July 12, 2013

The ordeal of a woman who received a total face transplant is hard for an audience to fathom without seeing it. But Verge science editor Katie Drummond had a challenge beyond potentially making some readers squeamish: how to tell the story with the care and respect Carmen Tarleton deserved.

45-year-old Carmen Tarleton worked as a registered nurse in Thetford, Vt., before she was attacked by her husband in 2007. She has two daughters, Hannah and Liza.

Tarleton’s ex-husband attacked her with lye and a baseball bat in 2007, and media coverage afterward upset her because it prefaced stories with disclaimers like “‘warning, this footage is graphic and may disturb some viewers,'” Drummond wrote in an e-mail to Poynter.

That horrified Tarleton, Drummond wrote. “The idea that her own face was being treated as if she was some kind of monster, or that her disfigurement made her somehow less human.”

Drummond and the editors at The Verge wanted to respect Tarleton’s feelings.

“When you’re telling the intimate story of someone who’s been through such inconceivable challenges,” said Drummond. “It becomes even more important to accurately and sensitively capture who they are and what they’ve been through.”

The Verge decided to tell the story through Drummond’s text, sensitively rendered illustrations and a mesmerizing video interview with Tarleton created by Sam Thonis and Stephen Greenwood after her surgery.

Tarleton had agreed to the television interviews back in 2007, said Drummond, but she had lost her vision in the attack, “so had absolutely no idea what her face looked like.”

Her interview with The Verge is juxtaposed with photos of Tarleton as a beautiful young woman and with images of Cheryl Denelli-Righter, a stroke victim who became the donor of her new face.

Seeing and hearing Tarleton tell her own story gives a clear view of her courageousness that would be otherwise tough to comprehend.

After the surgery, she invited Denelli-Righter’s daughter Marinda Righter to touch her mother’s face, now her own. Her mother “is still here, because I have her face,” said Tarleton in the video. “I can’t help but think… I could just go up to Vermont and give my mom’s face a kiss,” Righter told Drummond.

Tarleton’s speech is still difficult to understand because of the surgery and will be on the long recovery ahead, but the former registered nurse is frank and articulate. She’s currently learning to play piano and dating her instructor.

The story’s lead image is a drawing of two faces coming together as one.

Katie Scott created the illustrations for the story, including this conceptual image.

“We wanted to work with someone who had a scientific touch to their drawings but wasn’t necessarily an anatomical illustrator,” said Verge art director James Chae, who commissioned illustrator Katie Scott.

Drawings throughout the presentation help to tie together other concepts visually, like the tricky surgical procedure, potential risks and illnesses, the long-term need for medication and the possible loss of personal identity.

The Verge crew worked closely together to tell the complicated story that had to come together in one package. “I feel we are given a lot of license to be the author and really tell a story,” Chae said in a telephone interview. “The word is thrown around a lot, but here at The Verge, it is a really intimate collaboration. Everyone has input.”

“We all felt as if we were telling a story that was … the unbelievable ability of a face transplant to profoundly change someone’s life,” said Drummond.

It was important that readers be exposed to both the before and the after in images and video, she said, “because we really wanted to convey what this woman endured and what this surgery accomplished.”

A reader expressed shock when he first saw the image in the story of Tarleton before surgery, said Drummond. Then he finished the story and watched the video. “When (he) went back to that image,” she said, “it was much less jarring — [he] just saw a woman. I really appreciated hearing that, and I think it gets at what we were trying to convey … Carmen is ‘just a woman,’ albeit an incredible one who overcame incredible odds—and we hoped readers would see that.”

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Sara teaches in the areas of design, illustration, photojournalism and leadership. She encourages visual journalists to find their voice in the newsroom and to think…
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