Visual storytelling brings plight of Palestinians to life

Visualizing Palestine, a nonprofit founded in 2012, uses visual storytelling to bring social injustices to life

When Ramzi Jaber organised the TEDx Ramallah conference in 2011, an event that took place simultaneously in Bethlehem, Amman and Beirut, the Palestinian-born engineer was astounded by the information that came to light.

“I was inundated with data and statistics about my own community that I didn’t know,” said Jaber.

One example was a report stating that 52 per cent of Palestinian children arrested by the Israeli military between August 2010 and July 2011 were detained between midnight and 5am.

“They were snatched from their beds,” he said. “I thought; ‘how do I not know these statistics, that are documented by international bodies and well-respected agencies?’ I had such angst that I didn’t know these statistics.”

Jaber’s response marked the beginning of Visualizing Palestine (VP), a nonprofit founded in 2012 that uses visual storytelling to bring social injustices to life.

The project is part of Visualizing Impact (VI), a team of 10 people that aim to create powerful infographics backed by data, to illustrate pressing social issues. With a focus on the Middle East, the organisation is reaching audiences as far as the US to help them relate to regional conflicts.

In one infographic titled ‘Uprooted’, VI shows the growing economic hardships facing some 80,000 Palestinian families that rely on harvesting olives for their livelihoods. The illustration focuses on the uprooting of over 800,000 Palestinian olive trees by Israeli authorities since 1967, the equivalent to razing all of the 24,000 trees in New York's central park 33 times.

“We are a citizen data journalism lab,” said Jessica Anderson, partnership and impact lead at VI. “We exist to create social impact. We need to continue to push how we define what impact is and how we measure what impact we are having.”

VI is monitoring how its tools support the work of practitioners, journalists, educators, and activists, who use it to shift perceptions or help them reach their advocacy goals. In the first quarter of 2015, VP’s visuals were used by 26 organisations and five universities in 45 cities across 18 countries.

Registered in Lebanon, Canada and the US, VI’s tools are also used by international organisations such as the United Nations, the Red Cross and the New York-based campaign group Avaaz.

“When we started, VI did a lot of research on visual communication and storytelling. We knew from our own personal experience that these were powerful tools. I think everyone can name a photograph that they will never forget or a story that moved them. But how many people can name a piece of data that moved them?” said Anderson. “Studies support our personal experiences. Our human minds are wired visually and narratively. We remember data longer and in greater detail when it is transferred through visuals and stories.”

The data used by VI is cited and sourced, while the visual element helps people “empathise with that data and show how it’s connected to their experiences,” she said.

Jaber and al Jabri created their first infographic based on 21 medical reports about the physiological effects of a long-term fast. ‘Hunger Strikes’ came out as Palestinian administrative detainee Khader Adnan concluded the second month of a 66-day voluntary fast. With limited media coverage of Adnan’s case, VP used data and storytelling to show the extremity of human endurance, and the method’s historic context as a tool of political protest.

“These medical reports showed how your body deteriorated and we visualised that,” said Jaber. This led to a graphic illustrating the meaning of administrative detention, and many more infographics dedicated to Palestinian issues.

VI followed and branched out into tackling problems such as youth unemployment and delayed independence in the Middle East and North Africa region, press censorship in Egypt and Nelson Mandela’s struggle for freedom.

VI has so far been funded primarily by Jaber and al Jabri, both working on a voluntary basis, as well as individual donors, small grants, and support from The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Arab Human Rights Fund and others. The operation costs at least $500,000 per year to maintain.

“We received a huge amount of feedback from organisations, which is overall positive,” said Jaber, who has been invited to speak at Harvard and other universities about VI’s work. “We create tools for others to make campaigns. We don’t have a capacity to go and conduct campaigns.”

VI has also received interest from international organisations such as the UN, Oxfam and Amnesty, whose data they’ve been using, for commissions.

New projects in the pipeline include Visualizing Egypt - in partnership with Egyptian online news site Mada Masr - using technology-based platforms such as apps, and creating a potential partnership on the global issue of mental health.

Photo credit: Visualizing Palestine