Laura Haapio-Kirk is a PhD student at UCL Anthropology and a Leach Fellow in Public Anthropology at the Royal Anthropological Institute. Her research interests include ageing and the life course, wellbeing, and digital technologies. She has a masters in Visual Anthropology from the University of Oxford and integrates illustration into her research. She is currently writing her monograph – Ageing with Smartphones in Japan – which integrates illustration with text. You can follow her anthropological illustrations on Instagram.

“During my PhD fieldwork in Japan I found that sketching was a good way to orient myself, especially at the beginning as I was getting to know different neighbourhoods. I used drawing and painting as a way to pay attention to my surroundings, and ground myself in the small details that you only notice after standing on the same spot for half an hour. The first watercolour above is a family home I stayed in for two months in Osaka, and the second image shows pen sketches of the street I then lived on for 14 months in Kyoto. I moved along the street over a few hours which meant that I was able to also observe flows of people and the general activities of passers by in an unobtrusive way.

My research is focused on the implications of smartphone usage for health and wellbeing among older adults in Japan. In addition to standard anthropological research methods of participant observation and interviews, I also asked my research participants to draw. From sketches showing a person’s relationship to their smartphone, or an illustration of “honne and tatemae” (true voice and public facade), Japanese social concepts that shape the way that people interact with each other, I found that such drawings provided valuable stimulus for conversations, and often captured information which might not have been expressed otherwise – such as facial expressions, internal dialogue, and bodily gestures.

The subsequent illustrations shown above are digital drawings made upon my return from fieldwork, during the covid-19 pandemic. My conversations with friends back in Japan continued online, and often touched upon their experiences of the pandemic. I started to illustrate these stories, with their permission, and share them on Instagram. I found that even though I could not be physically present in my fieldsites, by creating these visual stories and showing them to my participants I was able to extend ethnographic dialogue. Often, by sending them illustrations they would then respond with further insights and additional elements to add to the stories. In this way, illustration proved a valuable tool to involve my participants more directly in the co-creation of ethnographic knowledge. Read more about this process in my article in the journal Entanglements: ‘Staying Connected During Coronavirus in Japan‘.”

*All names in the illustrations are pseudonyms, except for Dr Kimura.