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Alisse: Charlotte and I hadn’t yet met when I stepped onto a ballroom stage in early December of 2017 to close out my term as president of the American Anthropological Association. In my farewell address, I offered reflections on the dark times of the past and the present and a challenge both mournful and expectant about what we need to do as people living and working amid human suffering.  


The next morning, I received a beautiful gift from Charlotte. She had drawn a most a spectacular rendition of the talk, capturing the spirit and the details of my words—the light as golden and the darkness in all its fury and dangerousness, the specks of red, the cotton wool that obscures, the rich store of world knowledge in a rushing movement outwards. 


Charlotte: It was my first time at this conference. I had been sketch-noting a number of different sessions when I sat down in the audience that Saturday evening. Drawing, or sketch noting, challenges me to enter deeply into the meaning of what is being communicated. When Alisse began to speak, I was not prepared for what was to come. I found myself enthralled, unexpectedly caught up in every sentence, and desperate to visualize each word so that I could comprehend the deeper meanings she was painting with language. I found myself swept along. I stopped trying to draw live, and instead, took as many notes as possible in the hope that I could produce something of value immediately afterwards. 


Alisse had spoken from her heart, sharing her intimate and valuable understanding of the world that came from her and from great thinkers and writers of the past. Such a haul of personal and academic treasure, so generously framed with honesty and courage, caught my heart and animated my mind; I had to let it pass through me into a drawing before I could be settled again. Working into the night, I found a way to balance her words and my drawing, creating the illustration Alisse received the next day. Her response was generous with compliments. Two months later she got back in touch, “Would you like to work together and transform the address into a graphic book?” My answer was an instant yes. 


We began the project working by long distance via Skype, and then in-person for months-long periods. We took apart the original speech, deep diving into each written word, sentence, and paragraph, translating their meanings into a story, and synthesizing the writing and the drawing into the graphic book.  


Alisse wrote and spoke. Charlotte designed and drew. Together, we discussed, discovered, argued, and envisioned Light in Dark Times.


Alisse Waterston is presidential scholar, professor and chair, department of anthropology, City University of New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She studies the human consequences of structural violence and systemic inequalities, and is author of six books including the award winning My Father's Wars: Migration, Memory and the Violence of a Century. She was president of the American Anthropological Association (2015-2017) and is a Fellow of the Swedish Collegium of Advanced Study (SCAS).


Charlotte Corden is an illustrator and artist with an MA in anthropology. She is fascinated with the power of hand-drawn images to reveal and describe complex truths in social science research. As a researcher and illustrator she has worked with Stripe Partners, the Young Foundation UK, the British Cabinet Office, and the National Health Service, UK. As a fine artist, she has studied drawing and painting at The London Fine Art Studios and the Arts Student’s League, New York.


Light in Dark Times is the result of a unique collaboration between an anthropologist and an artist.

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