Trending: Behind the Scenes with Theranos Fraudster Elizabeth Holmes

By David Schonauer   Tuesday April 16, 2019

What is it like to photograph someone committing a fraud?

L.A.-based photographer Ethan Pines knows. In 2014, he photographed Elizabeth Holmes, the founder and CEO of the Silicon Valley company Theranos. At the time, Holmes was the darling of the tech industry: When Pines shot her for the cover of that year’s Forbes 400 issue, she was the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world.

Then, following investigations by The Wall Street Journal, Theranos’s breakthrough blood-testing technology was exposed as scam that had bilked billions from investors. By 2016, Forbes estimated Holmes's net worth to be zero.

The story of Holmes and Theranos are told in the new documentary “The Inventor,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is now airing on HBO. Her massive fraud is also explained in the ABC News podcast “The Dropout.” Both the documentary and the podcast have licensed images Pines made in 2014.

With the new interest in Holmes, Pines has been looking back on the experience of photographing a tech celebrity at the height of her fame — and the height of her fraud. Many people, he noted recently at aPhotoEditor, have asked him what it was like “spending a few hours with the woman who appears to be a narcissistic, delusional fraud, maybe even a sociopath?"

“The short answer is, I now see clearly how her starry-eyed investors were taken in,” he says.

“The company came across as fairly standard Silicon Valley,” notes Pines. “A campus in Palo Alto, a P.R. person coordinating and vetting everything beforehand, modern open-office architecture, lots of young people from an array of countries walking around doing their jobs. On the walls were large prints from a Martin Schoeller shoot commissioned by the company — including a portrait of Holmes herself — and a giant mural with Yoda’s famous DO OR DO NOT. THERE IS NO TRY. The company was accommodating and welcoming, which is usually the case when you’re coming in to shoot a potential Forbes cover.”

The Silicon Valley setting was a setup, as it turned out. “As a biotech company, they also had a ton of lab equipment, machinery and accessories around,” notes Pines. “In hindsight, I keep wondering, if Theranos’s core technology and promises couldn’t deliver, what was all this for?”

“As for Holmes herself, photographing her was entirely different from what you might think,” notes Pines. “While she apparently sought to emulate Steve Jobs — his mythically genius status, his black minimalist wardrobe, his change-the-world ambitions, his megalomania — she did not adopt his difficult demeanor.”

“I’ve photographed a lot of tech CEOs — Sundar Pichai at Google, Elon Musk at Spacex, Kevin Systrom at Instagram, Jen-Hsun Huang at Nvidia, Tom Siebel at C3 IoT, Patrick Soon-Shiong at Nantworks, Travis Kalanick at Uber, etc. — and they all either have very little time, a specific way they want to be portrayed, or both,” notes Pines. “Some have that CEO swagger, some are immersed in their own deep thoughts. Yet Elizabeth Holmes was surprisingly malleable, seemingly a blank slate.”

Holmes, Pines writes, made him and his crew feel not only welcome but “important.”

“And now I realize: This is part of what lured investors. Sincerity. Relatability. Accessibility. Simplicity. The facade of quiet wisdom. Eye contact from huge blue eyes that made you feel you were hearing the unvarnished truth,” Pines writes.

Like Holmes’s face, photographs can be a blank slate: They can have multiple meanings, depending on the context in which we look at them. When they were taken in 2014, Pines’s pictures of the young billionaire were examples of the iconography of power and wealth that fills our culture. When later licensed by Vanity Fair for an Oct. 2016 article about the Theranos fraud (see a preliminary layout at top), the images seemed to capture a colder and more sinister woman.

“It’s hard to know what was real and what was fake, both in the company and in Holmes herself,” he writes. “By the end, perhaps not even she knew.”


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