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Illustrating Anthropology: The first encounter

by Iepke Rijcken

Many anthropologists have made sketches and illustrations during their fieldwork. However, visual representations, including drawings, have generally been devalued in comparison with written texts (Dix and Kaur 2019; Geismar 2014). Dix and Kaur (2019) reflect on the “graphic narrative turn” that has emerged in recent years and state that illustrations can serve multiple purposes and add value to ethnographic texts. They argue that ethnographic illustrations are powerful mediums for representations, reflections, and translations of complex and sensitive experiences of ethnographic encounters. Due to the fusion of text and image, illustrations enable the viewer to see the deeper layers of our social and complex world (ibid., 90). Furthermore, illustrations anonymize interlocutors and their experiences, but simultaneously humanize them and provoke familiarity (ibid., 92).

Another argument relates to how anthropological knowledge is produced. Fieldwork is inscribed in the experiences, perceptions, and bodily practices of the researcher. Illustrations help to visualize and understand how ethnographic insights have been produced (Bonanno 2019; Ingold 2011). Bonanno (2019) states that it is often the lateral stories that constitute a crucial aspect of how we know certain things. In reflecting upon her drawings, she states that “drawing proved an especially congenial way to engage with those lateral stories which in fact are very often edited out in our texts” (ibid., 44).

I was inspired by these and more texts about visual representations and particularly about graphic narrative within anthropology (see also: Haapio-Kirk 2020; Rumsby 2020; Sacks 2020). Visual representations can vividly capture the coexistence of multiple perspectives, bodies and subjectivities, and the simultaneity of events, relations, and interactions (Bonanno 2019). The events that I attend now during fieldwork are mainly demonstrations and protests. These are events that are loud, noisy, visual, bodily exhausting, and difficult to capture in only a written text. I considered bringing my video and photo camera to the field, but I realized that many people are already engaged in photographing the scene, and any other video or photograph would be redundant. Instead, I became interested in including illustrations as an ethnographic fieldwork method.

As this idea recently developed in my mind, I still have to determine how I want to use the illustrations and what role they will play in my master’s thesis. However, I feel inspired and motivated, and I imagine that they will be useful in translating academic knowledge, fieldwork experiences, and engaging with my interlocutors on a different level. Image 1 is a snapshot from my field notes and shows my first encounter with Marta, the public figure of Women’s Strike in Warsaw, where I am conducting ethnographic research on activism for women’s rights. After the demonstration, I was able to briefly talk to her and I received her contact details to arrange an interview. To be honest, I was quite nervous when she suddenly emerged on the scene, and for a moment, I hesitated to go to her. One of my interlocutors encouraged me to approach her.

Image 1: Illustration of my first encounter with Marta, the public figure of the women’s movement. © Iepke Rijcken 2021

The encounter could be one of those lateral stories that would be edited out in the main text, however, it is valuable as it manifests my understanding and learning about the women’s movement. The illustration shows how the encounter is inscribed in my experience and interpretation. I got nervous because I thought of Marta as the leader, the highest and most important person to approach in the whole women’s movement. However, I learned here that the women’s movement does not strive for leaders and hierarchy, they are constituted of ordinary women who are equally related to each other. This is an ethnographic insight I only started to grasp after drawing and reflecting upon it, and I am looking forward to my next drawings, reflections, and insights in the upcoming months of my fieldwork.


Bonanno, Letizia. 2019. “I swear I hated it, and therefore I drew It.” Entanglements 2(2): 39-55.

Dix, Benjamin, and Raminder Kaur. 2019. “Drawing-Writing Culture: The Truth-Fiction Spectrum of an Ethno-Graphic Novel on the Sri-Lankan Civil War and Migration.” Visual Anthropology Review 35(1): 76-111. DOI:10.1111/var.12172.

Geismar, Haidy. 2014. “Drawing it Out.” Visual Anthropology Review 30(2): 97-113. DOI:10.1111/var.12041.

Haapio-Kirk, Laura. 2020. “Staying connected: Coronavirus in Japan.” Entanglements 3(2): 69-78.

Ingold, Tim. 2011. Redrawing Anthropology: Materials, Movements, Lines. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis group.

Rumsby, Charlie. 2020. “Retrospective (re)presentation: Turning the written ethnographic text into an ‘ethno-graphic’.” Entanglements 3(2): 7-27.

Sacks, Kyra. 2020. “Drawn in the Field.” Entanglements 3(1): 7-30.

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