Using illustrated reportage to cover human trafficking in Nepal’s brick kilns

I am writing this from Kathmandu, Nepal, where I’m currently reporting on human trafficking using graphic journalism. I chose Nepal because visuals have huge potential here to reach at-risk communities with low literacy levels. Using comics to adapt survivor testimonies into a visual format preserves both the impact of the story as well as the identity of the storytellers.

Often when conducting interviews or visiting sites where trafficking is taking place, it would either be inappropriate, disrespectful or at worst traumatic for the subjects to be filmed or photographed as they share their stories. Somehow sketching circumvents that issue and, in many cases, has helped forge a closer connection between me and my interviewee, as was the case in the examples below. I’m also part of a research team conducting the first in-depth study to quantify the effectiveness of different media in awareness-raising programs in the field: my comics comprise the main content.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the overall project, there is a video introduction to it on its (now funded) Kickstarter page.

Another large part of the project is looking at different approaches to visual reporting: I started a webcomic; have produced comics journalism pieces for the Nepali Times and BBC; and am incorporating more and more illustrated reportage. I chose the latter for this recent assignment to the brick kilns of Bhaktapur out of respect for those I interviewed, as well as the fact that a camera is just plain unwelcome in some situations.

I find illustrated reportage an easier way to process all the information – simultaneously parsing the important quotes from my translator as well as the visual details in front of me – to give a more vital reflection of my experience at the time. Not to mention the shorter turnaround time, which is a key obstacle in the time-consuming production process of my regular comics, for which each page goes through research/scripting, thumb nailing  penciling, inking, scanning, colouring and lettering.

The sketches below were all done in the field last week and scanned directly from my sketchbook. Their only contact with Photoshop was being cut into chunks to fit the format of this site. I hope to refine and improve my process during my time here (I leave in May) and I would be very interested in hearing feedback from readers and editors alike about their thoughts on this style of reporting, or suggestions on incorporating it into their publications. Click on any of the images to open a larger version in a new window.

Bhaktapur is home to 64 of the 110 kilns in the Kathmandu valley, just under an hour by road from the capital. The majority of the workers are seasonal, spending half their year working in the fields and the other living on-site in the dusty red shadows of the chimneys. Many of those I spoke to were there to pay off loans to naikes (nepali for “middlemen”) whose exorbitant rates of interest keep their borrowers stuck in a cycle of bonded labor, year after year. You’ll notice as well in the second worker’s speech balloon that my translator was directly doubting his comments about sending his children to school — perhaps in relation to a recent raid that has raised reporters’ suspicions.

[IC is "Indian Currency"].

Although admittedly sketchy, the following portraits convey a sense of personality and character when combined with the snippets of sentences uttered by the children and siblings of the workers above: unposed, hurried and straight to ink as they wondered around me, inquisitive as any child would be. As you can see, I experimented with doing full-color on Pankaj, only to find it was too time-consuming.


The stories were much the same at the second site: Parents telling us that their children were in school, but offering little proof — all the less convincing because they were on-site working while I was conducting interviews.

Quick sketching also gives me the ability to include mini-explainers, back of the napkin-style, such as the five-part process of making bricks at the bottom of the following image. Another advantage of sketching in this instance was the fact that few people were willing to take a break from making bricks — understandable, given that they are paid by the thousand — forcing me to create a composite image of them while they were working, as opposed to a more static, posed portrait. This echoes the vitality in the line and use of light and shade typically seen in other, non-posed visual journalism such as courtroom sketches.

The younger the children were, the less willing they were to be approached or photographed, as I mentioned earlier.

Two more examples of the benefits of live sketching versus after the fact: I was forced to improvise a doppelganger for Hari (in the lower right corner below) as he was too busy making bricks to stay still while answering my questions. Likewise, Dinmaya didn’t stop to look up at me once, so a posed head-on portrait shot wouldn’t have captured my (admittedly brief) impression of her fully.

The balance of words and image is another key factor in presenting this sort of work, which in this case forced me to come up with a quick solution to separate the two voices of the workers below on the fly. Interestingly, the overlapping speech balloons are a neat metaphor for my experience of the joint interview: full of interruptions, overlapping comments and a general struggle to hear one voice over the other. Not to mention the doubt emerging as to who was telling the truth — represented by the speech balloon in the middle pointing to a blank space, which was actually a shortcut I used to refer to a comment made by my translator.

Last was my conversation with the manager of the kiln, another situation where the appearance of a camera would have only made him reluctant to talk or exacerbated his suspicions of an outsider’s motives for being there in the first place.

For the technically-minded among you, I used a Carbon pen on a 9″ x 12″ aquabee sketchpad, coloured with a Sakura water brushpen using a Koi pocket field watercolour sketch box. For more graphic journalism, visit www.archcomix.com.

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