Notes on Joe Sacco and Ethnography

From Joe Sacco, Journalism, via NYRoB
Via the New York Review of Books, news of a new Joe Sacco collection to be published soon. Sacco has shown up once or twice in older writing, but I was taken with these new images because they remind me of something about fieldwork -- which is to say that the way in which Sacco sketches himself and the scene in which he finds himself really successfully illustrates how interviews happen. Not every interview, mind you, but consider the page above.

Sacco begins with four men, seen from the side. We learn from Sacco's caption that one of the men is Upendra, "eldest of six brothers." Are the men in the background also brothers? The next image encapsulates not only the history that Upendra is relating, but also gives us a snapshot of feudal relationships, the dynamics of power and display. Sacco asks a second question, "Would you rule again, if you had the chance?" Upendra replies, but this time he is drawn from below, in a way that makes him the sole focus of our eye.

The last panel takes us back to the scene: Sacco, in his characteristic self-portrait, sitting beside a man -- who I think is his guide -- and across from Upendra. We see one of the other men from the first panel -- where he was standing in a posture of deference -- waiting with a tray of drinks. He seems to be a servant. What I like about Sacco's work is the way that he uses the small visual details to tell us something about the power relationships at work in conducting interviews.

The interviews, in other words, aren't simply words. They happen somewhere, in the midst of other social relationships. What is the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee? And perhaps more importantly, how does one represent that relationship after the fact?

[For a much more sophisticated example of this analysis of visual rhetoric, see the work of Scott Kaufman.]


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