Xinjiang Police Files

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Germany

Publishing organisation: Der SPIEGEL

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-05-24

Language: English

Authors: Visualizations: Graphics desk: Alexander Epp, Lina Moreno, Dawood Ohdah, Achim Tack, and Matthias Stahl

Additional reporting: Christoph Giesen, Roman Höfner, Frederik Obermaier, Bastian Obermayer, Bernhard Zand


The Der SPIEGEL graphics desk is responsible for all visuals – print and online. With a team of twenty we design infographics, develop custom news applications and explore new ways of visual storytelling.

Project description:

In recent years, the Chinese state has allegedly locked away a million Uyghurs in internment camps. The Xinjiang Police Files now attach names and faces to this brutal system. With a tailored photo mosaic visualization, we show the vast amount of leaked photos on the one hand. But, on the other hand, we also try to tell the individual stories of the prisoners.

Impact reached:

The Xinjiang Police Files is an international investigative project with 14 partners such as USA Today, Le Monde and El País and is driven by a large amount of leaked data files (especially prisoner photos).
The publication happened right before the official visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in Xinjiang and therefore shed light on the human rights violations in Western China. In June 2022 – three weeks after our report –, Bachelet announced to end her work as High Commissioner after the first term, although she refused to say that Xinjiang played a role in this decision.
In Germany – where our main audience resides – numerous political reactions appeared right after the publication. The German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, concluded »Everyone’s blood runs cold seeing these pictures.«

Techniques/technologies used:

The initial idea for the photo-based visualization was sketched with pen and paper. A style guide was developed with Figma. Then the interactive visual was built using Svelte, D3, HTML and CSS. Additional graphics were designed and produced using QGIS and Adobe Illustrator in combination with the tool ai2html to generate responsive versions.

Context about the project:

We wanted to show the large amount of photos in the data leak, but we also wanted to tell some individual stories. That’s why we decided to use a repetitive hour glass storytelling approach where we are able to present the full story as well as personal insights with an alternation of zoom ins and outs.
Still for large European news organizations it is not common to produce such a story with visual elements of importance. Usually, graphics are added when the text is written. Here, we succeeded writing a visual story all of a piece by thoroughly planning visuals and text together.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

They can see how an investigative story with tons of data can be presented in an effective way to a broad readership. Moreover, the use of the photos for charts such as the age histogram reminds (data) journalists of the fact that behind every number and each median, there is a human story.

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