly during the journey. As well as allowing for live audience engagement with my journey, the use of digital space allows me also to respond to the understanding that certain digital storage spaces are also known as “memory objects” (IBM, 2015) – and so I will be creating my own, virtual, memory object. My later outcomes, to be developed after the journey, will aim to create a new retelling of both mine and my Grandmother’s journey, through the production of pneumonic images, and perhaps also objects, which will contain aspects both of my experience, and my Grandmothers’.
In beginning to contemplate the effects of these hypothetical translation processes, I’ve again been looking to photography, as a mirror for my own practice, and as a means of understanding how these processes have been conceptualised within a different discipline. In Photographic Materiality in the age of digital reproduction Joanna Sassoon writes about the effect of digitising photographs, and the impact this has on how we understand them. Looking mainly at the ways in which archives are using this process, she argues that digitisation is «a complex cultural process of translation», which goes beyond «merely changing the state of a photograph from the material to the pixel». She also says that «the tactility and materiality of the original object [are] reduced to both an ephemeral and an ethereal state» (Sassoon, 2004, p.199).
Sassoon examines the work of Walter Benjamin, and particularly considers how, in The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, he describes that in the translation process an image always moves away from its original, and that fundamental change will always occur during this process. She explores how he describes the original images always as having an auratic quality, and that in the translation process this is lost. (Sassoon, 2004, p.188) So as an illustrator, contemplating the forms of translation I already use, as well as those I plan to use, I am interested in the auratic losess, as well as the potential gains, that will be present in this process. Is the process of translating an experience through illustration research practices also a reductive process, moving from tactility and materiality to ephemeral and ethereal? Or will it do something different? After all, an illustrator is not a machine.
Sassoon calls photographs that have been digitised “digital ghosts” (2004, p.199). In my work I am always aware that the images produced can’t accurately describe the original experiences in the documents I am interpreting. Instead, I’m interested in embrace this challenge of translation, and the shift from original to interpretation, or from real to ghost. As Gannon and Fauchon write: «Rather than claiming to represent reality, illustration’s strength lies in the ability to document outer and inner worlds, multiple perspectives, and the immediately visible as well as the unseen» (Gannon and Fauchon 2021, p.62).
In summary, I hope that this new research will allow me to continue to develop my own understanding of what it is to be an illustration researcher. I hope that working with translation between different states will allow me to gain more insight into my own relationship with the past. And I hope that engaging with my Grandmother’s story on a felt, bodily level will allow me to better understand both her, but also the extremities of human experience she lived through – fascism, war, genocide. As with all my projects, I don’t expect to arrive at definitive answers. But I do expect it to create dialogue, and enquiry, for myself, and also for a viewer.
If you would like to keep up to date with the project you can follow its’ progress here from late June 2022: walking-with-inge.co.uk/
Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Vintage.
Cadava, E. (1997) Words of Light: theses on the photography of history. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Culture Trip (2016) The Graphic Story of Joe Sacco’s Comics Journalism. Available HERE (accessed 25 February 2022)
Edwards, E. & Hart, J. (2004) Photographs Objects Histories. New York: Routledge
Gannon, R. & Fauchon, M. (2021) Illustration Research Methods. London: Bloomsbury.
Harper, D. (2022) illustrate | etymology, origin and meaning of illustrate by etymonline. Available HERE (accessed 25 February 2022)
Hedstrom, M. (2002) Archives, Memory, and Interfaces with the Past, Archival Science, 2, pp21-43. HERE
IBM (2015) Memory Objects. Available HERE (accessed 25 February 2022)
Sassoon, J. (2004) Photographic materiality in the age of digital reproduction in Edwards, E. & Hart, J. (2004) Photographs Objects Histories. New York: Routledge
Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin Books.
Trahar, S. (2009) Beyond the Story Itself: Narrative Inquiry and Autoethnography in Intercultural Research in Higher Education. Available HERE (accessed 25 February 2022)
Serena Katt is an illustrator and educator, who has a particular interest in exploring how drawing and narrative illustration can be used as active tools for understanding, interpreting and re-evaluating dominant narratives and discourse about historical events. Her work explores our personal and private relationships to history, and is often made in relation to archival artefacts and personal testimony. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2013, she has gone on to exhibit internationally, and to have her work published with Jonathan Cape. She is currently a senior lecturer in illustration at University of the Creative Arts.