Lessons Learned #2 - On Imagery



Photo by  Gariay Thomas  on  Unsplash

When you think of stories, what is it that first comes to mind?

Is it the words — your favourite titles and phrases coming back to you? Is it experiences — being read to as a child, or being pitched to as an adult?

For me, images and photos don’t immediately come to mind and the irony is not lost on me, considering I once dreamed of being a photojournalist.

Yet, images are stories.

The particular ways that someone captures something, through framing, light, or even what’s in the picture itself, creates a narrative.

Long before we talk, we observe the world around us. And, long before we read, we look at pictures and try to piece together a plot.

I remember watching the news on TV when I was ten years old. I had no idea what the newscasters were saying, but images of tall towers burning and collapsing told me everything I needed to know —of devastation and chaos.

Every image tells a story.

This is something I’ve been mindful of navigating as Lillian — the amazing change-maker I’m working with for the first book — and I work through the illustrations together. There are an incredible amount of details that need to be clarified, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable process so far.

For example, one of the pages mentions how Lillian’s grandmother cooks over a fire. In my head, the illustrations for this would’ve looked something like the below (left). That was until Lillian clarified for me and the illustrator, that there’s a very specific way of cooking over fire in some Kenyan communities (right), using three large stones. Both ways are “cooking over fire” but what it looks like in different cultures is wildly different.

Image by  Shutterstock

Image by Shutterstock

Image by Lillian

Image by Lillian

One of the biggest lessons this (and also feedback from someone) has taught me, is that it’s easy for bias and preconceived ideas to emerge through images. Checking your way of seeing the world at the door can be difficult.

But for me, as a storyteller that wants to help share the stories of others, nothing could be more important.

Another example: the feedback I alluded to above was about an image I’d chosen for my landing page.

I’ve been attempting to build a community around Small Fires as it grows, and wanted a way to keep in touch with people who were interested in buying a book later down the track. So I made a quick and simple website, and chose an image (below) as a backdrop until the illustrations were created.

In the moment, looking back, I think I chose the image because of the yellow hues (my favourite colour and a central colour to the brand) and the memories it brought back of my own experiences in Kenya — long hours in vans, traveling along dusty roads.

That was, until someone kindly sent me this article.

Why Every Book About Africa Has the Same Cover

If you’re not up for reading the article, which is a short and great read, here’s one of the central points by interviewee Peter Mendelsund:

There are the deeply ingrained problems of post-colonialist and Orientalist attitudes. We’re comfortable with this visual image of Africa because it’s safe. It presents ‘otherness’ in a way that’s easy to understand. That’s ironic, because what is fiction if not a way for you to stretch your empathetic muscles?

Like I promised myself in my last reflection, I sat with this article for a few days and began to interrogate why I had really chosen the image.

Sure the colour thing still made sense, but was this image really best representative of my time in Kenya — a time filled with many hours in cities and towns, indoors and with many people? Or was it an image of Kenya that I thought would be easy to consume, that matched the stereotype of romantic Africa I’d had in my head before I went, and somehow reverted back to?

I came to realise that I was perpetuating one of the core things Small Fires seeks to challenge — tropes and stories that do little to show the multiple dimensions of real people and ways of living.

I realised that, again, even with good intentions, I can still do harm. There’s still so much to learn, and I’ll probably never always get it right.

So this time, my commitment is:

To be more aware of assumptions in my thinking, particularly when in comes to choices around imagery.

As an immediate action, Lillian, myself and our amazing illustrator will be working collaboratively and iteratively to make sure we get the little details right. We’re looking forward to sharing peeks of what we’ve been working on soon!

I’ve also changed the image on the website, to one which feels more accurate of what Small Fires is about (a home and the people that live there).

If you have any suggestions or practices in your own work for checking assumptions, I’d love to hear from you (via the comments or email).


Lessons Learned is a regular series from me about all the many things I’m learning as I build Small Fires. Part reflection, part working in the open, these learnings are here to share what I’m discovering and also give an insight into the operations and thinking behind the organisation.