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Ethical Storytelling Through Animation: Sadnaya Prison and Ebola in Africa

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A graphic created by Amnesty International for their report
A graphic created by Amnesty International for their report

On Monday of this week, new allegations about the egregious human rights abuses of the Syrian government’s secret prison in Sadnaya surfaced: that a crematorium had been built to permanently disappear detainees. Reports about the prison have been public for a while with many witnesses speaking to Amnesty International.

Many of these witnesses obviously cannot come forward and there is no way to get visual evidence to corroborate their stories. Even if there was visual evidence, it might be legitimately censored by news networks for disturbing content. So how to tell the story to a global audience when no images could exist or even ethically be published?

Amnesty International’s solution was to create an animated short called “Human Slaughterhouse”. This is a 3 minute video featuring the anonymized testimony of a survivor of the prison. In the video we can see moments from the horrible experience, waiting in a crowded cell, being blindfolded and lead to a noose, etc.

The ten-minute “Inside Sadynaya” video gives more context to the story while making heavy use of still drawings and drawn maps. They feature survivor interviews, who have obviously consented to their faces being shown, as they give a behind-the-scenes look at recreating their experiences through animation.

If these images had been real photographs or video, I can’t imagine we would ever see them. They might be used as evidence in legal proceedings, but there is an ethical reason why it is extremely rare to find Nazi captured footage of the Holocaust outside of a courtroom context. Anything that could have been captured in Saydnaya would have been done so by those committing the crimes and therefore the documentation would be another form of torture.

The Global Health Media Project did something similar in cooperation with the International Red Cross in “The Story of Ebola”. Ebola is of course a particularly nasty disease that makes viewing an affected person potentially graphic. Yet it is difficult to visually tell the story without somehow involving blood. The animation provided a culturally sensitive way of doing so.

Last week I wrote about the rise of video games that engage in virtual witnessing, though I argued that they’re not really “games” but interactive graphic novels. Those projects take a similar approach, except they make the viewer role play as a victim. In a 24 hour news cycle, its unlikely we would see a whole lot of journalists choosing to hire an artist to create a rendering for a deadline. But for long investigative pieces, the choice to employ animation is a brilliant one.

Animation provides us with a safe distance from reality and (in theory) is created based on witness memory, centering their personal experience of events. The identity of victims can be properly protected without having to rely on voice modifiers or blurring of faces, which can make it difficult for a viewer to connect with the humanity of the victim. In animation, we can have visually recognizable faces and emotions that can better facilitate empathy.

If we come to the conclusion that the news could benefit from more images of the horror in Syria, animation can be a creative way to present those images in an ethical manner that puts victims in their proper place as subjects of a story rather than objects.

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