On humanitarian storytelling

Art Director Gem Fletcher speaks to photographer Nick Ballon and artist Alma Haser about creating imagery for Save the Children’s Invisible Wounds project

The power of images to instil action has been a crucial tool throughout the last century. However, we now consume more images in our daily lives than ever before, making it more and more difficult to cut through the noise and activate change. This is a particularly pertinent problem for charities, who are constantly trying to bring focus, keep focus and inspire action while facing mass public fatigue.

Ivy Lahon, Managing Picture Editor for Save the Children believes campaigns need to be more “innovative, engaging and take creative risks”. To mark the 6th anniversary of the conflict in Syria, Save The Children have published a major research project Invisible Wounds, which illustrates the long-term psychological issues sustained by children affected by war. Rather than commission a photojournalist, Ivy collaborated with photographer Nick Ballon and artist Alma Haser to create a striking series of images and animations that aim to shift the paradigm of humanitarian storytelling.

I talked to Ballon and Haser about their collaboration and approach to the project.

Mohammed, Alma Haser & Nick Ballon for Save the Children

GF: How did the project come about?

NB – We had been talking about working together for such a long time and this project seemed liked the perfect opportunity. Leaning on each other’s strengths to add value to the work. Initially STC came to Alma first as they were obsessed by her image manipulations and they could see how these physical interventions could represent the psychological impacts of war on the children.

AH – I also wanted to make sure the portraits were strong and embodied the seriousness of the subject matter. I knew I could trust Nick to capture the children’s vulnerability in a powerful way.

Nesreen, Alma Haser & Nick Ballon for Save the Children

GF: How did you approach the brief?

A- STC briefed me with each child’s story. The stories were so harrowing. It was my intention to try and create a sense of fear, absence and anger in the work, illustrating the emotions which aren’t always visibly affecting children. I decided on showing these invisible affects by using the tactile paper techniques of folding, ripping and crumpling.

NB – Alma and I carefully considered my involvement in creating environmental portraits, before I went out to meet the children in Turkey. Using subtle, natural light and pared back environments in a sympathetic way, ensured we didn’t create layers that clashed in Alma’s post production. For me working in this stripped down way, gave me greater flexibility in the field, an environment where photographers are generally seen negatively by officials.

Ahmed, Alma Haser & Nick Ballon for Save the Children

GF: Alma, how did you approach visualising the individual stories?

AH- I spent a lot of time reading the children’s interviews and thinking about how to conceptually interpret them. For example, Razan has lost everything and has experienced so many horrible things she has become almost mute. Her sister says she looks like Razan but she is no longer Razan. I interpreted that Razan was inside herself, a shell with in shell, like a Russian doll. So I printed her portrait off multiple times, shrinking her and then ripping her out of the picture.

For Abbas and his mother, who had to carry him for days and days to try and get him to safety, I felt I needed to show his vulnerability and her pain. I had cut out shards from their print for the animation, and was left with the paper skeleton, which I crumpled and placed back on the portrait. It lent itself so well to their story and mirrored the shadows Nick had managed to capture in their portrait.

Abbas and his mother, Alma Haser & Nick Ballon for Save the Children

GF: What were the key challenges of the project?

NB- I think the toughest element of the project was finding the strongest portraits whilst making sure the children were able to communicate their ordeals for the animation audio. There were a few successful portraits that we couldn’t use because the interview didn’t work out. The emotions we were asking them to talk about were so fresh and impossibly complicated, it wasn’t always possible to make the strongest portraits and interviews match up.

AH – For me, the challenge was to do justice for the children and their stories.

GF: How do you feel the work will help motivate and mobilise people around the issue?

NB – As much as we don’t want to be, we are all so conditioned by seeing imagery of war and suffering every day. Working with artists that can bring an alternative view and visual language to well-known subjects can hopefully encourage people to think differently.


nickballon.com; haser.org

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