Exploring migration with NANSEN
Eva Gonçalves is the art director of NANSEN, a magazine that launched last year which looks at migration from various angles and features a different person for each issue.
Issue two of NANSEN was announced a couple of weeks ago and is appearing on shelves around the world. I wanted to delve deeper into NANSEN's role as a communication tool around the topic of migration, so I sent some questions Eva's way.
First up, I was intrigued to see a new masthead on this second issue, something most magazines only change during a major redesign.
Dan R: Issue two has a new typeface, which as a concept, wasn't clear to us readers from seeing just the first issue of NANSEN. It's a nice touch. Why have a new typeface for each issue? Are there drawbacks as well as positives for doing this?
Eva G: The idea came quite organically. Since the moment we got in touch, Vanessa Ellingham (the editor) knew she wanted each issue of Nansen to focus on one migrant so we started brainstorming ways in which the identity of the magazine could develop to reflect this individuality and personality, very particular to each issue. At the same time, Vanessa was still wondering about the name, which ended up being NANSEN, as in the Nansen Passport. This detail gave the whole project an interesting conceptual frame. We had the underlying idea of the Nansen Passport for migrants, and one migrant (and their community) per issue. It seemed obvious that our magazine had to aim for that same sort of balance we can find in passports; a universal and yet personal object.
So the goal was to create a frame, a sort of “infrastructure” that despite being stable and robust, could have the flexibility to change. The layout involved a lot of pushing things to the limit to see where would they stop working, a lot of questioning about at which point did things started becoming something else. We realised that if we managed to have a strong and recognisable cover we could actually get away with using a different typeface every time, because the overall structure is still visible and the identity stands. Of course this decision involved a lot of risk taking, since there weren’t any magazines out there (we knew of) doing the same.
With the inside pages there was a bit more freedom. We both agreed we wanted the magazine to feel a bit like a collection of documents, snippets, articles; different stamps collected in your passport. So we committed to certain constrictions—the grid, type sizes, the use of two main body typefaces that give us enough flexibility to create the different layouts, the use of illustration, two fixed layout templates—whilst going relatively wild with colours, a main typeface, original layouts, etc.
The changing typeface wasn’t a secret in issue 01, but it’s a detail our readers—and we ourselves—can only fully appreciate the more issues we publish. And it’s also something that needs time. Right now we are really happy seeing it at work, but maybe a few issues down the line we realise this concept doesn’t work as well as we first thought.
With issue two it was already obvious that this change of typeface adds certain demands that most magazine concepts don’t. I am fairly experienced in designing magazines and one thing I know is that usually every issue after the first one involves less active layout time. I already expected we would need more time for issue two than a conventional second issue demands, but I was surprised with how much my estimates were off! The second issue took almost as much time to layout as the first one… Kalaf’s world was completely different from Aydin’s.
DR: With a different person and location in the two issues so far, does this affect the overall design ethos of each issue?
EG: It does and therefore the visual concept we developed for the magazine. But I feel we were a bit naïve when we were starting, working on issue one. We had no idea how much person, location and culture were actually going to affect the ethos of each issue. Of course we could have just made a magazine that shows little variation from issue to issue, and it would have still worked in delivering the information. But when doing a magazine that focuses each issue on a single person with a different and rich cultural background and supported by a strong community, we felt there was so much more in there that should be reflected in our magazine.
Relegating all that energy and richness to the text would have been a pity. Since our magazine takes on a new personality with each issue, it’s a constant exercise of figuring out who I am talking to. In that sense it’s been really challenging, both Vanessa and I are learning a lot.
DR: So far, NANSEN has featured people from the two locations you list as your primary bases (Berlin and Lisbon). I assume this makes creating a magazine about these places easier, or has it been difficult if you are so familiar with them?
EG: Speaking for myself, I think more than from an emotional stand point, it was easier in terms of having the right infrastructure and financial capacity to be able to pull off the first two issues.
With issue one, Berlin was the place where we were based, where we were working, where we had our networks, so it was the most natural—easy, in a way—place to start from. We also had just met so we wanted to work closely together, to make sure we were working in sync. Vanessa was the one discovering Aydin and naturally, as the editor, she also took the lead in shaping the format of the magazine, its contents, voice, etc. She was the one meeting and interviewing Aydin and really stepping into his world. In that sense I think she was closer to issue one than I was, working alongside her, giving shape to whatever she was feeding me with.
With issue two, we had a bigger budget but were still testing the waters. We had an idea of how much it costs to fully produce an issue abroad but we weren’t 100% sure our expectations and calculations were right so not adventuring too far seemed like the best option. That’s when the emotional connection lead me to Portugal. I was, at the time, starting to investigate my own family’s connection to colonialism, questioning my great grand father’s role, as a Lieutenant of the Portuguese army who made his wealth by travelling to Africa to found new villages, in the so-called Portuguese colonial project. I wanted to understand my family’s connection to the Portuguese history of slavery, violence and subjugation in Africa.
Focusing the second issue on the African Portuguese community made sense since I was doing this research and had a good insight of what could be interesting to include, but it was also very important to me at a personal level. Portugal is a country I am forever bound to and I deeply love but it’s a country that lives in denial and refuses to acknowledge or even talk about its colonial past in a less than positive light.
I felt NANSEN could be the right platform to talk about the African Portuguese community and touch these complex issues, but this closeness also made this issue difficult for me. In the process of working on it we got more acquainted with history, activist groups and the harsh reality of being Black in Portugal. And the more acquainted you get, the more angry you feel, and disappointed with your own kind.
With NANSEN we’re trying to strike a balance between facing the heavier topics surrounding migration head-on, and also making a magazine that’s still appealing and accessible to people who don’t regularly engage in those topics. Migration is a politicised topic, but there are also a whole lot of migrant experiences that have nothing to do with politics. We try to encompass the whole range of experiences.
DR: I am considered a migrant myself, having left my home country 15 years ago and having now lived in four different countries since. The term "migrant" has more negative than positive connotations but the definition is simply "someone who has moved across a state or country border". Are there ways the magazine tackles the generally negative feelings towards the word "migrant" and tries to shine a more optimistic or even neutral light on the term?
EG: The other day I was attending a talk by Grada Kilomba, a Black Portuguese artist living in Berlin (and featured in our magazine), in which she talked about how psychoanalysis identifies a certain phenomenon: how seemingly innocent words are made to have a very negative impact in our perception by means of subliminal connections in our minds. She used the word migrant as an example, describing the whole path one’s mind describes when trying to ascertain meaning to the word: migrant = undocumented, undocumented = illegal, illegal = criminal, criminal = black.
It’s actually amazing to think about this while having in mind the increased popularity of the term “expat” after the 2008 financial crash, when white, educated middle class kids started moving around en mass in Europe, searching for new job opportunities. It’s no coincidence that even though a decent percentage (3%) of the world’s population moves across their country borders, some get to be migrants, some get to be expats. And what does the word expat bring to one’s mind? Definitely not someone you should fear. One’s mind performs a different chain association here. With NANSEN, what I am personally interested in is not to just shine a more optimistic or neutral light on the term migrant, but to also show there are many more different chains of associations related to the word migrant that our minds can perform.
💥 NANSEN issue 2 is out now and available online (€15) at nansenmagazine.com/shop