Two years ago, Graeme Wood, the millionaire behind Wotif.com, pledged more than $15 million to fund a new experiment in Australian journalism. A non-profit news site, The Global Mail launched with a mission to deliver "original, fearless and independent journalism." While it rarely troubled the mainstream, the site lived up to its promise with inventive, exhaustively researched multimedia stories.
In January, Wood announced he was pulling funding from The Global Mail. A week later, staff were given redundancies. Before they left the building for the final time, two employees hit ‘publish’ on what has become the publication’s biggest story ever.
Through a web of contacts, staff journalist Nick Olle had found a former detention centre employee who was willing to speak about what they had experienced. Instead of simply publishing Nick’s interview, The Global Mail enlisted two Australian illustrators, Pat Grant and Sam Wallman, to help. Despite international critical acclaim, both artists were virtually unknown beyond the world of comics until last month, when A Guard’s Story was shared 50,000 times in less than a fortnight. In October, their piece was nominated for a Walkley Award, the highest honour in Australian journalism.
Like many people, we were curious to hear how two cartoonists helped make such a remarkable piece of journalism, so we spoke with Olle, Wallman and Grant to find out.
Nick Olle (Journalist): I’ve been doing immigration and asylum-seeker stories almost exclusively for the past six months, travelling around the country, meeting people and building up contacts. Part of that network included a person who had worked in a detention centre. I listened to their story, they showed me the diary they’d written inside the detention centres and we did an interview. I could have written it up as a conventional story and it would have been pretty good, but we made a conscious decision a while ago that most Global Mail stories would be project based. Whenever anyone had an idea or pitched something we thought could work, the immediate phase after that was to work out how best to present it. Would it be best to tell the story through video? Graphics? We talked with the visual people and my colleague Ella Rubeli thought this might work as a graphic novel.
Pat Grant (Producer): One of my dearest friends, Pat Armstrong, was a designer at The Global Mail, so I was the first person they called. I’m submitting my PhD thesis in March so I couldn’t turn a comic around in the timeframe they wanted. I was super pissed off because it was such a good project, but a job like that would take me three months. Thankfully I didn’t do it, because I wouldn’t have finished it in time for The Global Mail to publish it [before it folded]. I’m an extremely slow cartoonist.
Sam Wallman (Illustrator): Pat gave me a call and mentioned the project. We’d worked together on a Graphic Festival at the Opera House last year which was co-presented by Radio National. The story I drew there was about how complicated it is to prove to a government bureaucracy that you’re queer and fleeing persecution. How do you prove something as ephemeral as your sexuality to a government? I’m part of Beyond Borders Collective, which is working towards making everyone see we’re all complicit in the border and it’s not just about Tony Abbott, it’s not about getting the Labor Party back in. I feel pretty passionate about it, and I’m always trying to work out how to make art more activist-based without being too preachy. Pat, I suppose, thought I could walk that line with this piece. I’m glad he got me on board.
Pat: Sam had a visual vocabulary that was tried and tested for this piece. He knew how to approach things in a way that I wouldn’t. One obvious example, and one which is uncomfortable to talk about, is how difficult it is for a cartoonist to draw people of different races without coming across awful stereotypes. Look at the way black people are drawn in Tintin or Asterix comics. You can’t do that anymore.
Sam: It’s a doozy. If you’re going to draw a picture of a homeless person, what do you use to show people it’s a homeless person? There are very few cues you can give people. You’re relying on stereotypes and prejudices so people understand what you’re showing them. But there are subtle ways you can subvert that. You can put a homeless person in a suit, or draw a sexy homeless person. There are small ways you can play with it.
Pat: The transcript we started with was pretty raw, but there was so much there I immediately thought, ‘I know how that would work visually’. The other thing I noticed was how un-interesting it would be as a prose piece. I was thinking, ‘this definitely needs to be comics’. It was such a personal story with so many visceral experiences woven into it.
Sam: This perverse thing happens when you draw too much; you start seeing the world as a cartoon. Pat went through the raw material and created a structure for the story really quickly, in a day or two. It came naturally to him. He’s probably got the same problem as me, where you’re talking with someone and they’re saying something serious and you’re thinking, ‘How would I draw this?’ Or, ‘That jowl would make a really good drawing.’
Pat: At the first meeting, I said they needed to make sure whoever was going to draw the piece did a rough draft. Basically, don’t let them start drawing the finished art until you’re all happy with the draft, and the source is happy too. As we were talking about pitfalls and workflows and different ways a news organization might have to think about working with cartoonists, Nick Olle and Sam Bungey [deputy editor] thought it might be worth having me stick around as a troubleshooter.
Nick: We had loads of discussions, tweaking language here and there. Not putting words in the source’s mouth, but for clarity. If the source looked at a draft and said they’d prefer to say something in a certain way, we made sure it was said in their own words.
Sam: Whenever we made a change, Nick would take a few days to run it past the source. It was good that the source was anonymous because it meant the person I was drawing could be more of an archetype in my mind. They weren’t one actual person – all the workers in the centre could be reduced to one character, which is sort of how comics work anyway. You project a lot onto cartoon characters. When you read kids’ books, the characters’ faces often have really simple, minimal features, they’re just vessels so the kid reading the book can project onto this character. Not knowing a lot about the informant meant I could make it more about what they were going through, and the experiences of the asylum seekers.
Nick: I was really impressed with the journalism Sam and Pat brought to it. Each panel didn’t just illustrate the words, it was often metaphorical as well. It would add to the general point of the story. We’d occasionally decide to make minor changes to certain panels, but the visual side was quite rightly left to the guys who do it best.
Sam: It was a big part of the source’s life and they took a big risk – they could go to jail for leaking this – so I was trying to be rigorous less for journalistic reasons and more out of respect for that person and people in detention. It was an important story and I wanted to treat it with weight.
Nick: I made a promise to the source that they would be involved the whole way.
Pat: Nick was constantly going back to the informant to find more stuff. The fact that the informant encountered the Rohingyan guys from the detention centre in the outside world was something Nick dug up later, and that was such a perfect ending.
Nick: Everything in the story is from my face-to-face interview, with the possible exception of one panel where we tell people what Serco is – that it’s a big multinational service provider – I wrote that. Everything else came direct from the source. They knew there was a chance they’d get in trouble for this, so they wanted to be proud of it. They wanted to be able to say, "Yes, those words are mine.” They wanted to make it as good as possible, and I can tell you absolutely they think it was worth it.
Sam: It was emotional to make. I have some friends who have recently got out of detention and are waiting for their visa applications to be processed, and one of them has been denied already. They’re having a really hard time and I was thinking of them a lot while I was drawing. It was pretty sad to spend 100 hours sitting on my own, thinking about how brutal things are.
Nick: This is a different kind of journalism. We acknowledged the informant had an agenda and took sides.
Pat: For me, the last line is the crux of the story. “Nobody on the outside believed how bad it was in there.” That sums up what we’re doing, why the informant’s coming out and why we think the story is important. That line was buried in the text until the last edit. I went into The Global Mail office and Pat Armstrong and I just noodled around with the thing to get it to really sing, and that line just came out of the text and it was like: “That’s it.” Then it goes into that silent sequence, when the informant meets those former inmates in the shopping centre, which is such a great way to end, isn’t it?
Nick: I’ve done a few stories that’ve had a lot of traffic, but it’d normally be because of the shock factor of the incidents themselves. I did one about a profoundly disabled child on Nauru, and the nature of that, and the Minister’s comments, shocked people. There’s definitely fatigue on this issue, which is why we’re so proud of having done this. Pretty funny too, given the government came out with its own comic a few days later.
Sam: Kevin Rudd’s government commissioned that comic last year. It’s easy to blame one person for what’s going on, but I’m complicit in the border, you are, there are people whose superannuation funds profit from the asylum seeker industry … it’s pretty complicated.
Pat: I was at Pat Armstrong’s house the night that Global Mail staff were told [about Graeme Wood’s decision to cease funding]. That was a Friday. The following Friday, Sam sent all these changes through to the designers and we got this quick email back from Nick saying, ‘Aaaaah, we had our retrenchment meeting yesterday and we all have to get out of the building this afternoon.’ Pat Armstrong stuck around and did as many changes as he could, pushed ‘publish’ and then left the office, pretty much. It’s like that season ender in Mad Men where they all sort of shoot through.
Nick: It’s premature to say The Global Mail is dead, but it’s not entirely inaccurate. After we published this story we haven’t been back in the office, that’s true.
Sam: I hadn’t heard of The Global Mail before this project. I wish I’d known about it while it was around. As soon as I got involved I read back over a lot of their stories and was really impressed, and bummed I hadn’t been following it for longer. The piece on the housing crisis in the desert, that’s amazing, and really pushing journalism in new directions.
Nick: I’m going to miss it. It was such a blessing to have a team like that, and also having the luxury of time and the clean canvas to do that kind of work and to make it look beautiful and as good as it can be. We didn’t compete with other organisations, we augmented what was out there. We weren’t about turning stuff around quickly and getting big numbers.
Sam: Since the success of the project I’ve wondered why this piece by four white guys is getting all this traction when there are resources made by detainees telling their own stories in really clear, beautiful ways. I’d encourage people to look up the Refugee Art Project and the work by RISE, a refugee advocacy group run by refugees.
Pat: The other day, someone told me that what’s really missing from our discussion around asylum seekers is a basic kind of empathy. It gets beaten out of us, after a while. This kind of journalism, which is so much about one individual’s experience, and the way policy impacts on very specific human subjects, shocks us back into empathising.
Sam: I hope people read it and want to get involved in campaigns. A lot of people who’ve been writing to me are saying they’re just really sad about the way things are, and they’re feeling hopeless. I’d like people to use the piece as an entry point into the discussion, not as the final goal.
'At work inside our detention centres: a guard's story' can be read in full at theglobalmail.org
Nick Olle has worked as a journalist in many locations. Before moving to Sydney, Nick was The Global Mail's Latin America correspondent.
Pat Grant lives on the NSW South Coast where he draws and publishes comics. His graphic novel, Blue, was one of Salon.com's Great Graphic Novels of 2012.
Sam Wallman is a Melbourne-based artist who can be found online at penerasespaper.com.