3Q: Erik Nelson Rodriguez
Graphic artist Erik Nelson Rodriguez is an innovative comics journalist. With reporter Darryl Holliday, he began creating nonfiction stories in graphic-novel form at university, covering issues such as gun violence. In 2016, US National Public Radio (NPR) invited Rodriguez to collaborate on an account of Syrian refugee Nedal Said: a trained microbiologist and teacher, Said fled the war in 2013 and is now a researcher in Leipzig. The result, The Scientist Who Escaped Aleppo, is part of NPR’s special series on refugee scientists: a testament to the ordeals endured, and the extraordinary potential offered, by the refugee community.
What did you learn from working on this project?
I did not know much about the refugee crisis other than data I had researched for news graphics — statistics on people moving through the Mediterranean into Europe. Just seeing the astounding numbers trying to get away from war zones and how many did not make it past the sea affected me. But it wasn’t until I worked with NPR on Nedal Said’s story that I felt the full weight. To look, under a microscope, at the ordeal an individual has to go through to obtain a better life was a heavy lesson. I was shocked by the number of hurdles Nedal faced, whether escaping from detention or sleeping in parks in the frozen rain — and by how long he was away from his family as he travelled to find a new life for them. I also learned that there are programmes to help refugees trained in science. One is the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, a collective effort by Germany’s foreign office and other institutions named in honour of a Jewish scientist who fled Germany in 1933. I was pleased to find countries creating these opportunities for refugees to integrate after their harrowing journeys — especially when refugees are so happy to give back to that society.
How did you convey Said’s story visually?
NPR provided a timeline of Said’s travels from Turkey to the Balkans to Germany. It gave details about each location, along with interviews describing first-hand experiences. This formed the basis for the storyboard. It was important to me to show Nedal in his work and family life. He was described as always helping others through his scientific knowledge and skills as an educator, so we wanted to display him in those situations. We made sure that his family was highlighted: he was potentially sacrificing his life for them. I researched Aleppo during different periods to see what kind of destruction took place, and created panels featuring tanks, rifles, bullet-ravaged buildings. We re-edited the piece later to help things flow in a vertical comic strip. Aesthetically, I aimed to translate the grittiness and bleakness of the written material. I tried to convey the fear and dread of Said through his facial expressions. I used dark, somewhat sketchy lines to match the story’s tone, but kept a cartoonish quality as a subtle undertone. Working with the editors and researchers was really rewarding.
How can this kind of storytelling help refugees?
Seeing one individual’s journey to escape war and possible death will, I believe, help the public understand that these are just other people in very different circumstances. Having these stories told in detail with audio and visual representations will hopefully shed more light on how refugees struggle to escape the dark reality of their cities’ destruction. In particular, I hope that the public will understand better that without resources, people escaping war-torn countries do not have the opportunity to develop research, knowledge or a decent life, even if they are well educated. Yet the scientific community could gain from the experience and education of people such as Said, as they can provide original ideas developed thousands of miles away, adding fresh perspectives or processes. I hope visual storytelling can highlight these and other invisible parts of the world to show the public on the other side what they cannot see.
Interview by Leonie Mueck, a former senior physics editor at Nature and now division editor at PLOS ONE. She volunteers for the Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign. She tweets at @LeonieMueck. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Scientist Who Escaped Aleppo — on which Rodriguez worked with editors and researchers Meredith Rizzo, Rebecca Davis, Joe Palca, Madeline Sofia and Andrea Kissack — can be seen here in full. You can find information on future projects by Rodriguez and Holliday on their website.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.