In the on-going Stormy Daniels saga, Michael Cohen has gained national prominence as President Trump’s longtime fixer and personal lawyer who tends to play by his own rules. On a day that he probably should have been in court, Cohen was found outside the Loews Regency in New York palling around smoking a cigar. Yana Paskova was one of two photographers on the scene, and her tightly composed images quickly went viral, and became fodder for internet memes.
Paskova’s images of Cohen are notable for their intimacy and candid nature at a time where so many celebrities and people of notoriety work so hard to curate their public persona. I reached out to Paskova to find out how she captured the images.
I’m trying to get a sense of how you end up taking these incredible photos of Michael Cohen. You’re a freelancer. Does a photo editor call you up and say “I have a hot tip that Cohen is having a cigar on the street. Go shoot it?”
First, thanks for the compliments! Yes, apart from personal projects and pitching story ideas, most of my work is the result of an editor picking up the phone to assign me to a photo shoot. In this case, the tip that the hotel where Michael Cohen had been staying would be a likelier location to find him than at his court case, came from an enterprising colleague with whom I’d checked in that morning, Wes Bruer (a photographer, producer and videographer who was working with CNN that day.) I’d asked Wes how credible the intel was, and when receiving confirmation, I communicated this to my photo editor at Getty Images, Pierce Wright. We’d also started to suspect Cohen might not show to his hearing — the start time was precipitously close, yet it seemed he had not yet made his way down from his hotel room — so my editor chose to trust this intuition, pulled me from court and sent me to the hotel.
Cohen is sitting in a public space, so he’s fair game to photograph. How close were you? And did you get the sense that he was aware that you and photographer Barry Williams were taking photos/video?
I was within a few feet of Cohen at all times. He was certainly aware he was being photographed, and had on previous days gotten quite chatty with journalists awaiting the descent from his hotel room. It seemed to me that this cigar hang-out was a play at positive PR, an attempt to project nonchalance in a time of stress, so I kept my eyes trained on any sign of the opposite, a break in the veneer.
Michael David Murphy forensically reconstructed the sequence of events on a Medium post. How accurate was his take? Did you coordinate coverage with Barry?
Barry and I did not coordinate our respective shooting locations, since we of course did not know exactly where Cohen was heading, or where he would pause. Michael David Murphy spent an admirable amount of time piecing together the timeline of our pictures, disparate locations, and video vs. photo footage — and accurately so. But there are a few things Michael couldn’t have known: Neither Barry nor I could focus for too long on the “Selfie Hero” moment, since we were just starting to respond to Cohen’s sudden arrival while filing images from our computers.
Also, despite the limited, though hilarious GIF view of us running in front of Cohen, it erroneously relied on the elbow-poking, hair-pulling photojournalist stereotype. In reality, I was simply adjusting my camera strap to avoid clubbing Barry with my telephoto lens, and Barry never made significant contact with me while running. He was wonderful to work next to and there was no need or opportunity for jabs to be exchanged. We did flail limbs quite a bit while scrambling to run ahead of Cohen, however, and each managed to find a different view on him meanwhile. And yes, while some of Barry’s pictures were dissimilar to mine, what a photographer’s final edit looks like not only depends on what and how s/he shoots, but also on what their publication chooses to publish, their position (which isn’t always easy to change amidst a scrum,) and also on ancillary duties, which in Barry’s case might have included video in addition to stills (which usually distracts from the quickest quarter-second moments.)
In short, it isn’t always up to us.
Your photos had enormous distribution – particularly the image of the hand on his shoulder where he looks a bit startled/concerned – and also became the basis for a lot of memes. Why do you think these photos were so successful?
I think that we as human beings take most notice when true emotion breaks through a more manicured reality, such as Cohen’s momentary show of anxiety during an apparent orchestration of fun. And it is our most sacred and most difficult duty as journalists to pursue this truth in all realities, whether via pictures or words.
I was a little surprised at Cohen’s brazenness and, in some sense, comfort with the camera. You’ve been doing political/news coverage for a long time. Have you noticed a shift in your subjects and how they relate to having their photo/video taken in this age of social media?
I’ve absolutely noticed a diminishing in the proximity and time we are allowed with politicians. This means to prevent exactly the kind of twitch in the PR matrix that allows us a peek at what’s really happening, whether inside a person or a political campaign. Because it now (justifiably) feels that some type of unseen camera is always rolling, ready to transmit to global access, finding a truly unguarded moment in both politician and pedestrian has become an ever more elusive task.
What kind of gear you were using?
I use two Canon 5D Mark III cameras (and to your trust fund readers: I am open to donations for two Mark IVs,) and mostly prime lenses (35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4, and an 85mm f/1.8.) Although, for the kind of intimacy I wanted in these tighter shots, I reached for my telephoto, a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens.