Notes on Collaboration: Interview with Ben Thomas
Updated: Oct 27
Working with Ben Thomas on this project was an absolute delight. We have dreams to turn my PhD thesis into an 'ethno-graphic' novel - anyone want to fund it? (Serious question).
Ben's creativity has brought to life elements of my research in ways I could not. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work with an illustrator when seeking to disseminate research results? Well, I asked Ben some questions to get his insights on what it is like to work with an academic, including how we approached what I call 'retrospective (re)presentation': using the visual to offer alternative modes of (re)presentation to the written ethnographic text. Check out our chat below.
Ben, tell us about your journey into illustration..
I guess like most people, I started drawing at a very early age; unlike most people, I didn’t stop. I never really had any formal art education, other than an A-level course in art. Illustration has always been my hobby - making characters, dreaming up worlds. I only really started doing it professionally (and part-time) a few years ago, doing the odd job here and there for friends and acquaintances, fitting it in when I can on days off and late nights after work.
How did you feel working as an illustrator on the project?
This project hasn’t been without its challenges. Fitting in a project like this on top of my full-time day job has been tough at times, but despite this I would say that working on this project has been a real privilege. Charlie’s research highlights an issue that we usually hear very little of in the West, and bringing the stories of these people and their struggles to life as an illustrator has been both challenging and eye-opening. I’ve learned a lot and I’m excited to have been able to help bring Charlie’s research to a wider audience. From a practical point of view, it’s also been a lot of fun to draw people and settings that I might not in most of my other illustrations, and push myself and my art further and grow as an artist.
How did you choose to order the panels?
As I mainly do illustration, I don’t have a lot of experience when it comes to making comic strips. But I think the most important thing when it comes to making comics, more than art style or even art quality, is storytelling. Does the strip tell the story that we want it to? Is it easy for the audience to read it and follow that story? Does that story flow from one panel to the next? For example, there was a panel from an earlier draft of one of the comics that didn’t make it into the next draft. Both Charlie and I really liked the panel and thought about including it again, but despite it being a nice panel to look at, it didn’t really fit into the story we were telling. These are the kind of things I had in mind when drawing the comics. I hope I succeeded!
How much of your own style did you bring to the images?
I think whenever I draw anything, whether I’m conscious of it or not, it’s impossible for me to do it without having something of my own style in there somewhere. For this particular project, quite a lot of what I would call my style is included, from colour and drawing tool choices, to the way the characters look and feel. Recently I’ve been obsessed with using watercolour-style brushes and textures in my digital art (I’m hopeless at using actual watercolour paints!) and, with the theme of water at the forefront of much of Charlie’s work, I thought it was a perfect choice.
What do you think illustrations / comics can bring to academic representations of statelessness / children's lives?
As a non-academic, I can probably speak for most of my fellow non-academics when I say I haven’t read a whole lot of academic research lately! Having research presented in a medium like comics or illustration can make that research - and the social, cultural or scientific issues that it addresses - accessible to a much wider audience. However ‘good’ or ‘important’ it is, I’m much more likely to read someone’s PhD thesis if it’s presented to me in a fun, beautiful (and shorter!) format. I think perhaps comics and illustration can also help to bring that research to life on a more emotional, personal level. Academic research can, out of necessity, feel distanced from the people and issues that it represents, and by focusing on the stories of individuals, storytelling through the arts can help bridge that gap between the academic and the real lives and emotions of the people involved.
What was it like to have your drawings directed / judged by an academic?
Working with Charlie has always been a pleasure. I think we both bring different things to the table, and having someone with a much deeper understanding of the research and its cultural context was certainly helpful in trying to make the illustrations as authentic as possible. In that regard, Charlie would always offer helpful criticism or suggestions for things to add to the scene, whereas I could perhaps offer more in terms of making our images tell the story we wanted to. So the illustrations and comics were very much a collaborative effort.
Here's a gallery of Ben's work on the project. Enjoy.