Oromia: Journey Reflections
This is a self-directed project.
Rationale: My work as consultant with international development agencies involves a lot of travel that enables me to see places and meet people together with NGO staff, local guides and translators. And to experience different cultures on a level that is not normally possible for the casual traveller or tourists. I often have more than one trip to the same place and so do have possibilities to go into more depth over time. At the same time I do not have time or opportunity for sketching – apart from around the hotel before breakfast.
My main way of documenting my travel is photography. Mostly on car and plane journeys. Then obtaining background information from people in the communities and organisations I work with. Sometimes the photos are interesting as photographs – slight blur contributing to the ‘journey feel’. But many images contain interesting snapshots of lives but are not well enough composed, or the road was too bumpy etc to use as photographs. I wanted to use this project to explore and experiment with different ways of using photographs taken in this way as the basis for illustration – and what illustration can do that photography on its own cannot.
I planned that this project would be based on a set of photographs from a journey through Oromia shortly after the political unrest and violence in October 2016. Going from Butajira town and finishing in the Elana hotel in the centre of Addis. I travelled through the same route again in April 2017 and have a final trip in December 2017. Any further photos can be added if they contribute further perspectives.
The brief was fairly open:
to use photographs from a journey through Oromia in November 2016 as the basis for a small reflective book on Oromia that would be interesting for a general as well as artistically interested people in NGOs and Ethiopia.
The illustrations should use the photos as a basis to maintain a clear link with ‘reality’ but could be worked over and manipulated in any way that would enhance the communication of the image. Text would be minimal. The images would aim to give an overall impression of the lives of people in the area rather than necessarily in geographical sequence as shot. Photos from different stages of the journey can be combined in one image if that helps to communicate an issue or aesthetic.
As the images would be taken in a very fleeting manner through a car window – inevitably rather random glimpses of lives – the book could not aim to be a documentary in any real sense. It would be inevitably and explicitly an outsider view, but informed by subsequent internet research and discussions with local people to be able to better interprete the images. It would aim to communicate the dynamism, complexities and challenges of Ethiopian society (and specifically Oromia) and development. Bearing in mind possible political and social sensitivities and repercussions for people I work with. And my responsibility as an outsider to try to understand as much as possible, and avoid superficial value judgements. The aim isIt should aim to present multiple perspectives that pose questions for the reader rather than communicate one particular message.
Stage 1: ‘Shooting’ the photos I had explored different approaches to taking photographs on journeys as part of my Landscape Photography course to produce a number of travel photobooks to be revised for publishing on Blurb. In the post on my photography blog ‘A new safari: reflections on shooting’ I discuss experiments with different approaches – systematic timed shooting eg every 5 seconds compared to more focused shooting of images that by some criterion are deemed ‘interesting’ with all the potential biases and stereotypes that might entail. In this illustration project I chose the more focused approach – the images being taken after I had already been in Ethiopia for 2 weeks and so had some understanding of what I was looking at. But the political situation was still tense and the road only just opened to foreigners that day. So I had to be a bit cautious. But – as expected – I ended up with hundreds of photos of varying interest and usability.
Stage 2: Selection of images from the set of photos. I did a rough mockup in Lightroom of pages for a photobook to start to identify a narrative. And printed these pages out to collage and manipulate. (Unfortunately the file size is too large to post here)
Stage 3: Research I had already done quite some reading on Ethiopia for work, but started to do very focused searches for material relevant to the images I had to help me develop the photos into illustrations. This research is ongoing until the book is published, and information will be appended to the images in the on-line slideshow (bearing in mind any potential political sensitivities at the time).
Stage 4: Image development Initially I started to glue the images into an A3 sketchbook, but soon decided I wanted to work a lot larger at A2 in order to be really free with my artwork, and explore interlinkages between images.
I wanted to do a mixture of straight photocollage, photos worked over with gouache and coloured pencils as I had done in Girl Meets Boy . I wanted to maintain the photos as the basis of the images in order to be ‘true to reality’. But I ended up also with some gouache paintings developed from doodles for more ‘romantic’ interpretations of some scenes. I discovered by accident interesting effects of using resist and washing out gouache to create the very dreamy effects in the first spread of the book.
Many of the images were further manipulated in Procreate. I also discovered the kaleidoscope effect in Pixelmator and experimented using this with photos and collages for a fragmented effect (the cover page is a kaleidoscope ‘reflection’ of a burned out lorry and I use other images for decorative page elements).
Alongside work with my own images I researched other documentary illustrators and photographers, collage, gouache, coloured pencil and digital artists and techniques (see menu of links in the righthand column of this portfolio). This gave me new ideas and inspiration to add to my own many ‘happy accidental discoveries’.
Stage 5: First Book Mockup: Oromia_Reflected_Wordpress and critique
My original idea was that the images would be self-published as a Blurb book of around 30 pages in appropriate format and paper. This would be accompanied by an animated slideshow of selected images with notes to put on-line as promotion for the book on my Zemniimages SMUGMUG site. Some images, including those not used in the book, might be developed as cards or other formats and uploaded to social network sites and/or commercial image outlets.
The timeframe was to produce the sketchbook and selected images for further development and questions to be addressed to send to my tutor by mid July. Finalisation of information and images based on further work in December (third visit to Ethiopia) and beginning January 2017 to give time to get a copy of the book to submit for assessment end of January.
A further part of the project would be to look at other examples of documentary illustration and photography and consider the implications of this, and my experience in this project, for my own documentary illustration in future travel.
A book mock up was sent to my tutor for feedback.The way the images were working out there was a contrast between:
- gouache as a dreamy ‘idyllic’ feel though I contrast ‘rural idylll’ with gouache pollution. Use of coloured pencils and graphite on top of the gouache brings out the textures and colours.
- gouache and crayon comic-like cells and strips of town life
- photo collages of landscapes and industrial scenes, generally digitally enhanced. I like the textures these give.
- thinking carefully about directional lighting when taking photos of the sketchbook images I can get some nice light effects.
Some key concerns I needed to resolve were:
- to reflect and make sure things don’t become formulaic and repetitive. I will continue to work in Lightroom for its flexibility to changing and swapping images and image information. At least for the moment. And I need to remember the bleed. InDesign becomes more complicated and I need to find out how to calculate the spine width.
- how small and detailed can images be to fit into the small square Blurb format. Probably I should send a mockup first of some pages when there is a 40% offer to check on this, paper and colour etc. I also need to see whether some of the images are blurred and too low resolution from cropping and need to be photographed again. Some are showing an exclamation mark in Lightroom.
- what to do about text. I don’t want to put much at the moment, and would just want some small title lines at the most. The context pages need editing, and I could increase to 4 to have eg an index of pages instead of titles on the images themselves.
But I considered that I was making progress – my family have been quite positive. I needed a break and some feedback from my tutor to reassess, before working further on it November.
Stage 6 Development as interactive e-book
I had another one week trip to the same area first week of December and then spent some more time before submitting the work for assessment end of January.
By this time my ideas on the best options for publication had changed. I had been working on interactive pdfs for work, and decided a pdf of this type would be much more accessible for people overseas. In addition the collages are very detailed, and best viewed through being able to zoom in on images. Then the possibilities for putting hyperlinks to background information so that the reader could make up their own mind what to think.
I also thought quite a bit about how to group and sequence the images. I had been doing a short 6 week correspondence course on travel writing with ICE, for which I wrote some short 2-3 paragraph pieces on Ethiopia. A key idea was to make the e-book more thematic, starting ‘media inter res’ with the images that stuck most in my mind – the stop in Ziway and then the burned trucks. The rest of the book would then be an exploration of some of the issues underlying the conflict that had led to the burning of the trucks.
Creating the pdf was quite complicated – hyperlinks do not work in buttons. So I had to do some creative work arounds with layers to get all the links and interactivity to work.
This is a big and ambitious project. As it is very recent, since my final visit, I still have to get reactions and feedback from colleagues.
Issues and approaches to documentary
A second part of the project is to reflect on the working process as a style of reportage illustration that I could use and adapt in other work contexts. And for other sets of photos I already have. What is the distinctive contribution of illustration and book of illustrations compared to photography and photobooks? How can I further build on and develop this as an important part of my role as an illustrator?
I need to think a lot more about this, and do more reading. But basically doing the illustrations makes me think and observe a lot more instead of just flipping through photos. These images of a journey are inevitably more random than photo documentary where the photographer has time to really think about and carefully compose shots. Collage enables putting multiple images together – to be further worked on as drawing and/or painting. As such it is potentially ‘truer’ if based on research rather than just pretty pictures. But it also potentially significantly increases the outsider interpretation as opposed to just letting the reader do all the work (apart from image selection and cropping).Collage