image and text

Last night I went to a book launch for Agnes Ayre’s ABC of Amazing Womena brand new kids’ book that celebrates the history of women in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Over a period of about ten years of thinking and researching for other projects, the book’s author, Jenny Higgins gathered snippets and hints of stories that interested her and plopped them in a file. Along the way, she developed an interest in children’s books, and alphabet books in particular, and at some point, she made the connection: she could make an alphabet book about the women of this place, and she could start with Agnes Ayre (A squared!), a botanist, artist, and suffrage activist. Ayre, she decided, would also narrate the book.

Agnes Ayre’s ABC of Amazing Women follows a similar format to Higgins’ other books: it takes a scrapbook approach that allows the story to emerge not just through text, but through vignettes, photographs, letters, drawings, and more. For someone like me, a magpie easily distracted by shiny things, this is a perfect format. I can pop in and out of the page, exploring all the shiny bits as they come to me. And more than this, I can see how images and text work together to create the “big story” for me.





The book’s illustrator, Jennifer Morgan, talked  about the role of the illustrator. “I can tell a story the author didn’t even intend,” she said (I’m paraphrasing here). In other words, by putting a picture to a story, she has the power to create that story for readers/viewers.

Jennifer also talked about the stories that pictures and documents tell (and indeed, don’t tell): she told us about the size of Agnes Ayre’s botanical drawings (massive!), about the black and white photographs that made it impossible for her to figure out Agnes’ exact hair colour, about her desire to show the handwriting on postcards, and also, about the struggle to balance image and text on the page and their ultimate decision to layer the various elements.

All of this made me think back to my own research process. I spent many hours working with text-based archival materials. But even then, I was never solely interested in the words. Texture. Smell. Size. Colour. I use all of my sense in the archives (well, except taste, which would get me kicked out pretty quickly)

I also drew inspiration from online image archives. The Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio and the Suriname Museum’s Flickr account were particular inspirations. Through them, I could travel through time. I was able to follow Hindustani indentured labourers when they first arrived in Suriname, and later, as they settled in the colony. I could see photographs and paintings of plantations. I could see what life was like for the well-heeled folks in Paramaribo, getting insight into their tea parties, family dinners, and outings. I could also catch glimpses into the lives of the enslaved.

Gerrit Schouten’s dioramas (a few are on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; others are at the Surinaams Museum in Paramaribo) offer a window into life in the early nineteenth century.

Diorama of the Waterfront of Paramaribo, Gerrit Schouten, 1820. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum, Rijksstudio.


Diorama of a Slave Dance, Gerrit Schouten, 1830. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum, Rijksstudio.


Jacob Marius Adriaan Martini van Geffen’s drawings, gathered in an album, present both people and plantations in the mid-nineteenth century (because they’re in public domain, I was able to turn some of them into postcards that I’ll have available at my book launch!)

Jonge vrouw in koto misi, Jacob Marius Adriaan Martini van Geffen, in or after c. 1850 – in or before c. 1860. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum, Rijksstudio.
Gezicht op de suikerplantage Catharina Sophia, Jacob Marius Adriaan Martini van Geffen, 1860. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum, Rijksstudio.
Gezicht op de suikerplantage Zorg en Hoop, Jacob Marius Adriaan Martini van Geffen, 1859. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum, Rijksstudio.
Portret van Affie, Jacob Marius Adriaan Martini van Geffen, in or after c. 1859. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum, Rijksstudio.
Een echtpaar en een jonge vrouw, Jacob Marius Adriaan Martini van Geffen, in or after c. 1850 – in or before c. 1860. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum, Rijksstudio.

Like the text-based archival materials that I consulted, none of these images are neutral, of course. They show what the artists wanted us to see (and what they themselves wanted to see), and also, perhaps, in the case of Schouten, who sold his dioramas, what audiences wanted to collect.

These drawings, paintings, and photographs – many others like them – stayed with me as I worked through text-based archival material, and also, as I travelled in and around Paramaribo. While What the Oceans Remember includes only a handful of images, hundreds of others shaped my thoughts, reflections, and imaginings.


What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home is now available for pre-order and you can order it via AmazonIndigo, Powell’s Books, Waterstones, and Blackwell’s, among others! 


(c) Sonja Boon, 2019.


2 thoughts on “image and text”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts Sonja. I’m not sure how I phrased it either, but I know that one of the words I used was that images “frame” the narrative. I’ve been reading Graham Steele’s book, “The Effective Citizen: How to Make Politicians Work for You” and he uses the word “frame” to describe how paradigms and myths drive politics. The art in this book is deliberately challenging patriarchal imagery. I’ll be interested reading your book to see if some of your research is driven by opposition to these images above–much as many Canadian first nation artists and writers are creating in opposition to the colonial frame. And, yes, this makes the imagery in archives and museums integral to research, and is the reason why I love Jenny’s previous books with Boulder also.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jennifer – Yes, your point about centring the women as ‘actors’ rather than as passive observers was also well taken. The images I looked at were all produced by colonial authorities, or, by the colonial elite. The way they frame their images is also important: what do they see, and what do we learn about them in the process? Are there images (or parts of images) that seem to resist the power of the colonial gaze? if so, how and why and to what effect?

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s