What is truth?
A year into teaching illustration for graduates (in my MFA Illustration Practice elective Drawing Non-fiction) and undergraduates, this is a question that I have recently been thinking more of, and often bring up in class.
As a designer and illustrator, my approach to building narratives has always been informed by the idea that there is never one story. My work as a narrator, is to understand the content I am using from multiple perspectives, not just mine, or my client's. I have to be objective. I was taught that in my first year of design school, as part of sensitization before travelling to document life in a village in Central India. Whose truth, was the question we were told to ask ourselves. If there is no single story, can there be a truth?
And if truths are subjective, is it possible to truly be objective when trying to narrate them?
The act of narration itself is a second-hand exercise. Beyond the first-hand experience of a moment, we only have memory and its reconstruction to rely on. That is the tricky thing about memory. To quote from David Mazzuchelli's graphic novel Asterios Polyp,
'The more something is recalled, the more the brain has a chance to refine the original experience, because every memory is a re-creation, not a playback.'
At an SPX '16 panel discussion with Joe Sacco and Sarah Glidden (moderated by Matt Bors), Sacco responded to the question 'why is journalistic objectivity important in comics?', by saying being objective was not the same as being honest. Glidden echoed that idea when she said honesty in presenting a story was essential to her, especially when she was skeptical about the information she received from people. There are so many steps between a moment happening, and its telling. As 'objective' narrators, we are also one of many filters, even if we choose to present everything exactly as we think they are before us.
Stories and narratives have the power to disenfranchise and also rebuild. As designers and illustrators, we are narrators who wield that power. History is not absolute; it is a record that is made by someone. ‘Past’ isn’t a finite amount of time, it grows in size each day with what people record, document and narrate of places, cultures and each other.