Transforming Tales: empowering approaches to community-led creative translation
1: Why Participatory Visual Communication? professional context
Much of my professional consultancy work has focused on development of a pictorial participatory methodologies for community-led change. For more details of the GAMEchange methodologies and implementation in different parts of the world see: GAMEchange Network
The outputs of these participatory pictorial processes have proved extremely powerful in terms of changing attitudes and behaviours of and between participants from communities and development agencies and governments.
Focusing on visual communication potentially enables:
- clarification of complex ideas and concepts
- immediate and memorable communication
- more information conveyed in a much smaller space and time
- resources accessible to all and more equal communication across inequalities of literacy and power
- reduced need for translation across national and international language barriers
Moreover, the potential of visual communication is likely to increase:
- Rapidly growing numbers of men and women in rural as well as urban communities worldwide, particularly youth, now have smart phones and are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other national social networks.
- The rapid spread of technology and cheap on-line software and apps potentially enable people in communities as well as staff in development organisations to produce visual information for learning and advocacy.
But there are also challenges:
- ‘ the medium may not be the message’ : Many of the drawings and role plays are very immediate and expressive – including drawings by people who never held a pen before. But the drawing style and content may be by local availability of particular media (pencils/ biros/ markers, lined/blank/coloured paper, role play props). The participatory workshops are also very time-constrained where the aim is empowerment of participants, not ‘effective’ design. This means that the visual outputs may not do full justice to the messages and meanings they represent.
- ‘Just pretty pictures by illiterates’: Visual outputs are rarely in a form that is easily communicated to people who were not participating in the process. A lot of the impact of the community-level imagery is lost because lack of visual literacy by people with formal education – ie those in power – mean they often miss the deeper meanings and sophisticated analysis behind the drawings.
- Top down ‘professional design’: There is currently a profound gap in development agencies between those who participate in and implement participatory processes on the ground and those employed specifically to design ‘development messages’. Many visual materials produced for development agencies on empowerment and other topics are very standardised in appearance and simplistic in their messages. Their top-down (and often rather patronising) approach means that even important information risks being ignored. See Development Agency Concept Animations
- Increasing exclusion: The most ‘professional’ design relies on written diagrams – often in English or French! Large numbers of the most marginalised people – from minority ethnic groups, poorer backgrounds and many women – who cannot read and write and/or do not speak any of the major international languages. Many also do not speak the main national Asian or African languages.
VisCom4Dev presents visual research and sources of inspiration in evolution of my own graphic and animation style as ‘translator’ of community voices into animations for training and advocacy. Focusing on concepts of empowerment, gender and leadership from participatory workshops in Asia and Africa, I compare and discuss visual communication techniques employed in:
- drawings and role plays by women and men from poor and marginalised communities – including people who cannot read and write.
- inspiration from animators and film-makers producing powerful textless visual narratives with simple line, shape and image editing.
- evolution of my own iPad ‘translation’ and animation workflow to simplify and focus the animation process
I suggest creative participatory visual communication and narrative principles that can be applied in some way by anyone, whatever their background and education, using simple drawing tools to democratise communication between communities and development agencies and promote more inclusive, equitable and transparent decision-making and policy.
Is it possible to ‘creatively and ethically translate’ community drawings on empowerment into short, textless animations to better represent community voices in training and advocacy?
Using drawings from selected community processes in Uganda, India and Pakistan I consider:
LEVELS OF ENQUIRY
What practical and ethical issues are involved in ‘creative visual translation’ of community voices by external actors?
What visual communication strategies do women and men in different communities use to represent empowerment? How far do the drawings speak for themselves? What needs translating, why and for whom?
What different visual, animation and narrative approaches used by animators and film-makers from different cultures could be used to help address these limitations?
What tablet and pc software is best for making the animation process for drawings manageable and effective?
What are the limitations of visual communication where text is needed?
What are the implications for a community-led protocol for participatory visual communication for producing training and advocacy resources?
Who Speaks for Whom to Whom and How?
Empowerment is a highly contested concept – people even question whether or not it is a relevant concept for people living in poverty. There are often tensions between approaches based on individual personal choice and those based on universal human rights (see Empowerment concepts) These debates to some extent mirror theoretical debates between ‘modernism’ and ‘post-modernism’ and ‘post/neo-post-modernism’ in the arts and social sciences, particularly those from a post-colonial perspective.
The role of graphic artists aiming to contribute to empowerment and represent voices from disadvantaged and marginalised communities can usefully be seen as that of an intermediary ‘creative translator advocate’ between women and men from those communities and powerful institutions. This requires a detailed understanding of both what different people in communities are trying to communicate, and the ways in which this is likely to be received by those in power.
A creative translator advocate must be very flexible to a multiplicity of possible ‘translations’ and translation media that ‘free, transform and multiply’ provoking those in power to listen and act, not sit back and passively consume messages they have heard many times before (see Translation Theory).
Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols in the process of production and communication of meaning (my definition). It includes the study of signs and sign processes, indication, designation, likeness, analogy, allegory, metonymy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication. Some influences have been drawn from phenomenological analysis, cognitive psychology, structuralist, and cognitivist linguistics, and visual anthropology and sociology.as a framework for investigating meanings of community drawings and diagrams.
Pictorial semioticsfocuses on the properties of pictures in a general sense, and on how the artistic conventions of images can be interpreted through pictorial codes. Pictorial codes are the way in which viewers of pictorial representations seem automatically to decipher the artistic conventions of images by being unconsciously familiar with them.
Semiotics provides a technical language to describe how images are coded and decoded. Amongst other concepts semiotics uses connotation and denotation as a way of describing actual and intended meanings:
- Denotation describes the obvious, literal things in an image.
- Connotation describes the associations we have with that image. These associations are determined by our social, economic and personal perspectives.
Looking at the ways in which ‘meanings’ are constructed from visual symbols, focusing on relationships and elements in a conceptual system but (following postmodernism) exploring the challenges of potential plurality and instability of pictorial (as well as verbal) meaning across cultures and contexts.
Semiotics and textual analysis: study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation – applied to community drawings and my photos of role plays from past work. Looking at relationship between representational and symbolic drawings and the textual documentation of the relevant diagrams. To identify which signs/concepts are common across different social categories (women/men, age, ethnicity) and context and where the main areas for misunderstanding or misinterpretation may lie.
Communication theory in graphic design is concerned with the process by which designers design and send encoded messages for particular audiences and the contextual factors influencing that process. Different theories have emphasised and elaborated on different elements.
The following interactive animation gives a summary overview of key points.
Meanings also reside in visual dynamics:
- which images are chosen and what they stand for
- connotation of different types of line, shape, colour and texture
- where images are placed and the hierarchy of relationships between each of the signs. Placing something at the front or top of an image will create a different meaning from placing something at the back or bottom.
Key questions for this research include:
- how far is it possible to create pictorial symbols to communicate complex concepts and deep meanings, without needing text? what are the limitations, if any? can anyone do this?
- relationship between individual creation and use of symbols ‘parole’ and public symbol systems ‘langue’ and ‘codes’ – how widely are the former understood and when and how do they become ‘langue’.
- how far and in what ways might ‘hegemony’ by dominant groups restrict creativity of others to create their own symbols and meanings?
- Use of humor versus shock??
Coding and decoding meaning
Visual storytelling requires an understanding of communication theory:
- how images are coded with meaning/s – and how these are affected by the particular skills and views of the illustrator.
- how viewers might then decode these images – how those meanings are read.
- ‘noise’ affecting the relationship between the two – whether it should be eliminated or accommodated. The type of ‘noise’ will vary depending on who is looking at the work, where they are, and their cultural standpoint.
Ethical and practical questions in creative translation
‘Foreignizing translation’ vs ‘abusive fidelity’? (Venuti ref)
How does one write about or represent another culture in one’s own language and terms without those very terms and conceptions altering that which is being represented? How do one’s conceptual notions color what one see and reports? (Niranjan ref)
The Western scholar/translator can partially access the subaltern condition, not through what is specifically said…but by reading that which is not said – reading the gaps, the silences, and the contradictions symptomatically…it is necessary to ‘unlearn’ in order to allow the mute [sic] to speak (Spivak Ref)Spivak (!!full ref)
Translation theory is concerned with the processes of ‘carrying over’ meanings from one ‘text’ in one form or language to another ‘text’ in another form or language. (my definition). It borrows concepts and approaches from a range of disciplines including: comparative literature, computer science, history, linguistics, philology, philosophy, semiotics, and terminology.
Texts may take many forms: spoken, written, visual, digital, musical and the ‘carrying over’ may be within or between these forms, or even ‘updating’ within the same form. Translation theory is concerned with issues such as:
- analysis of source texts and meanings eg is there only one or many meanings in a text? how can meaning be derived?
- analysis of target text and audience understandings of meaning eg how far does the purpose and audience require adaptation and change in the final form?
- the nature of ‘equivalence’ and role of the translator in transforming source texts into target texts eg are translators ‘faithful messengers’ or also creative authors of the target text?
Of particular relevance for empowerment and participatory approaches are linkages that have been made between translation theory and post-colonial and subaltern theory by authors such as Tejaswini Niranjan and Gayatri Spivak. They are concerned particularly with:
- power relations between translators, those producing the source texts and those consuming the target texts: which voices and texts are chosen for translation? can the translator (Western or post-colonial academics in the global South) really understand and translate the voices of ‘oppressed’ and ‘subaltern’ marginalised from dominant cultures? is the role of the translator to replace one ‘word’ in the source text with another ‘formally equivalent’ word in the target text as the risk of either ‘abusive fidelity’ or ‘exotic stereotypical foreignization’? or is the role to be creative in producing texts that ‘free, transform and multiply meaning’ (Quebec feminists ref?!?)
Research process: Bricolage approach
The quest for a visual communication practice that can ‘translate’ community voices into powerful voices for advocacy requires research frameworks and methods that correspond to the empowerment aims. I used a ‘bricolage’ approach to theory and methodology:
Bricolage is a qualitative approach that weaves together threads and ideas from different theoretical frameworks and perspectives into a more informed and multi-faceted research methodology for understanding of an issue. See Bricolage approach.
‘Bricolage’ comes from the French ‘bricoler’ which means ‘creatively using materials left over from other projects to construct new artefacts’ (Rogers, 2012 P1). It is an approach to theoretical and qualitative methodological enquiry based on the understandings that:
- reality is complex and multidimensional, particularly social reality. It and therefore cannot be adequately understood through any one pre-determined theoretical framework.
- all research is political: knowledge and power are intimately linked so the only way to gain rigour and depth of understanding is to include the perspectives of those normally excluded from ‘dominant knowledge construction’.
- research methodologies therefore need to be eclectic, non-linear and emergent, bringing together multiple and potentially competing voices. Linking back to the meaning of ‘bricolage’ in visual research this includes working with cheap local materials and in multiple styles, particularly those that can facilitate inclusion of people normally marginalised by gender, race, class and other dimensions of inequality.
The bricolage theoretical framework is based on a post-modernism and post-colonial perspective, attempting to weave:
The bricolage approach means a very eclectic and contingent gathering of sources of inspiration:
- Analysis of the community drawings is the primary driver as valued primary sources – and what is needed for their ‘creative translation’ for advocacy.
- Selection of work from other illustrators, animators and graphic designers from a range of cultural traditions based on contingent serendipity from openness to new influences as they arise – guides my
A key aim of the research is:
Reflective practice: exploring and applying visual communication theories from graphic design/info-graphic theory and wordless narratives to improve my own visual work as creative translator.
The research therefore involves my own visual experimentation and innovation:
Bricoleur: bringing together ideas about ways of working with different local materials as a means for physical as well as digital dissemination of images. Bricolage is potentially an open, playful, mixed media methodology for ‘translations’, ‘cobbling together’ different styles and cheap local materials for image making and combines these into interactive narrative information graphics. Aiming for a ‘multicoloured cloth’ a that people from different backgrounds and perspectives can unite around.
A key resource here is the work of Bryan Eccleshall in developing questions and prompts for
Ideally I would have been able to test my visual experimentation directly in communities myself to do in-depth ethnographic/ action/anthropological research. But due to some health issues I will not be able to travel for a year or so. But I will still be able to engage in:
Action research: through collaborating on-line with colleagues on the ground who can try things out in communities and organisations overseas and my own presentations in development agencies in UK.
My starting point and rationale for the research can be seen in:
Empowerment and development are highly contested concepts, requiring participation and negotiation of diverse interests and conflicting power positions.
I propose a ‘bricolage’ approach to theory and methodology that enables multiple ‘creative translations’ of community voices for training and advocacy to provoke questioning and change in different audiences. See:
3: Lines Talking on an iPad: Digital translation of community drawings
In ‘Lines Talking’ I look at the ways in which women and men in communities ‘make lines talk’ and possible approaches and styles for translated these into globally accessible short animations using iPad software.
In this part I focus on general animation approaches and styles:
How do women and men in communities communicate concepts and experiences in their drawings? Are there common features within and between cultures? What are the challenges of interpretation?
What simple drawing and/or animation techniquescan be used to clarify visual communication without text? How have illustrators and animators used line, shape and colour to communicate different messages? How have they simplified and abstracted of facial expressions and figures? What different styles have been used in different cultures?
What is the best workflow for meto produce short 60 second animations of selected farmer stories? What type of animation is feasible for me? When should I draw with pen and paper? What iPad software is most useful and at what stages? When and for what do I need to use professional software like Adobe Animate and/or After Effects?Bearing in mind time constraints to develop skills and my need to manage RSI as well as the types of messages and audiences.
My visual research starts by developing a ‘bricolage repertoire’ of ideas and inspiration of ‘the possible’ in terms of textless visual communication of concepts of empowerment and gender to adapt in my own translations:
Animation techniques used by animators working in simplified styles without text in different cultural contexts.
Review of iPad drawing and animation software to identify potential workflows.
Lines Talking: visual experimentation with different styles and simple animation techniques based on selected community drawings and photos.
- Pig Tales
- Talking Heads
- The old wife
2 Data Gathering
In this project the main aim of the data-gathering was to broaden my repertoire of:
- community images – drawings and role play photos – in order to identify potential styles, communication strategies and narratives
- animation styles and techniques from other animators, particularly those producing short textless animations
- iPad techniques and software that could complement photos and sketches as part of my workflow.
In order to start to answer my research question and develop concrete translation plans for my visual portfolio. For overview see:
My investigation and analysis of all the data indicated below will be ongoing. Narrative analysis will be much more detailed and focused in relation to development of two translation sets identified for Assignment 4 from DRCCongo and Pakistan. For preliminary plans so far see discussion in 3.2 Visual Portfolio and:
- 4.1 Tupa Tupa: who gets the coffee money? DRCCongo
- 4.2 What happened to my airplane? women’s voices from Pakistan
Animation experiments from India and Uganda in Assignment 3 here will be revisited and polished as short animated vignettes in Assignment 5.
Data gathering 1:
Community Voices for Translation
Data Gathering 1a: Community Voices
I started my research on community voices to enable me to focus my questions around ‘creative translations’. This meant looking through my thousands of images of community drawings, selecting series where I had enough background information and documentation of the drawings to ask and as far as possible to answer questions about:
- How do women and men in communities communicate concepts and experiences in their drawings? How does this different depending on background, context and/or facilitation process?
- What can I identify as common visual techniques and/or potential narrative strategies for animation that can be widely understood by different audiences?
- What challenges of textless communication do I need to address? How can this be done?
I also wanted a variety of drawing styles, and different development themes important for my current work in order to develop a number of different story lines that might be of sufficient interest to colleagues to get feedback.
Based on my review I selected and analysed five different sets of visual data. I pasted the images I had into my Sketchbook 2: Community Voices and started my analysis and visual experimentation – copying freehand some of the drawings to get a feel for how the lines were made, and the details that were there. But I did not spend long on that at this stage as it became mechanical. A lot more detailed analysis will be done in Assignment 4, focusing on the specific story lines and translations. See detailed presentation of the data and analysis in the linked posts of:
- Livelihood and Empowerment Drawings: India
- Empowerment Drawings: Pakistan
- Empowerment Drawings and video stories: Uganda
Semiotic and Visual Analysis
The community datasets were very variable, between facilitation processes and individuals rather than contexts as a whole. Particularly in Pakistan and India where most drawings were by people at one-off workshops there were big differences in education level, many different drawing styles can be found on one group drawing. This variation was less in Africa, but there were still big variations depending on education and also how long people had been using pictorial methodologies.
Some images, particularly from tribal women in India who had never held a pen before, were very stylistically expressive – reminiscent of Basquiat or Tracey Emin, though the exact meaning needed verbal explanation.
Some images, particularly from women Gumutindo coffee farmers in Uganda were mini-narratives that could be pretty much understood even by outsiders.
Some organisations had over time developed their own internal semiotic language, resulting in very complex systems for pictorial recording and analysis, innovating with the diagram guidelines provided by myself. Anyone used to working with the organisation would be able to read these diagrams with little additional explanation.
Gender, poverty level and emotional state were widely communicated through abstracted figures differentiated by use of clothing, hairstyle, facial expression etc., even where drawings were spontaneous and done with little guidance.
Signs like arrows, dream bubbles, skid marks, tears and so on were also widely used and understood.
Concepts like empowerment, gender-based violence and leadership could be visually disagregated into component meanings and gradations of power, abuse etc. that could be understood once the topic of the exercise was known.
That said, some of the images were very formulaic, eg with ‘sad crying figures’ meaning anything from loneliness to lack of identity and freedom. Such limitations would need to be overcome through developing symbolic juxtaposition of elements as single-image or sequential narratives.
Data gathering 1b: Visuals from development agencies and cultural context
I also looked at existing animations around development issues and common cultural design and animation styles. This was done through Google and You Tube searches and based on resources I have been looking out for in the course of my work before and since starting the course. See presentation and analysis of the data in the linked posts:
- Development agency concept illustrations and animation
- Pakistani animation styles
- Islamic calligraphy and Street Art from Book Design 1
- Indian women’s empowerment animation
- African graphic design and animation styles
In contrast to the community drawings the visuals from development agencies, and also graphic artists in Pakistan and Africa tended to be rather formulaic following a global digital style, with some variation in colour, features etc. The most significant shortcomings from a development perspective is the widespread reliance on a lot of written text or voice over narrative in English or main national language. Although these were obviously very professional, using comedy as well as serious messages, they were not appropriate animation models for my own work.
Some of the Indian animation was more ‘artistic’ with evocative black and white styles that were more relevant for my research, but still very reliant on English.
I shall continue to look for textless examples of illustration and animation in unconventional style – my aim being to broaden the repertoire. My anecdotal experience is that people in communities – like everyone else – rapidly become accustomed to stylistic conventions and tend not to look at many of the visuals produced by professional artists working with development agencies. Sources of innovative visual and narrative inspiration will in future be included in my category of Data Gathering 2.
Data gathering 2:
Innovation in simple textless animation and/or visual style
May aim here is to significantly expand my visual repertoire of innovative inspiration for simple textless animation and/or visual style that I could feasibly adapt in my own short animations on the iPad. I used a combination of:
- further investigation of illustrators and animators whose work I had looked at in earlier OCA courses
- Google and You Tube searches on textless animation, political animation, 2D animation, flipbooks etc.
- consultation of the available on-line sections of the OCA Moving Image 1 : animation module, further following up on links from there.
- Animation Approaches, Techniques and Process
- Lines of Power: Drawing Inspiration
- Early Animation
- Flipbook animation
- Contemporary Animation
Going forward I will be much more specific in my use of video screenshots based on in-depth analysis of particular selected animations relevant to my own translations.
From this I identified a wide range of possible approaches by animators whose work I myself find very effective in different ways, many working without words and in simple enough styles for me to simplify further on the iPad. My focus will be mainly in the form of traditional cel animation, building on experience of flipbooks. Though I may also experiment with some simple cut-out collage animation and lego puppet animation in the iPad software Toontastic. 2D vector animation in eg Adobe Animate will be left until a much later date.
Within traditional cel animation styles I found many different styles and approaches that I would like to analyse in more detail and adapt in some way.
Painterly/drawn colour styles
These and other future discoveries will be analysed in much more detail as I proceed and focus on my own translations.
In my own animations I will explore the key elements of animation identified in OCA Moving Image 1 : Animation module and other sources:
- ‘Boil’ strategies that create the illusion of constant movement across all or parts of the image
- Cycles, loops and layers
- Different frame rates
- Attention to eye trace
The use of audio and sound effects and its relation to the visual narrative is also important.
Data gathering 3:
The third element of my data gathering was to investigate different types of iPad software, the range of techniques and styles which other animators have used them. In particular, which software techniques would be most useful to adapt the animation styles I want to use in my translations. And how they might be combined in workflows adapted to different animation requirements.
Key things to look for when choosing animation software:
- Drawing tools vector drawing tools for creating motion and scaling and/or pixel-based tools for more artistic effects.
- Symbols or re-usable elements
- Tweening or smoothing/interpolation of animation between drawn key-frames
- Onion-skinning: viewing of previous and following drawn frames to facilitate accurate drawing of current frames
- Layers to be able to create scenes. Including image import so that backgrounds and other features can be created from photographs, artwork or imported images from other drawing and painting aps.
- Timeline features: control over frame speed and duration, easy addition and deletion of frames.
- Audio features to import music, narration and sound effects
- Text features to add titles, captions and additional text overlays.
A potentially effective workflow I identified was:
- Toontastic as a playful lego-puppet story-telling ap with very simple colours and character animation to experiment with simplification of the narrative, character and scenes with built-in mood music and possibility to alter order and number of scenes. Whether it is possible to create comic child-like animations just using this remains to be seen.
- Procreate to create very artistic atmospheric drawn and/or painted short scenes, including photo and video import. Export to either:
- Flipaclip to create longer sequences with multiple layering and audio tracks. Flipaclip could also be used alone for the whole process where very artistic effects are not required.
- Rough animator to create longer sequences with complex loops and cycles with single audio track. Will export to After Effects.
Having identified potential workflow I did some preliminary experimentation on my iPad based on drawings from:
- India livelihood and empowerment drawings: selected because of the range of drawing styles and prominence of expressive and distinctive drawing by tribal women who had never held a pen before.
- Uganda empowerment drawings: selected because of the communicative power of some of the single image narratives.
Notes on how I think my your work meets the assessment criteria:
- creativity: the new plans for more but shorter animated iPad ‘translations’ opens up much more possibility for developing a broad range of creative responses and experimentation that will then be carried forward to the final interactive on-line experience.
- research and idea development: contextualised semiotic analysis and visual comparison of five different community data sets, exploration of the approaches and techniques of early and contemporary animators to broaden the range of visual and narrative inspiration, together with fpcused experimentation with different visual translation possibilities in the Sketchlogs and digital iPad work.
- visual and technical skills: new iPad drawing and animation technical skills, and further development of drawing/sketching/concept drawing skills and addressing a weakness in narrative and storytelling skills.
- context: theoretical frameworks and researching illustrators and animators and work of other designers, illustrators and animators in development agencies, Africa and Asia as well as Western traditions.
4: Transforming Tales: Translating narratives
(forthcoming July 2020)
I develop a range of narrative visual approaches based on more in-depth analysis of animators, and also film-makers, from different cultures who have produced powerful textless stories.
Uses contextual information and combines drawing sets
I apply some of these visual narrative strategies to produce a set of alternative short animated wordless ‘translations’ from community drawings of empowerment by women and men in Pakistan together with contextual resources on gender and poverty in Pakistan.
I then consider how these principles might be applied to drawings and other contextual information from India and Uganda and sketch out some alternative storyboards for:
Assignment 4.2 Visual Exploration:Transforming Tales
Creative Translations 1: ‘The airplane’ women’s empowerment visions and realities in Pakistan.
Creative Translations 2:.Pig Tales : tribal women and the forest in India
Creative Translations 3: My wife doesn’t love me any more: a man’s lament from Uganda
(forthcoming September 2020)
The final part summarises my research and conclusions and suggests:
- a checklist of questions and prompts for future ‘participatory creative translation’ work that can help other designers aiming to ethically represent voices from the community in advocacy processes.
- my conclusions on audience and potential limitations of visual communication where text might be needed for training and advocacy with powerful stakeholders
- technical conclusions on what can be achieved on an iPad/Android tablet compared to more powerful software.