Earlier this year, the Office of Digital Design and Innovation (ODDI) collaborated with Radio Free Asia and created “It’s not Ok” – a collection of portraits of Asian women caught in the struggle for human rights in their communities, some willingly, others forced by circumstances.
ODDI UX studio head Steve Fuchs and senior designer Brian Williams were invited to illustrate the stories of these women.
“We wanted to create a series of distinctive portraits, using a variety of mediums and techniques. This goal was rooted in both the desire to treat each story as unique as well as the practical limitations of using the available reference photos and videos,” Steve and Brian wrote in the Artist Statement.
To know more about the creative process and details of this project, we interviewed both Steve and Brian.
Why did you use illustrations instead of photos?
Steve: For some women we found an abundance of photos documenting their public struggles, for others we found virtually no visual reference, as they struggled alone.
Also, rather than just having a photo, I think the illustrations can be more engaging.
Steve: Capturing the essence of a person from a video or few photographs, is a challenging prospect. When the subject of your portrait is a part of a larger narrative, the project becomes even more daunting.
Brian: As Steve mentioned, one challenge was the limitations of what we had to work with. Some of these women are really well-known human rights activists, so they’ve been extensively documented and there are some really great reference photos that we were able to find. But other women are not well known. They really don’t have any photograph or reference. So how do you draw a portrait of someone without knowing what they look like? Or if you do have a photograph of them, it’s such a tiny one that you can’t see their face. That was definitely the case with Jiao Xia. So it was more about illustrating the scene from a story where she was protesting.
Jiao Xia paid the ultimate sacrifice, divorce, for the love of her husband.
Steve: For this project we used a variety of mediums: pen and ink, watercolor, pastel, scratchboard, pencil, and computer to not only reproduce a likeness, but illustrate an individual story of courage.
Work in progress.
Brian: we wanted each of the portraits to be different, and unique. So we just kind of pushed each other to come up with new solutions, to find new ways to draw the portrait.
How do you and Brian go about drawing a character? Is it a combined effort?
Steve: We looked at each other’s sketches making suggestions, it was very collaborative.
Brian: A lot of times, for illustrations you kind of work in a black box where you don’t get a lot of feed backs. And in this case, because we were both partnering on illustrations, it was really nice to be able to bounce ideas off, to do some sketches.
Steve: We tried to do as many different styles as we could, because each case is different.
After we did these initial sketches, we ran them by the individual language bureaus at RFA, because there are some cultural contexts, and cultural sensitivities that we do not know. For instance, the portrait I did for a Tibetan woman, I had it done in a Tibetan painting style, and turned out it is very offensive. The Tibetan’s feel their culture and art has been monetized and exploited by the Chinese. I toned it down, and took the illustration a different direction.
How long did the whole process take?
Steve: We made 12 drawings and it took six weeks in total.
The second edition, which is made for the International Women’s day, is more compressive because of the deadline. It took us three weeks.
What’s your favorite piece?
Dechen Pemba makes sure that Tibetan voices not heard inside China can be heard online.
Steve: My favorite is the Tibetan woman Dechen Pemba. She really liked it and used it as her Facebook profile picture. As I said, because of cultural sensibility, I had to change the original drawing. In the end, because we worked with the RFA Tibetan Service, we got something better.
Gao Yu is a veteran journalist in China who has been repeatedly imprisoned but never silenced.
Brian: I really like the one I did for Gao Yu. On this one, I know I want to do one that is more collage based. Sort of cutting out shapes and then putting them together, I started with the portrait. Because she’s a writer, so I put the keyboard there.
Steve: What we are hoping to do after this is to do something that moves. RFA has a project going forward on human trafficking. We are hoping to do some 30-second animations for that.
Brian: They’ve hired a team of documentary journalists to produce a series of video, and we are trying to take excerpt from the interviews, and produce a series of animations – something that hopefully will help pull people into the story through social media and from there they’ll see the longer documentary.
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