‘Underground Lives: The Sunless World of Immigrants in Queens’

The work entitled ‘Underground LivesThe Sunless World of Immigrants in Queens’ has been awarded the prize of Human Rights Best Graphic Award (Digital). The work was published in The New York Times (USA) and one of the visual journalist behind the piece, Sergio Peçanha, shares with us some of what went in to creating the piece and the challenges they faced.

Could you briefly explain the idea of the story? 

Most rents in New York are too expensive for many people who move to the city looking for a better life. Many immigrants have to live in dark, suffocating, subdivided basements, where the personal space is often limited to little more than a bed. We followed Amado, an immigrant from Mexico, for several months to show what life is like for him and thousands of people in similar situation.

What was the process of working on the graphic? 

Reporter Nikita Stewart and I had been partnering on visual stories focused on inequality in New York. One of our targets was to focus on immigrants. Nikita found Amado, our main character, at a meeting of a nonprofit that supports immigrants in Queens. He had been sharing a room in a basement, so he could save money to help his family in Mexico. It was a dark room with only half of a window: If Amado opened the window in his room, he would be closing the window in the neighboring bedroom, where someone else unrelated lived.

We visited Amado and other characters in the story for several months. Photographer Ryan Christopher Jones spent even more time with Amado, including a visit to Amado’s family in Mexico.

What has been the challenge of this story? 

Many of the people living in basements are undocumented immigrants. It was difficult to find people willing to give us the kind of access that we would need for a visual story. Amado had documents and was extremely generous with his time and access. It required a lot of time for Ryan, the photographer, to gain trust and to get the visual variety that we needed. He did a wonderful job, under challenging conditions. Finally, it was a complex technical challenge to ensure that the videos, photos, graphics and text would function seamlessly — kudos for Josh Williams for that.

Nikita Stewart, Ryan Christopher Jones, Sergio Peçanha, Jeffrey Furticella and Josh Williams

What do you think?