by Lauren Festa
To quote Annie Lebovitz or Mark Twain, sometimes there really is nothing stranger than the truth. With a plot line fit for a hit docu-drama-television series, Billy Sorrentino tells us of the very real things that happened while planning and executing the feature for “The Most Wanted Man In The World”, appearing in WIRED and winning a Gold Cube at the 94th Annual Awards for design.
This is a story full of secrets. It’s sort of like holding water in your hands; hard to keep, easy to leak. In our recent memory, the most controversial secret leaker is arguably Edward Snowden, who decided to reveal details of the domestic surveillance being conducted by US intelligence services. It’s the reason why you speak code in texts, prefer Snapchat over phone calls and why you delete incriminating emails, though if we’ve anything to learn from SONY, it’s that some letters always leave a trail.
There are a couple of characters in the story that bring this plot line to life: Scott Dadich, Editor in Chief of WIRED, Mark Robinson, Editor of the piece, James Bamford, reporter, Platon, photographer, and Billy Sorrentino, Executive Creative Director at WIRED, who so graciously indulged our curiosity of the story behind the story.
Snowden’s lawyer told us as soon as we got into the country ‘if you make it to Russia, the government is going to know you are there. There is no way they are not going to know, and if they know, it’s going to be really easy to put together what you are up to’.
“I’ll never forget it” says Billy “it was the middle of the night and I get a phone call from an unknown number and it’s Scott and I can hear Platon in the background and they’re so ecstatic saying ‘he just left, we did it! We did it!'” The sheer excitement that ‘holy shit, we went across the world, no one knows we’re here besides four other people in the whole world.’
But now, the real work was about to begin. The team had to get home with the files. Keep in mind this was for the September issue, so not only does the team have to get home, they have to then design a 14-page feature, as well as a cover, still without the WIRED staff finding out, plus get it to the printer without it leaking, and more importantly, all without the government knowing.
Much like Vanity Fair revealing Caitlyn Jenner to the world for the first time, WIRED would be first to break the story of Edward Snowden, ‘in his own words’. In order to do that, they would have to be strategic and secretive nearly every step of the way. Billy went as far as making it appear as though Scott was on a Paris vacation, uploading fake photos from his Instagram account, when in reality, he was in Russia at a motel awaiting Snowden’s arrival.
Planning began around January, before shooting Snowden in June, with Scott in conversations with Snowden’s people and his lawyers, proposing and convincing them that WIRED should get the first exclusive cover and story. Billy took it one step further, assigning his team back at home in California to work on an entirely separate feature, ‘a fake feature’, right up until the final steps of armed guards taking the files to and from the printers. Nothing could be left to chance.
“This took many months of planning, in complete secrecy, Mark, Scott, Platon and myself were the only people that knew about it in all of Condé Nast. It was completely shut down, all the way to the top of the company.”
To top of the strangeness of what was transpiring, a freak motorcycle accident would be a blessing in disguise. It was during those weeks that Billy was bed ridden, he was able to select images and layout the award-winning design for the feature. The rest of the WIRED team was none the wiser, thinking Scott was making friendly check-ins on a fellow colleague.
For Billy and Scott, choosing from Platon’s photos was sort of like choosing your favorite flavor jellybean; each one better than the last.“This is where Platon is honestly the best photographer in the world for a job like this, because he has such an amazing ability to connect with subjects and he’s dealt with some of the scariest subjects. I mean, could you imagine shooting Gaddafi at his prime? Petrifying. Or when he shot Putin, literally being taken into the Black Forest to some special Russian camp for the photo shoot and Putin is surrounded by his military all equipped with M16s. He’s been in these situations before. Platon can immediately tell a story – with his photography, he makes high profile, at times dangerous subjects feel at ease. If they know his work, they know they are in good hands, not with someone who is a rookie that is just going to take a pretty photo and exploit it. Platon really is interested in peoples personal stories.”
With Platon’s magic touch, the stage was set, or rather, not. Each photo was completely unstaged, Billy tells us. Props like the American Flag and the Security T-shirt were taken along and laid out, but none were ever intentionally put into a photograph. Edward Snowden had the freedom to be drawn to these objects from home. If you were in Ed’s shoes, wouldn’t you have held the flag up too? After years of exile, just to feel a little bit of home?
“The American flag was kind of amazing because that flag is the same one [and I have this framed in my office here] – that Pam Anderson wore on a Georges magazine cover which was JFK Jr. magazine. It was also one of Platon’s first American cover shoots. In the photo, Pam has her back is to the camera and she’s draped this American flag over herself. It’s amazing that Platon brought this flag to Ed, and then he picked it up and sort of draped it over himself. When we were selecting the photo to be on the cover, the way that he’s holding the flag, sort of like hiding behind it, holding it with power and fragility. It was such a real moment. We were like that’s it!. There was no debate, there was no going through what about this vs this. The image was there. It was just such a gift.”
With the cover selected, there were still the rest of the photos to consider. “We were unsure how to visually tell the story.” Billy played around with some designs, but none felt important enough. Taking a closer look at the photos, Billy realized that the 35MM shots, the casual ones in between the ‘official’ moments, had a creepiness and grit to them. These, Billy felt, were the photos that really told the story of Ed’s solitude, the purgatory, this self-imposed exile he is living in. Those four shots, juxtaposed together, almost tell the entire written piece. Accompanied with some of Platon’s more professional shots, helped to flesh out a design with a traditional story arch. True to WIRED.
“I wanted to make sure we highlighted the access we got. I wanted to design it in a pure, more timeless way, rather than being too of-the-moment or forward thinking like WIRED usually is. It made us more WIRED to be a little bit more traditional. I was leafing through a lot of old magazines like fact: and I figured out our type sensibility that way. It’s very clean and swift and very 1960’s. I then reached out to a typographer, Tal Lemming, who helped add extra ligatures and really pull it together. Still keeping our secrecy, we had to make sure that the headline did not say ‘Ed Snowden’, because we couldn’t let even the typographer know what he was working on. All I could tell him was ‘this is a really important piece, this is the headline’ “Most Wanted Man In The World”. I might have assumed he would have put it together, but there was a lot of wanted men in the world at that time. We made a custom headline that was beautiful.”
We made sure that the headline did not say Ed Snowden because we couldn’t let even the typographer know what he was working on.
With the design on lock, Billy still needed to find something special to keep it on brand. The story could not look as though it was from any other publication. It had to be WIRED. Taking the logo and putting it their signature bright yellow, Billy decided to give it a hacked effect. The look is a clean that then becomes disjointed, as if someone is hacking into it. He also utilized the spine, hiding code in what looks like a pattern of random dots that conceals a secret message. Details like that made it feel very WIRED.
We got hate mail and love mail in equal doses which is exactly what you kind of hope for.
“We had a codename for Snowden so that we could talk about it in the office out loud around our other co-workers without them knowing — but also just god forbid if there was any chance that someone was listening in, which we were legitimately worried about the whole time — That’s a big reason why we had everything off the grid. Once the issue came out, we still called him by the code name for another 4 or 5 months. We just could not say Snowden because Snowden was such a taboo word to say. We had trained ourselves for almost a year at this point to never say the name Snowden.”
Surprisingly, there has been zero repercussions – only praise and awards. “I think that’s because we told this story in a very straight way” says Billy. “We didn’t sensationalize anything. This wasn’t about putting [Snowden] on a pedestal. There was nothing that felt suspect or out of bounds, which was good. It feels really rewarding as visual storytellers and certainly to Scott Dadich, Mark Robinson, James Bamford and Platon. For us selfishly, we were convinced that the Ed Snowden story is the story that only WIRED should tell. It’s not a story that Vanity Fair or GQ or Esquire or NYTimes should tell as much as us, because it’s to the core of the kind of magazine and brand we are. It would have broken our hearts if somebody else had told this story before we could. We are all really proud of the work. It’s something you feel like you can get behind and have very little ego about. You can just be proud of being able to be apart of this story.”
So what do you do after you’ve pulled off the impossible? You look for your next most wanted man. If you suspect someone might be on the brink of international notoriety, be sure to let Billy and the boys at WIRED know.
Special Thanks to Ashley Shaffer.