‘The world’s biggest bribe scandal‘, they called it. The claims were indeed dramatic, and cracked code in leaked documents had exposed it all. Multi-million dollar bribes had allegedly been paid. The hands of corrupt officials in unstable states like Libya and Iraq had supposedly been plentifully greased so that some of the world’s biggest brands could get their own mitts on precious oil reserves. Allegedly orchestrating the ‘arrangements’ (and creaming off their own healthy profits in the process) was a small, jet-setting family based in Monaco.
Last summer, I was assigned to make a portrait of the middle son in this ‘family business’. I tend to limit my research about portrait subjects to the bare facts given to the photographer by the magazine’s picture desk, preferring to take each person as I find them when we meet. However, this time, as I headed towards the Monte Carlo home of Saman Ahsani, I was apprehensive. It seemed that it might be challenging on this assignment, from what I’d read in the photographer brief, for me to leave my preconceptions at the door.
Greasing oily palms
The story reads like a crime novel. Journalists for The Age & Huffington Post spent 6 months building up their exposé of the dodgy dealings behind the Ahsani family company, UNAOIL. After its publication in early 2016, authorities in the UK, US, and Australia began a long investigation (that is still in progress) into the complex, and apparently well-hidden, trails of the corporate bribery supposedly facilitated by UNAOIL. The company’s official role as a legitimate middleman in the oil industry, ‘providing industrial solutions to the energy sector in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa‘ (according to the website), did not protect its clients from damage. A number of UNAOIL’s big-name ex-customers saw their CEOs arrested and questioned by the British Serious Fraud Office, hefty corporate fines paid and even a threat of prison pending for some executives.
A wanted man
Overnight, UNAOIL became a ‘toxic brand’. Although the Ahsanis have denied all charges against them (and have a team of presumably not-too-shabby lawyers building their defence), UNAOIL quickly lost its clients. Saman’s home was raided and he spent a night in Monaco Prison. Today, authorities from 3 continents still have him in their sights, preparing a tough prosecution case and aiming at a hefty prison sentence.
So, for the meantime, Saman is stuck in Monaco. Were he to pop over to London, for example, then as soon as his passport was scanned at border control, he would be seized and handed over to the Serious Fraud Office. While he is now shunned by many former neighbours and associates in Monaco’s tightly-knit social scene, at least the Principality doesn’t appear to have plans to extradite him – yet.
After months of unwanted publicity, Saman felt it was time to have his side of the story heard, and make a stab at clearing his family name (perhaps he had a bit of time to kill too, his previous jetting around the world now having been seriously curtailed). He decided to grant his first -and possibly only- interview to the New York Times, who regularly commission me as photographer in the South of France.
Nerves and embroidery
If I was expecting Ahsani’s home to be of the kind of luxurious pad to showcase the spoilings of a decadent, international business of crime, then I was to be disappointed. While no property in Monte Carlo comes cheap, Saman’s flat was inconsequential beside other French Riviera real estate that I’ve visited as photographer. He may live in a respectable building, but his is no penthouse. It is a straight-up bachelor pad of modest proportions and fairly simple furnishings by Monaco standards (yes, recent divorce has compounded Saman’s woes). The little guest towels in the bathroom were stitched by his mother, to comfort her beleaguered son.
I also realised, soon after he opened the door (there was no butler), that Saman Ahsani was nervous. He admitted as much, confessing that while various media outlets have ‘stolen’ family photos and unwelcome press photographers have had a stab at grabbing his picture, he’d never had an editorial portrait taken before. I’ve noticed that people who are nervous about having a photographer sent to their home often decide in advance on exactly the best spot for their portrait – especially subjects who are apprehensive about how their image might be portrayed in the press. Saman was no exception, and had chosen his wall of books as a suitable, sober backdrop (in preference to, for example, the sumptuous view of Monaco from his balcony). Needless to say, it is likely that the photographer will have a different opinion (as they take into account the light, the space to work in and the context of the story). This was no exception.
However, given the limited scope of the main room, the right spot for Mr Ahsani’s portrait wasn’t instantly obvious either. And I needed him to loosen up.
Saved by the music
So, instead of setting up the equipment straight away, I slowed down the pace and asked him about some of his books. He actually appeared to have read and enjoyed many of them, and we were able to have an interesting exchange about our favourite authors. He asked whether I had read any of Somerset Maughan’s novels; when I told him that I hadn’t, he said he thought I might really like them.
Otherwise, the room was mainly dominated by a very grand grand piano. As an amateur pianist myself, I’m always happy to be in the presence of a fine instrument and although my preconceptions had made me wonder if it was there only for display, to my surprise, he told me that he plays – or, at least, is learning. He even confided that the piano has ‘kept him going’ through recent traumas. Was I calling his bluff a little when I asked him to play for me while I set up? Perhaps, but I had a hunch that it would relax him and take his mind off the portrait – while leaving me to focus on precisely that.
As it happens, I was astonished by the beauty and fluidity of his playing. For me, listening to the music made this one of the most pleasant set-ups I’ve done in a while. As for Saman, I saw an immediate effect on his face, mood, and attitude. The tension had lifted; we were ready to make a portrait.
A delicate balance
I knew that the New York Times feature, published some months later, was to present an unbiased portrayal of Saman. Given the story, it was important to make sure that the portrait was also impartial. In the first few shots though, Saman maintained a slightly fixed (mirror-prepared?) smile that wasn’t working at all. I put my camera down and explained:
“Look, Saman, you need to work with me on this. The risks here are either that you come across as an over-comfortable fat cat who’s profited shamelessly from the fruits of corruption, or that you are portrayed as an object of pity, the man who has lost everything and seeks redemption. I don’t want to show you as either, and I suspect you’ll agree. So, drop the smile, and trust me“.
And he did. We moved away from the bookcase, across the lounge. Framed family snapshots (just out-of-focus, as I assured him), and a painting, somehow nostalgic for a carefree, opulent lifestyle, could be seen in the background, and the large window next to him put half of his face in light, half in shadow.
After I’d packed up and was heading to the door, Saman suddenly stopped me. “Wait a moment“. He headed back to his bookshelf, pulled out a slim volume and put it into my hand. “‘Up At The Villa’: this is the best one to start with“. So it was that sitting on my balcony, one sunny South of France afternoon a couple of weeks later, I found myself transported by Somerset Maughan to the hills of Tuscany and an engrossing, dashing story of crime and suspense…