Photo illustrator Javier Jaén on three years of weekly work for The New York Times Magazine

5 April 2017

Barcelona-based creative Javier Jaén spends his days illustrating the world around him. Working hand in hand with The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Time, Harvard University, National Geographic, Greenpeace, Penguin Random House, Vueling Airlines and UNESCO, for the past three years, Javier has been building a steady reputation via weekly collaborations with The New York Times Magazine.

It is work that takes the form photo illustrations for a section called “First Words” which considers the ways language shifts and shapes our understanding of the world. The topics covered are vast and complex, from “The Identity Politics of Whiteness” to “How ‘Political Correctness’ Went From Punch Line to Panic.” For three years, it’s been Javier’s job to make impactful visual images to reduce those arguments into a single image.

Now, as Javier prepares his last image for “First Words”, we caught up with the illustrator to talk about the era.

How did you first become involved in “First Words”?

I’ve been a regular contributor to The New York Times since 2010, but the deputy Art Director of NYT Magazine, Jason Sfetko contacted me proposing me a weekly collaboration with the magazine on a launching section called “First Words”. 

As editorial illustrator, almost all projects starts with an unexpected email that can find you in the middle of the day or night. In that case, it was September 2014 and I was with friends in the festivities of Poblenou neighbourhood in Barcelona. When the telephone rang, I had no idea that I was about to start one of the most stimulating, challenging and enriching projects that I’ve ever work on, but I was already celebrating.


Javier Jaén: 27/12/2016 The New York Times Magazine
The Problem With ‘Self-Investigation’ in a Post-Truth Era. The internet was supposed to democratize information, but instead it has democratized disinformation. Text by Jonathan Mahler. Art Direction by Frank Augugliaro.


Javier Jaén: 28/5/2015 The New York Times Magazine.
What We Don’t See “Pics or it didn’t happen” falls short when it comes to describing the realities of American life. Text by Colson Whitehead. Art Direction by Jason Sfetko.

Talk us through the average “First Words” brief.

The brief was to work on photo illustrations for the articles. This section is about essays on what language reveals about our moment. Words like “Selfie”, “Refugee”, “Mindfulness”, “Radicalisation”, “Empowerment” or “Polarising” that shape our everyday lives. A regular assignment starts on Mondays with a first mail with the article or an abstract of it. After reading it carefully I usually try to find additional information about the topic — other articles, books, videos etc. Then the big moment: sit down and think how to translate this in to an image. I like to think in what we do as language translators. In the same way as someone working on the image for a record cover is not supposed to draw all the instruments played on it but instead find ways to explain their conceptual and emotional universe, so as editorial illustrator I try to translate the soul of the article without the need of showing all the details — names, numbers or dates written on it.

That process is usually tough, and there is a risk of losing your hair by drying the brain too much. I often hydrate it with coffee (which doesn’t work). A walk sometimes helps too. It’s important to remember that timing is a big challenge on this kind of project, so a walk around the block is usually all I can afford. 

Usually on Tuesdays, I send sketches to the art directors — around five ideas that they will discuss with the editors. Hopefully they like one of them, and it’s time to move to final. In my case that means I have to draw, build, cut, find, paint or shoot it. I should send final by Thursday, so there is no time to lose. The final file also can be subject to changes and reviews. Even often is a very hard process, in my opinion, one of the best things of The NYT is that they treat the image with the same rigor as they do with the text. 


Javier Jaén: 9/10/2014 The New York Times Magazine
The Worth of Black Men, from Slavery to Ferguson. Text by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. Art direction by Ben Grandgenett.


Javier Jaén: 31/6/2015 The New York Times Magazine
America’s ‘Postracial’ Fantasy. For millions of mixed-race people, identity fits more than one box, but we still see one another in black and white. Text by Anna Holmes. Art Direction by Jason Sfetko.

Tell us about some your favourite work for “First Words” over the last three years. 

It’s tough to choose: so far, I’ve done 102 illustrations for them. I guess my favourite ones are the simplest ones, usually are the strongest too. I like to work with small interventions that change the way we understand a message, like deleting a letter of a word for a new meaning. I think our work should be closer to the idea of erotism than to pornography. It’s been challenging to expand my visual language experimenting with materials, with little animations, collaborating with photographers or 3D artists and looking for different narrative paths, not just visually.


Javier Jaén: 20/1/2016 The New York Times Magazine
How the ‘Perfect Storm’ Became the Perfect Cop-Out. Invoking an act of God to explain a human-made tragedy has become the go-to excuse in public life. Text by Charles Homans. Art Direction by Frank Augugliaro.


Javier Jaén: 15/2/2017 The New York Times Magazine
Is the ‘Anthropocene’ Epoch a Condemnation of Human Interference — or a Call for More?
When some climate scientists began saying we’d entered a new epoch, they meant to draw attention to human effects on climate. Now, to their dismay, it’s become a tech call to arms for more disruption. Texy ny Wesley Yang. Art Direction by Frank Augugliaro.

Finally, what’s the secret behind coming up with new ideas week after week?

It’s been a great luxury to work with such interesting topics with great essays by amazing writers as raw material. It’s been very stimulating reading, sharing and discussing visual options with fantastic art directors like Jason Sfetko, Frank Augugliaro, Ben Grandgenett, Chloe Scheffe and Gail Bichler has been also a big part of it. Good work often comes from great clients.


Javier Jaén: 14/10/2014 The New York Times Magazine
Why Are Americans So Fascinated With Extreme Fitness? Text by Heather Havrilesky. Art direction by Ben Grandgenett.

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Bryony Stone

Bryony joined It's Nice That as Deputy Editor in August 2016, following roles at Mother, Secret Cinema, LAW, Rollacoaster and Wonderland. She later became Acting Editor at It's Nice That, before leaving in late 2018.

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