When an illustration is the wrong choice

Reading the first paragraphs of Tobias Stern Johansen’s story about Bavaria (Bayern) from last Saturday’s Kristeligt Dagblad is pure pleasure. I’ll translate: “A female waiter with a voluptuous cleavage, and even more impressive biceps, indulgently corrects the reporter when he orders a small beer.
’Here, we have nothing but Mass,’ she says.
Mass. One litre beer mugs. Thanks, but no thanks, the journalist responds. Duty is calling. We are on the search for the Bavarian soul, and few places seem so obvious to go looking for it as the annual Oktoberfest which draws seven million people to Munich, the state capital”.

The rest of the article is just as good. So what’s here not to like?

Well, I have a problem with the choice of illustration. However beautiful and cleverly conceived, Morten Voigt’s combination of a map, the German flag, the Bavarian coat of arms, and a partying couple just doesn’t serve as a suitable companion to Tobias’ words. Reading the story raises visual questions about Bavaria and the Bavarians that this illustration cannot answer. It represents an abstract idea where showing reality would have done the job better.

The same goes for Kristian Madsen’s series of visits to ”Trumpland” this summer, published in Politiken and certainly worth a read. From an artistic point of view, Mette Dreyer’s sophisticated illustrations are vintage Politiken – but they make these stories look like fiction, rather than reports from the real world:

The maestro concept is an editorial work method which can improve how stories are told and make sure they address readers’ interests. One of the advantages of this concept is that it can help you choose the right way to illustrate a story. Using it might have prevented unfortunate solutions like the above.

But is there a “right” way? Isn’t that thinking too restrictively? Aren’t we striving to encourage creativity, to always look for new, inspiring ways to tell stories, visually as well as verbally?

Yes and no. Original and unusual storytelling techniques can make people recognize, and remember, messages which might otherwise go unnoticed, therefore we must be open to new, surprising ways to visualize stories. But being open to something doesn’t mean you should always choose that solution. Because it’s also a fact that the image serves as the primer of a story – more often than not, the most important one – and as certain types of images suggest a certain type of story, using them for a different kind of journalism might confuse the recipient; the interpreter, in Gunther Kress terms.

If you use a story planner like the one included in the maestro concept (and described in my book), a mandatory question will sound something like “which parts of this story can we tell through visuals?” or “can some of the reader’s most obvious questions be answered with visuals?”. And even if you don’t subscribe to planning schemes like the maestro concept, it’s still a very good idea to try seeing a story through the reader’s eyes and imagine what questions might pop up when a topic is introduced. Like, “I wonder what this looks like”.

In the Oktoberfest case, a documentary photo, rich on detail, from the beer garden could have given the reader a more complete picture of the event. It would also have supported Tobias’ wonderful portrait of “the Bavarian soul” more effectively.

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