Photographing Edward Snowden: Platon Finds the Lion Caged in the Lamb
Edward Snowden was supposed to arrive sometime between Noon and 2pm. Platon and Scott Dadich, the Editor-in-Chief of Wired, along with Wired’s photo editor and Platon’s assistant, set up a makeshift studio overlooking Moscow’s Red Square earlier that morning. They were going to photograph the most wanted man in the world immediately adjacent to one of the most public places in the world. Snowden hadn’t sat for a proper photograph since leaking NSA documents he obtained as an NSA contractor in 2013 that outlined the espionage the US Government was perpetrating against the American people. Snowden left the US shortly before releasing the documents and was tracked by the US from Beijing to Russia. The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, granted him temporary asylum after Snowden spent 39 days in the Moscow airport and unsuccessfully applied for asylum in 21 countries. He remains in Russia to this day.
Despite the US Government’s assertion that Snowden made off with 1.7 million documents, Snowden claims it was far fewer and he doesn’t even have access to them anymore. The actual documents Snowden handed over went to outlets that can now be separated into three different groups: First Look Media, overseen by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, The Guardian who eventually transferred physical custody to The New York Times, and Barton Gellman of The Washington Post. Snowden has largely become a symbol; besides the information in his head, he has no new evidence to offer. The US is now in a holding pattern waiting for the day that the unreleased documents find the light, exposing secrets that were supposed to die with the NSA.
What the American People have discovered from the leaks is the intricate surveillance network lorded over by the NSA even though the documents that Snowden took contain uncountable other national secrets. What Americans learned is that the NSA tracks and records the metadata of American communications. Metadata includes information that is broader than recording specific calls. It sounds less invasive on its face than it is. Listening to individual calls only exposes the information discussed in the content of the call. If names aren’t used, or locations aren’t described, listening can be useless. Metadata, on the other hand, monitors call origin and destination, illustrating relationships and patterns that can illuminate more about the callers life than a handful of even lengthy conversations. Over time, metadata is far more invasive, and far more useful to third parties.
Platon became enamored with Edward Snowden when he was first being paraded in front of Russian cameras after the initial stories broke. As the frenzy unfolded Platon noticed a woman in all the reports. “There was one person whispering into his ear, guiding him from place to place,” Platon explains. “And she seemed to be the one who was telling all the journalists where he’s going to be at what time. I just saw her in the background. And I happened to know her. She’s a human rights defender. One of the bravest ladies I’ve ever met on the planet.” She was the key.
Platon is internationally known for shooting everyone. He photographed Gaddahfi, Ahmedinijad, Aung San Suu Kyi, almost every movie star and every American politician. With unfettered access to every side of every conflict, he has never balked at great personal risk. When not shooting the cover of Hollywood magazines, Platon travels the world documenting human and civil right’s abuses for his non-profit, The People’s Portfolio. He chases down these violations wherever they are to document those who suffer and survive. He most recently spent time on the border of Mexico and the United States, getting a grasp on the immigration crisis and brought back stories never heard before. That is his job, to inform and enrich the discussion. To bring the grey back into a black and white argument. Platon doesn’t want to make judgments. He’s a provocateur without provoking. He presents people and information. A devil’s advocate. A complicator.
To convince Snowden to sit for him, he and Dadich embarked on a journey of trust building and reference authentication. In order to keep the conversation going, but avoid undue attention, Platon decided to use a code name for Snowden: “Mango.”
“Mango” is a safe word that Platon used while photographing on the border of Mexico in case he had a run in with the drug cartels. It was a code word that he could invoke if given enough time to make one call on his phone. If he uttered the word “Mango” to the State Department or security personnel it would set off a chain reaction that would hopefully result in his safe extraction. Platon chose to reuse the name Mango because of all the tension and suspicion engaged in the 7-month odyssey of securing trust of Snowden’s lawyer. They wanted a word that described something sweet; the antithesis to the situation.
After passing seven months of tests, they found themselves in Russia. Platon easily secured a visa for himself because Russian officials love him. Platon’s TIME Magazine cover of the Russian President is considered a marker of strength. They call Platon “Platonchik,” a term of endearment.
After setting up the makeshift studio overlooking the Red Square, they started in meditation. Each of the four men in the room meditated in different ways. Platon paced. Dadich sat on his knees, face in hand. 90 minutes ticked by, and at exactly Noon Dadich’s phone tore through the silence.
“This is Ed,” the voice on the other end said. “Please state your name.”
“This is Scott Dadich.”
“Verify your room number.” Scott did. “I’ll be there in 15 minutes.”
Then they waited. The four men in that room had no idea what was coming. They had not been expecting a call. They were never given a phone number. Whoever was coming to the door could have been anyone. A year earlier David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, had been detained for the crime of being married to a reporter who had helped Snowden with the leak. That was in London. Platon and Dadich were in Putin’s Russia, with the FSB (the inheritor to the KGB) and secret police, with a 7-month documented history of planning to photograph the most wanted man in the world.
After exactly 15 minutes of silence, there was a quiet tap on the door. Scott leapt up and went to the door. There was a look around the room. He turned the knob, and with the door barely a few inches open, a diminutive pale man slipped in. He was dressed in worn out clothes, broken glasses, and a backpack.
Platon remembers the moment he met Edward Snowden. “He’s got a very gentle voice. He shakes all our hands. He says, ‘Hi, I’m Ed, I’m Ed.’ He sits down on the sofa and then begins an hour and half monologue of his story.” Platon didn’t even have the time to properly introduce himself, or go over the plan for their meeting. Edward just started speaking. “It felt like this guy had been in prison for 20 years and suddenly he’s got people to talk to.”
Ironically, Snowden now has asylum in a country that is currently engaged in a form of colonialism. Russia is engaged in a de facto war in Ukraine, having annexed Crimea after a thinly veiled invasion. The US and Europe continue to levy heavier and heavier sanctions against Russia, to slow effect. For their part, Russia is also levying sanctions against Europe and the US, but considering their imports outweigh their exports, their action isn’t expected to make a significant impact over the short term. But Putin has Snowden.
Putin is painted as a thug by the American media and representatives. That’s why Platon’s TIME cover was so successful. To Americans he looked like a tyrant, to Putin, he looks strong. Platon calls the portrait truthful, not painting Putin any other way than how he presented himself to the photographer. Snowden is a marker of the overreaches of the US Government. He is a symbol of a poisoned Democracy. Everything that Snowden stands for is everything the US criticizes Putin for. He represents the black heart of official American paranoia, and Putin has put a roof over his head.
Platon is careful not to make a judgment about Snowden, only to show his story. He sees his position as a tool for our culture. “My job is not to paint someone as a demon or a saint. I’m just interested in curing society’s amnesia,” he says. He forces us to remember our history. To face it.
Platon’s vision, to detail icons and keep them at the forefront of our awareness, is documentation. He offers a quiet reckoning of our history and our process, our culture. Snowden did the same thing. Even though they do it in different arenas, for both of them it’s about holding a mirror up to who we are, where we come from, and where we are allowing ourselves to go with “These People” at the helm. It’s a dialogue that has been ranging since Plato’s Republic. “Who is the leader? Who are the people? Are the people being looked after properly by the leadership?,” are the central questions, as Platon explains. “Technology is pushing this and accelerating the process, but the core values stay the same. There’s nothing new in this. I’m just part of the latest round of the discussion. That’s all. It’s just round 250,000,” he says with a healthy laugh.
Back in Moscow, as Snowden sat on that couch, Platon soaked up as much as he could. No one in the room could take notes, instead they just listened. “His glasses, actually, are broken,” Platon tells it. “And one of the pads on the sides of his nose is broken off so he hasn’t either had the money or the time to replace his glasses. And that was a detail sort of reflecting his state of mind and also his state of life. So his glasses kept sliding to one side, and he kept adjusting it while he’s talking.” He gave a crash course in CIA espionage, regaled his privacy manifesto, and spoke of his daily life. He talked himself into exhaustion before finding a moment to pause. He removed his glasses. Rubbed his eyes, looked around the room and said:
“I’ve lost my way. What are we doing?”
“You’re here to make history,” Platon told him. “We’re going to do a photo shoot.”
“Okay, I’m in your hands.”
Platon is used to the unpredictability that comes with the biggest personalities in the world. “There’s no guarantee. You know it’s happening when he’s in front of you, and even then you don’t know if you’re going to get out okay,” he says. “You are really rolling the dice. Some I win, some I lose.”
After seeing a slight man in front of him unloading his personal history, Platon had experienced a type of confusion. “Where does he get his balls of steel?,” he wondered. “Where does this guy’s courage come from?” But as soon as Snowden stepped in front of the camera, he got his answer:
“His inner strength is unbelievable. He becomes not a person who is weak or on the run, or in exile. He becomes this powerful, empowered figure. And he has swagger, passion, and a commitment that I don’t think I’ve seen in anyone I’ve photographed. And I’ve met some pretty committed people.”
In the middle of the shoot, Platon poked and prodded Snowden to eke out as much of Snowden’s center as he could, to get in all in frame. As they shot the cover, Platon hit him with the central question, “Are you a patriot or are you a traitor?”
Snowden didn’t miss a beat. In front of Platon’s lens, filled with swagger and confidence, he pointed at Platon and chided him. “Don’t get bogged down with labels. Don’t get bogged down with picking sides, picking teams,” he said to Platon. “Because it’s not about Us versus Them, or Red versus Blue, it’s actually about us working together to solve common goals.”
Snowden has spent the better part of a year alone in his Russian apartment, awake at night to connect with his half dead life in the US, and sleeping during the day. He eats the same meal daily, Beef Stroganoff, and hasn’t had the time or money to repair his broken glasses. He’s isolated, stranded, and spends hours forming his thoughts, values, and actions into emails to friends. His life is self study, a philosophical meditation of the longest form. The words he spoke to Platon in that studio may not have been rehearsed, but the philosophy has been bouncing around his head for a year. An echo chamber of idealism. He’s papered his world with his beliefs. He’s now in a situation, that is at least partially elective, where he has placed himself on an island, alone, with nothing but the time and thoughts to reconcile and put himself in the right place. To make himself the hero. But, he has no more moves. He’s a chess piece that Putin can play. All that’s left is to hold onto his ideals and the history of his actions and hope that time will play out in his favor. He sounds like a fully formed civil rights leader, at the age of 31.
There’s no way to know if what Edward Snowden did was out of a fully acknowledged courage or a risky move with unintended consequences. And we can never know, as human intentions and actions are blurred and reshaped by retrospection. Human history, and American history, is peppered by actors who have under taken valiant efforts above their stations and have found themselves destroyed. Like Edward Snowden in Platon’s makeshift studio overlooking Moscow’s Red Square, the actions of the heroes and villains of time have carved them away from the rest of us, who they claim to protect or revile. When everyone else has turned their backs, or placed them in a glass cage, the only voices left are the other inmates. The voices of history that Snowden hears are the voices of those who came before him, regardless of their intent. Those voices will never pass through to be heard over the cacophony on the other side of the glass.