Photographers' Blog

Is it him, or is it not?

July 10, 2013

Havana, Cuba

By Desmond Boylan

Yesterday, a strong rumor that a delayed flight from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport due to land in Havana could be carrying fugitive former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, sent dozens of reporters scrambling to the airport. Since June 23, this has happened many times already.

As I watched passengers gather in the arrival hall, the gentleman in the picture below, with the blue shirt, grabbed my attention. Could he be the fugitive?

In the midst of the Snowden story, how would clients from all over the world perceive this picture if they received it, even with a caption simply stating that they were passengers arriving in Havana from Moscow? Would it raise questions? It’s difficult to find an answer to these questions as my ethics told me that it was not right, and I decided not to move this or any of these pictures. Once I got a full view of the man’s face it was clear that he was not Snowden.

Of course it looks like him because of the way I shot it. To play a game with myself, I waited till the main features of his face and skull shape were not clearly visible, but in the frames before and after we can clearly see that it is not Snowden. To kill time I did this with several individuals that had similarities with our subject, and here are the results.

Cameras are very powerful tools and can produce images that can be deceiving, and that is without using any tools in Photoshop. But this is not about Photoshop manipulation – it is about pictures and the intentions behind the person taking the picture, especially important when covering a top news story like this one.

In the last weeks I have spent hours at the Havana airport, stalking flights from Moscow, watching passengers arrive, planes being unloaded, catering trucks surrounding the aircraft, movements of security forces, unusual faces in unusual places, always trying to get a visual of the fugitive to illustrate the story. I saw several Snowden lookalikes, and depending on how you shoot the pictures they can look more and more look like Snowden.

It now seems the fugitive will most likely accept asylum in Venezuela to escape prosecution in the United States, said Glenn Greenwald, the U.S. journalist who first published the secret documents that Snowden leaked.

One of the obvious airline routes to Venezuela from Moscow is Cuba.

The world media and intelligence agencies from many countries are extremely curious about Snowden’s whereabouts and will deploy resources without any hesitation, at any cost, to learn the movements and get images of him.

Just a few days ago dozens of reporters flew on a Havana bound flight spending thousands of dollars, to photograph and film an empty seat reserved for Snowden. Even a presidential aircraft carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales was prohibited from passing over much of European airspace. It eventually landed in Austria and was searched by authorities to try to find the man.

After that incident, suddenly four countries in Latin America have explicitly expressed that they will grant asylum to Snowden. He is not so unwelcome anymore.

I don’t remember a story like this, that has been so interesting and raises so much worldwide media attention, with such complex logistics to cover and so little to offer on the visual side.

Technically Snowden could have already made his move, with several countries openly inviting him. He could still be in the Sheremetyevo transit zone, as most media report, but he could already be in Bolivia, after successfully hiding in a secret compartment in President Morales’ presidential aircraft that was not thoroughly searched in Austria, or in Venezuela or in Havana, Cuba, comfortably staying near my flat. Almost anything is possible.

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