When we launched the Common Ground project in August 2021, one of the earliest decisions we took was to commission illustrations for each story, rather than use photographs. We felt that this would give the stories a distinct visual identity, setting them apart from the steady stream of news stories that we publish, and helping them surface more powerfully on the crowded social media timelines of our readers.

Arriving at the best visual idea to represent a story was only part of the challenge. Converting that into a compelling image meant hours of work for the project’s illustrators, Divya Ribeiro and Rubin D’Souza. Which is why we thought one way to look back at the Common Ground project would be through the conversations that have gone into ten of the illustrations.

These are not intended to represent the best stories or illustrations – just ones that are revealing of the process that each story goes through.

The decisions that led to India’s worst offshore disaster

The first story of Common Ground was an investigation into the lapses that led to the avoidable deaths of 86 men off the coast of Mumbai, during Cyclone Tauktae. We were still defining the process and approach that we would use going ahead. So Divya Ribeiro prepared a long initial list of sketches, from which we shortlisted one that powerfully captured the distress of the workers who found themselves struggling to stay afloat in the choppy waters. The illustration had been nearly finalised when D’Souza came up with a suggestion: show waves lapping around the life tubes. Ribeiro added the waves, dashes of rain, and enhanced the reflection of the cyclone in the eyes of the worker.

India’s met department – beyond the life and times of Anna Mani

Anna Mani was a pioneering scientist who helped build the foundation for Indian meteorology – her story is even more remarkable because she worked at a time when there were almost no women in science in the country. To capture Mani’s playful, adventurous spirit, D’Souza worked with a photograph of her in the field, holding what to us, non-scientists, appeared to be a toy – until we realised that it was an actual weather instrument used in the 1960s. The collage-like visual that D’souza created using elements such as planets, against a sweeping landscape, looked striking, but we were unsure of one element – the plant sprouting behind Anna Mani’s head. It was dropped in the final version.

The migrant workers who never went back

The illustration for this story had a somewhat different process than most others. The story is about women garment factory workers from Jharkhand who found themselves stuck in Tamil Nadu during the lockdown, and returned traumatised, with no intention of rejoining the workforce ever again. The sense of loss that the story carried seemed well captured by an early idea that we discussed: of a sewing machine seemingly stranded against a lush hilly landscape, of the kind that the women’s homes were situated in, as photographed by the story’s writer, Aarefa Johari.

A new wave of Bahujan solidarity seeks to break down barriers in India

In this powerful story, about a growing number of initiatives to support Bahujan students and professionals in fields such as law and management, the leaders of these initiatives repeatedly referred to BR Ambedkar as a source of great inspiration for their work. It seemed clear that Ambedkar needed to be represented in the image. Over the course of the iterations, we realised that the more symbolic this representation was, the more effective the image would be. So, from initially depicting facial features and clothing, Ribeiro gradually reduced the level of detail till all that was left was Ambedkar’s iconic gesture, and a hint of his spectacles. This allowed her to portray a tide of young people within him, coursing forward on the paths that he had helped open up.

Your gourmet dinner is eating up the superfood of the poor

This story mapped out how fish meal companies are depleting India’s marine catch, to feed farmed shrimp, vast quantities of which are exported. In effect, this industry is threatening the livelihoods of small fishers, and the nutrition of millions, including inland populations that are major consumers of dried fish. After some initial brainstorming, the idea we settled on was of an outsized shrimp consuming an entire school of small fish. An initial sketch depicted this in the ocean. But the idea was revised so that it would play out on a plate, to go with the headline.

A new app is failing India’s fight against child malnutrition

This investigation uncovered how a new app for India’s anganwadi workers was riddled with flaws – it made crucial data unavailable, for one, and did not move children into appropriate age categories with each passing year. To capture the central idea of the piece, of technological interventions actually hampering progress, we came up with the idea of children in anganwadis being served electronic devices on their plates. An initial sketch showed workers, along with the children, and a variety of electronic parts in the food vessel. D’Souza later simplified this – to just two children, each with a phone on their plate.

From diamond to dust: Five years after demonetisation in India

We tossed around several ideas for the illustration of this story, which captured the dramatic decline in the fortunes of India’s small, informal businesses in the five years since demonetisation, when the Modi government rendered 86% of India’s currency illegal overnight. We settled on what we thought was the most powerful way to depict the contrast: a split in a currency note, with one half glowing, the other half looking faded. Since the story focused on the experiences of small entrepreneurs engaged in polishing plastic goods with diamond dust, in the final stages, Ribeiro added a sparkle around the glowy half, and showed the faded part crumble. Crucial finishing touches that made a world of difference.

A Dalit woman’s battle for the job that was her right

The conception and execution of the illustration was fairly quick for this story, about how one Dalit woman’s fight for a job had opened up opportunities for an entire community. Though the initial illustration showed a woman outside a school building, which had black windows and door, we attempted a variation with the details filled in. But in an instance of how visuals sometimes don’t follow conventional logic, we realised that the revised option wasn’t as powerful. Something about the black of the doors and windows made for a more arresting image.

The unspoken scars of breast cancer survivors in India

This story, about the neglect of reconstruction and conservation surgeries for breast cancer patients in India, presented many challenges. Naturally, the subject itself was extremely sensitive, and so we had to be careful about how we depicted it. At the same time, we did not want to shy away from addressing it head on, as the story itself did. After considering multiple initial ideas, we narrowed down to showing a woman patient wearing a saree on one half, and an operating gown on one half. The fine tuning of this idea made clear how small changes can help focus a visual – here, for instance, changing how much of the patient was shown, and tweaking the size of the instruments.

How not to develop a hill station

This story, about the deterioration of Dehradun and the failure of its master plans, presented a visual challenge – there was no element we could identify that would instantly convey the city to the reader. We thought of multiple ideas, including just showing a city’s crammed roads, and a bulldozer devouring trees on a hill and spitting out cars and buildings. The final illustration – the only one to be made without any rough sketches – departed significantly from these, but was instructive of how the visual imagination can leap in ways that the verbal one may not. It showed a machine beside a choked city, spewing out smoke, in which one could see the dream of a pristine past – rolling hills, lush meadows, dense tree cover.