Interview with the Pulitzer Center: Jake Halpern on Collaboration, Building Trust and Getting the Pulitzer Call at the Airport
This year's Editorial Cartooning prize went to an author and illustrator who told the story of a Syrian refugee family in graphic narrative style in the New York Times. Writer Halpern says: 'In my mind what always makes the most powerful story, is a small personal story with a high dramatic stake.'
Jake Halpern is a freelance journalist who worked with illustrator Michael Sloan to create the graphic narrative series, ‘Welcome to the New World’ for The New York Times. The series follows the lives and daily struggles of an immigrant family for several months, as they settle into their new home, the United States. An interview with Sloan to complement this conversation with Halpern is forthcoming.
What made you pick this subject for the series?
JAKE HALPERN: I come from a family of Holocaust survivors. The issue of refugees feels very personal to me. I spoke to an editor at The New York Times, Bruce Headlam, and it was really Bruce’s idea to do a graphic narrative.
I was there with Michael the day the family arrived. When I woke up, The New York Times said, “Trump Triumphs.” I thought to myself, this family landed in one country and woke up in another. It was obviously hugely meaningful to refugees everywhere, but it was also intensely meaningful on a micro level for this family. I think in my mind what always makes the most powerful story, is a small personal story with a high dramatic stake. In this case, it was what it means to be a refugee in the Trump era.
How was this different from any other story that you’ve written?
JH: I had never worked with an illustrator before. In a normal story you don’t have to rely entirely on dialogue, you rely heavily on narrative.That made the fact-checking very intense. I had only worked with a photographer before.
What were the main challenges that you faced while reporting on this story?
JH: One of the things I was worried about was getting consent. My translator said to me that it would be a long shot, and even if they agreed to talk to me, the chances of them opening up and really being candid were slim. I’m not Syrian, not a native Arabic speaker, and not Muslim. I sat down with the first brother, and within 15 minutes he told me that he was tortured by Assad’s men when he was detained. He said that if this can do anything to strike a blow against Assad, or to get the truth out there, he was all for it.
Consent is not usually a one time thing. I was a little nervous that they didn’t understand what the concept was. Even though I would fact-check the script, I brought them back the pencil sketch and showed them what it was going to look like. Typically as a journalist you are not supposed to show copy to your sources because you’re meant to keep a layer of separation, but there was just so much going on here — this was an unusual format, they are vulnerable people. I had to be certain that no details would put them at risk at all.
The story could have turned out to be mundane, or it probably wouldn’t have worked out. We were freelancers, and this was a risk for The Times. I just hope this encourages other editors to take risks and support quirky projects like ours.
Where were you when you found out that you had won the prize?
JH: I was getting ready to board a plane to Spain on vacation with my wife and two boys. Jim Dao from The New York Times called me and said he had some extraordinary news. It was such an amazing thing. I cheered up and there must have been tears in my eyes. My wife and my boys hugged me. People were trying to get past us on the plane, but we were all just crying and hugging.
Was winning a Pulitzer on your radar? What did winning this prize mean to you?
JH: I’m a freelance journalist and I’ve been one my entire career. As a freelance journalist you feel that your position, your career, your work is so precarious. You don’t know where your money is going to come from, you don’t have deep resources. You’re just out there on your own. Somewhere at the back of your mind there is always the thought of, “How long can I keep this up for? How long can I keep hustling?”
There was so much doubt over the years, and I think when I won, some of those tears were just a feeling of relief.
What’s next? For the family, and for the series.
JH: We are now working on a book expands on The New York Times series. The book is being published by Metropolitan Books.
Our editor, Riva Hocherman’s primary goal for the book is to deepen our understanding of who the characters are, particularly the 16-year-old son, who we call Nadir in the comic. The kids are rapidly Americanizing. Even though the kids when they arrived, could barely speak English, now Nadir is doing the taxes for them. He’s more than their translator. He’s almost like their ambassador to their world. There’s a chasm there between the parents and the kids. It’s moving and inspiring, but it’s also sad because the parents are not going to realize the American dream to the extent that the kids do. There’s a poignancy about that.