How We Created a New Way to Depict Addiction Visually

An early draft of the illustration for "Tolerance."CreditCreditZach Lieberman for The New York Times

Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times.

For a new feature, “Heroin Addiction Explained: How Opioids Hijack the Brain,” which appears today, Times journalists wanted to approach the opioid crisis from an underrepresented perspective: to illustrate, in pictures and words, what each step of the cycle of addiction actually feels like to those who experience it.

The reporters Shreeya Sinha and Jennifer Harlan interviewed more than a dozen current and former opioid users about the most personal aspects of their experiences: their thoughts, feelings and physical sensations while using drugs. They synthesized those descriptions into a seven-stage explainer — gateway, tolerance, withdrawal, addiction, treatment, relapse, recovery — that aims to help readers understand more clearly what addicts go through. When it came to the visuals for the piece, Meghan Louttit, the Times editor who organized the package, and the art director Rumsey Taylor wanted to create a new kind of illustration that would equally foreground the interviewees’ own subjective experiences.

First, the editors read Ms. Sinha and Ms. Harlan’s interviews with the subjects. Then, the Times video journalist Leslye Davis worked with the freelance software artist Zach Lieberman to develop an idea: Ms. Davis would film a dancer, Bailey Anglin, to interpret the interviewees’ words through movement. Then, Mr. Lieberman would manipulate those video clips — adding an aura, for example, to illustrate the warm thrall of an initial high; layering the video with spiky, discordant static to get across the pain of withdrawal.

Here, Mr. Taylor, Mr. Lieberman and Ms. Davis discuss the details of their process in creating the graphics.

RUMSEY TAYLOR The narrative of the opioid crisis has a familiar visual vernacular: track-covered arms, empty syringes, the translucent amber cylinder of an empty pill container. These images visualize how drug users look from the outside, as opposed to what’s happening to them mentally, physically and emotionally.

Our task with this story was to evoke the subjective experience of heroin use. One former user, Rebecca Ronning, described the pang of desire that accompanies withdrawal as a barrage of pain: “You can’t sleep. You have goosebumps, but you’re sweating, but you’re cold. A shower doesn’t help. Being outside doesn’t help. You’re so tired, and your legs are shaking. And nothing makes you feel better except doing more heroin,” she said. “You’re not getting high anymore. You’re just fixing the withdrawal.”

Ms. Ronning’s and other testimonies anchor Shreeya and Jennifer’s reporting in vivid bursts. In reading through it, I culled all their adjectives — fuzzy, unworried, clear, depressed, gray, and many others — and collated them into a crude spectrum of experience: soft, fuzzy, comfortable on one end; hard, sharp, distressing on the other.

These words distill the experience of those who’ve been through treatment into a construct that we set out to adapt visually. We commissioned Zach Lieberman, a visual artist who specializes, in his own words, in “exploring new modes of expression.”

These screenshots show the calculations of velocity that drive the movement in “Withdrawal.”CreditZach Lieberman for The New York Times

Zach Lieberman for The New York Times

ZACH LIEBERMAN: I am an artist who writes software to create animations — I post daily sketches on Instagram where I explore color, form and movement, often responding to body and gesture. My work generally involves iteration: taking the same movement or graphical form and through software pushing it in different directions. For this project, we discussed starting with a single source of footage and exploring how we could animate it to convey different emotional and physical states. The article is about transformation, and we thought that by using the same source footage, the artwork could echo that.

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