A Deeper Look into the Latest ECFJ-Supported Piece with the New Yorker
ECFJ Founding Director Marisa Mazria Katz interviews artist Matt Huynh, who illustrated the immersive virtual reality documentary Reeducated, which premieres today at SXSW, and the interactive New Yorker feature “Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State.”
This February, with support from the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism (ECFJ), Pulitzer Center and the Online News Association, the New Yorker published its most ambitious interactive work to date: “Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State.” The piece is accompanied by the immersive virtual reality documentary Reeducated, which premiered today at South by Southwest (SXSW) in the Virtual Cinema category. The article and film examine the secret world of “reeducation” camps in the Xinjiang region of China, the site of what is believed to be the largest mass internment of ethnic and religious minorities since World War II. In 2018, a year after the camps began to crop up in the region, it was reported that as many as one million Chinese citizens, predominantly Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, were held in captivity. For the article and film, the artist Matt Huynh worked with the journalist Ben Mauk to tell the stories of three men imprisoned in a camp in the city of Tacheng.
This was one of the most ambitious projects ECFJ has supported since the program debuted in 2018, and it underscores why the program was launched: art explores abstract truths, and when it is paired with rigorous journalism, readers are able to understand a story in a way that is closer to how they experience the world itself.
I spoke to Matt Huynh about his collaboration with Ben Mauk and director Sam Wolson, the potential impact art can have on the world of journalism and the advice he would give other artists seeking to work side by side with reporters.
Very often, when journalists and artists collaborate on articles, their roles can be quite siloed. An artist is given copy and told to respond to it, almost like an afterthought. Yet in this case, the art seems to go hand in hand with the reading experience—it changes the pacing of the story and lets it unfold in a way that text can’t do on its own. What do you see as the relationship between static text and animated drawings?
This was a rare experience in which I was present for Ben and Sam’s reporting and interviews, so I saw what was important to them. I saw the decisions Ben made, where he directed his attention as he interviewed subjects, what emerged in the interviews even if it was edited out, what Sam and Ben were excited by and followed at the end of each day and ultimately what was important to the story.
Our close proximity as we worked also meant we could understand the time and process that went into one another’s work. Ben saw the sketchbooks and brushes I used. Seeing the labor that went into frame-by-frame animation helped give Ben and Sam an idea of how long it would take to realize an idea as an animation. Including a scene or extending a scene might cost us another part of the story that could be painted, so it helped focus the scope of the project.
Ben’s reporting is the film’s foundation, but his explicit words don’t appear as prominently as they would in one of his articles. So one role of animation here is to convey the density and nuance of information that text might explicitly convey in an article, with the help of hearing our subjects’ voices intimately in their own words. In a typical illustration project, I’d be drawing largely from imagination to guide the audience into a field of expertise. In this case Ben’s guidance and expertise allowed us to confirm that our presentation was closely aligned with his reporting.
So little of what is happening in Xinjiang has been seen. There are a few images online, but overall it feels very hidden from public view. How might the immersive article and the film change that? Do you think they will offer a way for people to understand it more viscerally?
Yes, because these spaces have been undocumented, reconstructions with illustrations and animation based on accounts of eyewitnesses can help fill a gap in understanding what is happening to these persecuted minorities in Xinjiang.
It’s difficult to entice an audience to engage with a disturbing reality. A visual artist’s contribution should be careful not to aestheticize or glorify a horrific subject. It should give the viewer a language to make sense of a story that could otherwise feel overwhelming and repulsive. By placing viewers in 360 VR environments, we’re encouraging their active discovery of scenes that haven’t previously been documented, that will be new to them, but they will be guided through the film by the steady hand of a team of artists.
In telling the story of a people who have been censored and silenced, there’s immense visceral impact in being represented across a variety of media and engaging with Nicholas Rubin’s all-enveloping animation, Jon Bernson’s ambisonic sound design, the direct narration from our subjects, Ben Mauk’s text, and Sam Wolson’s direction.
How did you parse the reporting and determine which aspects of it you wanted to illustrate?
The obvious starting point was to present to the viewer what had previously been undocumented: scenes inside the reeducation centers. From there, we followed the arc of our subjects’ stories as intimate case studies of detainees. Ben’s and Sam’s expertise on the subject was crucial to directing the arc of the story and the focus for audiences, what would be a contribution to the existing reporting and what hadn’t been reported before.
I sought personalized details and contributions to the storytelling that could enrich a viewer’s experience over repeated viewings, both narratively and technically. I hoped to contribute to a presentation of these stories in a way that had never been seen or attempted before. I wanted a point of interest for new audiences to engage with the subject. Even if they were initially attracted by the aesthetic or technical aspects, that would lead them to actively engage with the story.
Did you know from the beginning that the film would be a virtual reality documentary? And why did you feel that VR would be ideal for telling this story?
Our topic was spaces that had never before been seen or documented. They were censored, with their existence officially denied by the Chinese government. It felt like the best use of the VR medium, in which the audience could safely enter a reconstructed setting that encouraged exploration of environments that they would be enveloped in.
The momentum of the VR film is motivated by scene-to-scene transitions, more so than the animated actions of any character or a chronological timeline. Focus is directed to the environments because they are what is primarily changing and transporting the viewer. There’s a delicate balance between encouraging an active exploration of settings and directing the viewer to points of attention to propel the narrative. The kind of animation that we’re accustomed to in traditional film, with its constant movement, can conversely feel restrictive to the viewer’s autonomous discovery. I made a deliberate effort to balance compositions with still illustrations, boils, loops, and distinct actions so that the audience’s attention was directed and not distracted.
ECFJ’s central mission is to ensure that more artists are brought into the world of journalism. With that in mind, why do you feel it is important to have artists as part of the storytelling process? What do you think journalists could gain from working directly with artists on their stories?
An artist can offer a visceral, direct sensory perspective and approach to a subject that is unavailable to someone working strictly with language. It’s an opportunity to bypass analytical interpretation by engaging an audience’s senses. In this case there is a rich combination of ambisonic sound design, motion, symbols, the human warmth of a hand-drawn line and performance. In the VR medium particularly, we’re able to break away from linear communication—word by word, line by line, left to right—to create a sensory wash. In the case of Reeducated, there was a body of facts that was fundamental to communicate to a viewer, but the technical innovation and artistic choices contributed a reason and permission to actively explore, to curiously question and return to the project.
What advice you would give to other artists seeking to collaborate with journalists in the way you did with Ben Mauk?
I’d encourage artists to resist measuring a project’s success against your initial intention and to be open to its change and growth. One of the greatest gifts this project offered me as an artist was to be surprised by the transformation and presentation of my own hand and my own line. The collaboration with other artists and their innovation led us to a result that none of us could have imagined achieving and that we might’ve been deterred from achieving if we were completely aware of the obstacles from the outset.
This project offered the rarest opportunity to work beyond interpretation and imagination. It offered the unique experience of having close proximity to the subjects, the settings, the interviews, the reporting and writing, the editing. I could engage my personal memory and observation and draw upon vital lines that I made in real time, as well as firsthand testimony, research and imagination.