One of the first stories I worked on for Matter — that we published earlier this week — is an account of grappling with urges toward pedophilia. A bear of a piece to edit, Mark Lotto has told me. But also a doozy to art-direct.
Can we photograph the individuals involved? Nope. Can we show images of the topic? Absolutely not. Has the writer talked to any subjects or been to any locations we can shoot? Um — no one wants to be recognized in connection with this story. So, no. With photography out, illustration seemed the only alternative. But even that process wasn’t easy.
I had worked with Germany-based illustrator Simon Prades before, and knew I’d want someone with his skills on this difficult assignment. His smart blend of poetic metaphor, psychological intensity, and a delicate hand-drawn style seemed an interesting and appropriate match for the voices in the draft of the article, as it stood 4 months ago. So from April 15th (6 days after I started at Medium) to May 19th, Simon and I went through 13 rounds of revisions over 66 emails, before landing at our final set of illustrations.
Here’s a brief account of that process.
We started off rough and black-and-white. From the beginning, we focused not on the act of pedophilia or watching child porn, but rather tried to show the inner anguish of these young men dealing with pedophilic urges, and searching online for help.
Spelling out “help” in the illustrations felt too easy. We wanted to say it through the images rather than writing it out in words. So next we tried adding in some dull and sickly color, and being more direct about showing the online search for help — as visually distinct from an online search for porn.
Next we tried to extend the hands-holding-face and long-shadow imagery into other contexts, to see if we could build out a series of images that way, that didn’t feel repetitive.
The problem with the previous version was that they were starting to feel generic: That these illustrations could serve any story about internal struggle and anguish. We wanted to be tactful in our imagery, but not shy away from the subject.
We tried the butterfly metaphor to represent the delicate innocence of childhood, and also struck upon the hand motif as a way to show anguish, action, and connection between the subjects of the story without trying to imagine and draw the faces of these young pedophiles. (Note the white cord running through the fingers to show the online/digital connection. A nice touch, but perhaps too ambiguous. Felt like it could be an IV or medical cord.)
We went beyond just showing the hands — which felt too repetitive — and also tried the balloons and bicycles as clearer metaphors for childhood than the butterfly.
We arrived at the hopscotch as the lead image, with the errant chalk markings scribbled throughout the other illustrations to help tie them all together.
An attempt to build out the chalk idea led to too many images of little children, and also put the young men and the children in the same context — something we wanted to avoid. (The hopscotching girl in the lead image and the silhouette in the upstairs window are the only children depicted in the final illustrations.)
As some of the earlier illustrations were approaching their final stage, we still hadn’t hit upon a place to land, for the illustrations that would appear later in the piece, and at the end. The sunny child on the resting hands felt too much like Sunday School — definitely not how the story should end, visually.
With almost all the illustrations approaching their final stage, we consider their sequence — how they tell their own visual story, woven through the written narrative (supporting but not distracting from it):
A young man contemplates doing something awful.
He gets closer and closer to his object of awful desire.
Until he realizes the sickness of his urges.
He goes online in desperation for help.
He finds others he connects to, who offer support.
Eventually — hopefully — he finds a way to manage his sickness, and to cope.
There were a couple more versions in here where we were fine-tuning the animations. I’ll spare you the details on that.
The subtly breathing figure in the second illustration in the story gives me the chills every time.