How to Discover Visual Historical Storytelling, Without Leaving Home

By Avigail Oren

On April 28th UHA past-president Richard Harris emailed me the link to Ariel Aberg-Riger’s newest visual story for CityLab, and my immediate response after reading it was “we should reach out and interview her for The Metropole about how she came up with this idea!!” I had the privilege of chatting with Aberg-Riger on Friday afternoon and she was just as colorful and charming as you would expect from reading her visual stories.

Ariel-Aberg-RigerFor many years, Ariel Aberg-Riger has been a creative director by day and a visual storyteller by night, publishing her collages of text and imagery in CityLab, The Guardian, and Teen Vogue. I asked her about what inspired her to write about Buffalo, why she is drawn to history, and what historians can learn from visual storytelling.

Avigail Oren (AO): Hello! Thank you so much for joining me.

Ariel Aberg-Riger (AAR): Thank you for having me.

AO: Your visual story for CityLab last week, How to Discover the History of Your Neighborhood, Without Leaving Home, had urban historians kvelling. Your beautifully illustrated piece not only foregrounds the history of your home in Buffalo and the history of Buffalo’s development. You also, by teaching the reader how to do historical research, provide readers with a glimpse into how historians work and hopefully give them an appreciation for the hard-won insights of archival research. So I wanted to ask you what inspired the piece, and why did you choose the form of guided time travel?

AAR: My access point into history has always been the images. That’s the way I started getting into history, by being so fascinated by the visuals of different areas and then using them to find the stories themselves.

And so I was like, well, this is a process that I do, and I love, and I do it all from home all the time. I don’t visit collections generally; I’m always doing research online. And so it would be really fun to let readers see what I’m doing and for them to do it too. And so the idea of doing this kind of dual piece, which I had never done before, came up. I thought [the story of my house] might be interesting to some people, but it’s also so specific. I didn’t think it was enough to stand alone. But then also giving people these tools to [research their homes] themselves was fun. I was really excited to see what people did and how they used it.

AO: Tell me about the response.

AAR: I think that one of my favorite parts about the stories when they come out is which groups of people it tends to resonate with. I feel like I always find fanatics in different areas that I didn’t know about. Like I did a piece about urban crows a few years ago, and I was just opened up to the world of crow Twitter, which was amazing. I loved them. I always get really great responses from professors and teachers, which is always my favorite, especially if high school teachers use [a story] as a way to have their kids engage. A teacher in Brooklyn was just like, I sent [How to Discover the History of Your Neighborhood] to my department. I’m going to get our kids doing this. That always makes me so excited because this would have blown my mind when I was 16. And then I think obviously the [urban] historians got really excited and were reaching out. And I always get so excited when the collections themselves retweet it.

AO: That’s awesome. So you have written a lot of visual histories. What is it that draws you to these topics?

AAR: I think for me it’s always things that I personally want to know more about. It’s funny because it was definitely the subject that I knew the least about growing up. I had amazing teachers in so many fields and areas and history was always the worst. The curriculum was dreadful, as it is for many American public school students, especially, you know, 20, 30 years ago. And so I think that I had these huge holes in my understanding and frameworks of thinking that now I’m trying to piece together. With everything happening now, I realized I have these massive, fundamental gaps. And so I think that the genesis of most of my stories is me trying to understand, to give myself context. That’s usually why I go after certain things. Sometimes it’ll be conversations I see people having online where I have a question. Sometimes it’ll be actually finding imagery that sparks some kind of interrogation. But it usually starts with a question of some sort. If you look at some of the more sweeping histories that I’ve done for CityLab, like how did public libraries start, that was me just loving public libraries and wanting to know, did we always have them? Where did they come from? And then figuring it out.

AO: For those of us who are better at painting with words than illustrating, could you share a little bit about how you choose your images, how you balance visuals and texts, and what are some of the other decisions you make in illustrating these stories?

AAR: Of course. I think it depends on every piece, but generally my process is fairly traditional upfront. After I pick a topic I’ll go in and just start researching. I’ll start by getting a general sense and then dig in, working my way towards the seminal works and understanding what those are. And so as I’m researching, I have a huge document with all my written research in it. I’m taking notes and doing everything that I think most writers do. And then I’m also creating a big file system of images. And so as I go along, I’ll be dragging images off and trying to tag them in my own weird way, basically around rights and clearance issues. I try to work with all public domain imagery but, you know, sometimes if I really can’t find something I’ll contact an archive and try to see if I can get stuff from them. For the most part I’m using all images that I can just use.

Depending on the feeling and the spirit of the piece as well as the available imagery for the piece, a creative direction will emerge as I’m researching. I did one piece about Lake Erie and pollution, and a big chunk of that took place in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s where it’s way harder to find public domain imagery because it’s more recent. And also it’s about a lake — there are only so many pictures of a lake. So there I was like, okay, well I want the feeling of water, so I decided I would do the whole thing in watercolor and then draw some of [the images I found but couldn’t use]. Then once I think that I’ve done a big enough swath of research, I’ll sit down and create an outline. While I’m doing that I’ll have some sense, I’ll kind of see it in my head as I’m going, in terms of where I want the arc to go, where there’ll be some amazing image I found that I know I really want to work in.

But generally I’m just focused on the writing, and then once I’ve written it, just in text, that’s when I’ll send it to my editor, and they’ll look at it and make any comments that they have and do the copy editing and fact checking. Then when it comes back to me, I basically just take it and start handwriting it out and kind of collaging it all together. Graphic artists or comic artists storyboard stuff out, but I definitely feel like [what I do is] way more organic. And so as I’m kind of piecing it together, I’m just grabbing stuff that I have. If there’s a missing piece, I’ll grab more and put it in. It’s just collaging the story and the visuals together.

AO: What tools do you use?

AAR: I use Photoshop and this app called Procreate on the iPad. I used to do it only in Photoshop. I would literally hand-write the whole story out on paper, scan it in, and then cut it apart like magnetic poetry, which was incredibly laborious. And then like a year and a half ago I got an iPad and Procreate, which is a drawing app. So now I have my little trusty digital pen, and I write directly in the app, which is great. I do it panel by panel; the visual stories are a series of JPEGs. It’s actually really lo-fi. I’m just writing the text in, bringing in an image, drawing on top or doing whatever. And then when they go together it looks like it’s scrolling, but it’s just individual JPEGs.

AO: How accessible is this for someone who doesn’t have a graphic design background or doesn’t feel like a strong illustrator, but has an eye for collage or wants to try and be creative?

AAR: Do it! It’s super accessible. I think that’s the reason why I love it so much. I tend to stick to collage in the work that I do, especially when I’m doing historical stories because there’s so much to work with, right? I’ve had this conversation increasingly lately, that history is so awesome and now people are getting more and more into it, but primarily [history] is still being done in text. Which I think is so important, but as someone who’s very visual, it pains me greatly when you’re like reading a thing that you didn’t know about, like reading about George Washington’s teeth and that they weren’t wood. They were, you know, the teeth of the people he enslaved, teeth he pulled out of their mouths, and then next to the story is still a picture of him looking perfectly George Washington. And I think that we break down those histories with words, but we don’t break down the images in the same way. And especially if you’re dealing with anything before the early 1920s, you know, it’s yours. You can do whatever you want, like cut the eyes out of slavers, or draw weird arms coming off them. I mean you can do anything. And I think that there’s so much you can do to get people to approach those images in a way that doesn’t feel so confined. I think that we’re so used to text and an image and everything’s square. Stylistically, there’s like a billion ways to do it. But I think that it’s just really fun to play with it, and why not? I think that anyone could do it. I don’t think you have to be a great artist.

AO: That is very inspiring. I think where historians might have a hang-up is around citations. How does citation work when you’re doing visual stories? How do you make sure that your reader can track your sources?

AAR: So it’s actually something that I’ve thought about a lot, for a long time, and I think that it’s the biggest issue with this type of storytelling because you can’t hyperlink, you can’t footnote in the same way. What I’ve done with CityLab, which I think is definitely a stopgap measure because we just technically haven’t figured out a better solution, is that we often include links to further reading at the bottom of my pieces. I’ve seen some other visual storytellers like Wendy MacNaughton, who I love, who has done all sorts of stuff, but she was doing a column in the Sunday Business section of the New York Times, and she would sometimes put visual numbers in her pieces that correlated to footnotes. So it’s not exactly linked but citation is worked in. I definitely think there could be some interesting visual solutions. I’ve also seen some more like complex, like technically complex pieces, like if you look at some of the more interactive graphic pieces different newspapers are doing, where citation could be more integrated. But that’s definitely something I’m always thinking about. And now that I’m just starting work on this book, something else I’m thinking about is how to cite not just the texts but also the images. A lot of the images that I’m using, I’m using them for specific reasons. There’s a context to the images themselves that plays into how you’re using them.

AO: Yeah, it does seem to be to be the biggest hurdle. We even experience it on The Metropole. How much visual clutter do you want to introduce, or how much work do you want to make for the reader?

AAR: It totally depends on the pieces, right? I think that’s something too—I love making visual stories, but they’re not always the thing that you should make. I often think about—and this is where some of what I’m doing is more like poetry than a journal article—feeling the physicality of the story in a very different way. That doesn’t make sense for all types of information, right? Or all types of stories. I think the biggest thing about visual storytelling for me is that authors and writers of all sorts should feel open to explore different mélanges of text and image, from all text to all images. It should make sense with the story that you’re telling and how you’re trying to engage and interact with the reader.

AO: That’s a great point. Pieces have different objectives. I wanted to ask you what advice you have for urban historians, or maybe historians more generally, who want to write for a broader audience?

AAR: I feel like I’m the broader audience because I’m not an academic and not a historian. I don’t know. I think so many do it well already. I think that the biggest thing that is hard for me when I’m trying to access some pieces that are more academic in my own research, is when the conversations that the pieces are having, or inserting themselves into, are incredibly small. There are some people that— this is what they’re thinking about all the time, which is amazing and wonderful and I’m so happy their brains are doing that. But they’re so obviously talking to like four other people who are also thinking about these things all the time. That needs to be happening on a certain level, but I think when you raise it up to a different level of understanding, what people may or may not know about a topic is important to keep in mind.

There needs to be truth and rigor to everything that you’re doing. But some of the most interesting conversations that I’ve had were [for example] after I did a piece about SROs for CityLab and so many people wrote me that they were so into the piece because they were like, this is why I love this issue, but I can never zoom out enough to tell it. They’re so inside every zoning law. And so I think that sometimes not having the weight of all that insight and information frees you up to be able to skip broad swaths of it that are obviously important, but a first time reader does not need to know going in.

So I guess my biggest piece of advice would be, don’t feel the need to tell the entirety of your brain in every piece that you’re doing. The way that I see my pieces and why I consider myself a storyteller and not a historian is because I try to create access points that allow people to come in. And so maybe you’ll read something I did and then pick up this 200-page tome on the subject that you will love, now that you’re excited about whatever thing it is. So it’s just a taste.

AO: That is great advice. Thank you so much for answering these questions!

Avigail S. Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She recieved her Ph.D. from the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University in 2017, and has been an independent scholar and entrepreneur ever since. She is physically in quarantined in Pittsburgh but mentally residing in Baltimore, as she now finds herself with time to re-watch The Wire.

Featured Image (at top): Excerpted from How to Discover the History of Your Neighborhood, Without Leaving Home.


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