How one illustrator approaches investigative reporting

Artist Marina Luz faced a journalistic challenge.

She had to illustrate the story of a young woman named “Jennifer,” who had been sexually abused in a state-run facility. But she could not use an image of Jennifer. What’s more, she couldn’t show what Jennifer or any of the other people in the story actually looked like.

Could we understand Jennifer — a troubled, young disabled woman — without actually seeing her?

Luz solved the problem with expressive drawings that were then paired with narration, music and a statement from Jennifer’s mother, read by an actor to further disguise their identities. Jennifer is not the young woman’s real name.

There are no bright colors in Luz’s renderings — only sketchy black lines and muted shades of brown, gray and blue.

Drawings of people in the story are “a mix of fragile, thin, line drawings,” Luz said in an e-mail interview. And the background has “a subtle bit of distress or distortion to give texture and a feeling of discord.”

Her drawings walk us through a difficult time in Jennifer’s life.

Luz worked closely with producer/writer/director Carrie Ching on the project called “In Jennifer’s Room,” which was published by California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting last fall. (My colleague Al Tompkins wrote about the project and Luz’s illustrations here.)

The lines of Marina Luz’s work are tenuous and sketchy. Her backgrounds show variations of texture in muted tones of brown, gray and blue.

“Coming from an artistic and not a journalistic background … I hadn’t realized how unusual the approach was to journalism,” Luz said.

At the beginning of the project, Luz received a script from the producer, comprised of narration and interviews. She also received notes on various scenes Ching wanted and where they would appear in relation to the script.

Luz said she sent back a storyboard with “ridiculously rudimentary thumbnail sketches. There’s no finesse to the storyboard at all, just the minimum necessary to convey the basic composition of each frame.”

For accuracy, Luz consulted photos of the hospital facility, especially the Corcoran Unit where the young woman was housed.

Writer Ryan Gabrielson had spent a year-and-a-half reporting on the ”Broken Shield” project that “In Jennifer’s Room” was part of. He provided a diagram of the young woman’s hospital room. Luz also received information about some of Jennifer’s specific bruises and injuries, like the shapes of bites and handprints, and where they were found on her body.

Beyond that, there were no specific details other than those included in the script. This was a deliberate editing choice, according to Luz, in order to conceal the identity of all involved.

“I (knew) exactly as much as the viewers, in most cases, which is just the information in the script,” wrote Luz. “Anything more would be a terrible burden,” referring to the way she approaches an emotional, unfolding story like this.

Jennifer and her mother appear in the drawings, but only as impressions. “Deliberately, I’m given no identifying details about the people involved whatsoever,” Luz said. When she drew images depicting the possible attackers, “I tried to draw them so that they look like real people but not specific people.”

There is a delicate balance in illustrating a story like this, wrote Luz. “You want to make a truly heartbreaking narrative interesting and accessible, but also keep it tasteful. Aesthetically, you’re trying to be evocative without being heavy-handed, and realistic without being specific.”

After more feedback on the storyboard sketches, Luz chose a few of the drawings to do more finished versions and refine the overall style. “Once those are greenlit,” Luz said, “it’s on.”

The drawing style has “a visual parallel to, say, the scratchy sound on an old record player,” wrote Luz of her approach. “And it’s all connected (to the overall video), the drawings are only part of creating that mood.”

Three pieces of music and sound effects back up the voice track. “I thought the music used in the piece gave it such a poignant atmosphere,” wrote Luz. “I don’t think the drawings would have worked nearly as well without that. “

Luz has had other assignments for reportage, or news illustration. Most often, she’s  captured the flavor of an event or story with a much lighter tone, like a horse race, a beer tasting or a white elephant sale. She is a writer, as well as an artist who works out of her studio in Oakland, Calif.

Luz also created the illustrations for “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden” — the widely viewed interview with the Navy SEAL who left the military after he killed the terrorist.

Again, the key for Luz was to create an emotional, expressive style of image.

“It called for a much different style than line drawings, and the illustrations ended up as rough-hewn blocks of light and shadow,” Luz said. “More concrete, heavy and literally darker.”

For the story of Jennifer, Luz used art as a specific solution “born of the challenge of keeping the subjects anonymous,” she said. “But I hope that these stories have opened the door for a wider and much less restricted usage of illustration.”

Here’s the full video:

Here’s a related News University Webinar on illustrated journalism.

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