Wednesday, July 04, 2007

#5 - He's OK

Now very often events are set up for photographers . . . because if it hasn't been photographed it doesn't really exist. -Elliott Erwitt

Whether it's deliberate or inadvertent, planned or spontaneous, illegal or legal, immigration in any form remains a highly contentious topic in our country. The recent May Day protests and struggle for passage of an immigration bill on Capitol Hill reminded me of a story I covered years ago that seemed to offer all of these elements plus some lessons for the news media(and myself)as well.

An accurate(or even honest)account of Ukrainian sailor Miroslav Medvid's saga may never be known. U.S. officials believed he attempted to defect, while Russian spokesmen maintained his actions were purely accidental. But regardless of his intentions, Medvid's behaviors and the facts surrounding his case are indisputable: on a late summer evening in 1985, he jumped from the deck of the massive Russian grain ship Marshal Konev and plunged into the dark waters of the port of New Orleans where he was quickly intercepted by Immigration and Naturalization Service(INS)officials. After being briefly interrogated and despite his apparent desire to remain in the U.S., Medvid was forcibly escorted back to the ship where he managed to violently bang his head against some rocks in protest and leap from the ship's gang plank a second time in a last ditch effort for political freedom. When news of his exploits reached Washington, the State Department intervened and insisted that Medvid be allowed a personal interview in a neutral location. This meeting occurred three days after the attempted "defection" and sources close to the story insist that the Russians pulled a "fast one", substituting another sailor in place of the beleagured Medvid who claimed he "slipped" from the deck of the ship and that the Russian system was superior(note: the physical appearance of the individuals also differed, and the interviewee showed no signs of the self-inflicted wounds that were documented and witnessed by U.S. officials).

From a photojournalistic standpoint, this was a difficult story to document. Medvid was isolated from any media contact, and access to the ship was non-existent. When I was dispatched from Houston, TX, to cover the story after the State Department interview, all I could do was stake-out the port and the ship and hope for something significant to break. On the second day of the watch, it did--a Russian official and the ship's captain appeared, after most of the media had gone and in a blatant propaganda move, to announce Medvid was "OK" and the Marshal Konev was departing port back to its homeland. As the only still photographer on the scene, I relished the newspaper "play" I'd receive, but I also questioned the validity of the information I was reporting.

Looking back on this assignment, I learned two valuable lessons: first, never leave the scene before your competition does; and second, remain skeptical of any staged photo opportunities because the truth can be easily manipulated.

Whatever happened to Miroslav Medvid?