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Turning the Unknown into the Known

Interview with Augusto Paim, the journalist behind 'So Close, Far Away!'

Today we are very proud to present a new comics report on Cartoon Movement. 'So Close, Faraway!' is a piece of in-depth, interactive comics journalism from Brazil that will take you on a journey with Jorge, a 43-year old homeless person, roaming the streets of Porto Alegre. To learn something more about the background and motivation of this story, we talk to the author, Augusto Paim.

Paim

Why did you choose the homeless of Brazil as a topic for this comic?

'When I work on a comics journalism piece, I need to focus my attention on the storytelling, sometimes much more than on the research itself. That's why I prefer to deal with topics I have already worked with. In this case, I have a rich background from former written reports I did over the last years, and this is very helpful.

Topics like slums and homelessness touch me, because they make us perceive the reality and the society from a new point of view. When I talk about homelessness with people in Brazil, I hear a lot of complaints that are full of prejudice and ignorance. People like to be sensitive, but only with family or friends. People fear the unknown and protect their sensibility against it. But the unknown can turn into the known very easily, and journalists can be of some help in this process. This is a process healthy for an individual, but also for the society at large, because some big social problems - like violence - are based on mutual ignorance and lack of communication. This is the case with the issue of homelessness. The homeless stay on the same sidewalks where other people walk fast in their daily routines. But they are unseen. Why? Because they are the unknown. So, with this comic report I intended to help to improve this situation. I know this is a form of idealism, but he journalists that I admire are idealists, too.'

Interview1
Augusto talking to Jorge.

Your last production for Cartoon Movement focused on the favelas; is the plight of people living in poverty a recurring theme in your work as a journalist?

'Journalism has a social rule. This is not new - actually this must be a value of the profession, but journalists eventually forget it in the hard routine of daily newspapers. I don't work in a newsroom, so I could choose not to forget it. When I work on a personal project in the field of journalism, I try to deal with topics of social and cultural importance. This is the case of poverty in Brazil. The Brazilian population must get better information about economical and social injustice. It's the job of journalists to help to inform the citizens about the inequality in Brazil, this inequality that for many people seems so natural and unalterable, and that make the real victims seem to be the villains. Some members of social classes don't want to cross the line: why would someone from the middle class try to understand how a homeless person feels? Why would a rich person go into the slums? The journalist is that one who crosses these borders and with the collected information can help to build a society that is more fair.'

Is this a story that is best told with comics journalism? And why?

'For me, comics journalism has some technical features that turn this modality of journalism into the best way for telling some stories. For example: subjectivity and semi-anonymity. By subjectivity I mean that drawings bring a more personal approach to a subject, in comparison with photographs. If I have a story in which the memories of the source (a person) are more important than numbers, data and objective information, I shall prefer to tell it in comics format. That was the case with 'So close, faraway!', because the drawings focus on Jorge's day-to-day. And with 'semi-anonymity' I refer to the fact that the drawings help to protect the identity of the source. In the case of our report, we can know by the text the name of the homeless, his age and his occupation, as well as we can have access to some flash information about his daily routine. But we can't see his face as exactly as in a photograph. This is very helpful for topics when we want/must preserve the identity of the source, if we are dealing with a hard story.'

Interview2
Fragment from 'So Close, Faraway!'.

Why did you choose to work with Bruno Ortiz (the artist)?

'I choose the artist according to the subject of the report and the art style that I'm looking for. I've already developed some non-journalistic works with Bruno Ortiz and I love his watercolors and the way he displays the page layout. Also, I knew that he has interest in and knowledge about social topics in Brazil. So, these are technical details for the decision of inviting Bruno to work with me on this piece. However, I was more surprised when I saw how good Bruno deals with some journalistic procedures, without having been trained in journalism (he graduated on History). Bruno has a natural talent to make interviews, as I noticed by his talks with the homeless Jorge. Bruno helped me a lot in the interviews, that's why he is a good partner for further comic reportages. And indeed, his watercolors and layouts were exactly what I had in mind for such a sensitive topic.'

The comic is interactive, with pop-up texts and photographs. What is the added value of the interactivity (as opposed to an old-fashioned presentation of the comic)? '

'I'm always searching the best form for a report, be it written or in comics. The form must be strictly linked to the topic of the report. So, this is one point. The second one: in the beginning of the research for 'So close, faraway!' I was concerned about how to solve a specific problem of this work: shall I approach the topic 'homelessness in Brazil' by showing a case, or, another option, by giving an overview about its general situation in the country? It was hard to decide. Focusing on a case I could go deeper, because the reader would have the opportunity of feeling closer how a homeless lives. It would turn this work in a piece of Literary Journalism. But I couldn't choose only one case and treat it as an only example for all the diversity of lives on streets in Brazil. So, it was necessary to give an overview, too.

In the other two comics reports I have made, this was a big problem: how to mix the amount of information that must be presented in text with the necessity of comics language to 'show' instead of 'tell'. If we had more space and time to draw more pages, it would be easier, but we hadn't. I couldn't solve this questions at that time, but now I had a good model to follow, that is the reportage of Luke Radl, 'Chicaco is My Kind of Town'. When I saw this piece for the first time, I realized the possibilities of using hypertext resources inside a comic reportage, and I got inspired for our own piece.

We just separated texts from drawings. In the drawings from Bruno we see that deeper approach of Literary Journalism by following a day of Jorge, a homeless - a person - that most people don't notice and only pass by. We focused the 'camera' on Jorge in order to show a homeless as an ordinary citizen - like me and you. Instead of not noticing him, now we are with the homeless and the walkers turn into the invisible ones. And all this is told without words - the essence of a comic! On the other hand, in the 'hidden' texts and pictures we give the readers the opportunity of learning as much as they want about the homelessness in Brazil. This way, we show and we tell. And the reader learns and feels.'

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