Photographer Imprisoned for an Undetermined Amount of Time for Flying a Drone

Photojournalists and traveling photographers have had brushes with the law in foreign lands many times, often making the news. This incredible story is how one photographer went from flying his drone to sitting in a windowless Cuban prison cell with no end in sight.

The most important thing to take away from this type of stort is that you must do your research on a country's laws and customs, particularly if you're taking a drone. Many countries have an outright ban on flying drones without governmental approval, and if you're in a strict country when you break those rules, it can end very poorly. Cuba is a country near the top of my list of places to visit, and as Chris Hughes — the imprisoned photographer — says, this shouldn't put you off visiting, but act as a warning to be careful.

Sadly, these sort of mistakes happen and the punishment can seem wildly unreasonable, and far worse than Hughes' experience. A French tourist with a drone, Benjamin Briere, was imprisoned in Iran in 2020 after taking pictures with his drone near the Iran-Turkmenistan border. Briere was accused of all manner of crimes, from espionage to "propaganda against the system". The latter carries a one-year prison sentence, but the former carries the death penalty. As of writing this article, Briere is still in prison in Iran under these charges, which the French government insists there is no evidence of. The location where the French citizen was taking pictures — and was accused of spying — was allegedly in a prohibited area, but even so, the consequences are disproportionate and terrifying.

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29 Comments
Felix C's picture

Same thing happened to Trey Ratcliff. He did it in Beijing. If you do stupid things, they maybe a stint in a foreign jail might be what the doctor ordered.

g coll's picture

Yup. Trey proudly states he never asks for permission to fly his drone and just flies it anywhere he wants until he gets caught. Imagine if we all did this.

Tony Clark's picture

When is the execution scheduled for?

Studio 403's picture

Good Idea. Ban him from wearing those glasses, get at least 1,000 nerf balls to fire at him. Perhaps put him a dress so we know he is not a member of the Mafia. Then, let's see, dip him in a gallon honey and place him next to a bunch of flies. That should do it. Yankees are hard headed you know....my rant for today

Paul Papanek's picture

No sympathy for him. He should've researched Cuba's drone laws before going. End of story.

Paul Papanek's picture

And his advice is to travel? OK - I travel, but I'd think he might have advised people to not break the law. What a stupid guy!

John Barbiaux's picture

You guys are nuts. No sympathy? If you do stupid things this is what you deserve? Spoken by folks who apparently never made dumb decisions. I’m 38 and have made my fair share of dumb decisions in my life. Thankfully I live in the USA where dumb decisions have reasonable consequences (most of the time). This is a HUMAN BEING! But sure, not a big deal because it’s not you or your child. Someday, when you have a lapse in judgment and make a mistake I sincerely hope you find yourself in a situation where folks understand and you don’t end up paying dearly for a mistake/human nature. Good luck living up to the same standard you set for anyone else that isn’t you.

Robert Nurse's picture

I'm 60 and I don't fly drones. But, I do so want to stay out of trouble. How easy it would have been to just ask. You're not at home. Even in the States, drones aren't welcome in a ton of places and where they are welcome, require a boat load of training and licensing. Iran, Cuba and China aren't the places you want to test which is why they aren't on my bucket list, save Cuba.

David Pavlich's picture

Choices have consequences, some good, some not so good. He wasn't coerced into his decision, there for he must accept the consequences. You push the boundaries, sometimes the boundaries push back. Laws are there for a reason. You might not like the laws, but that and $5 will get you a small coffee at Lot a Bucks.

Here's a test for your sympathy quotient: A guy flies a drone next to your home and peeps into the windows. Do you go out and pat him on the back and say that was a dumb mistake or do you call the police to let them know that there's a reprobate in your neighborhood? Just checking to see where your sympathy lies when you or loved ones become the victims.

David Pavlich's picture

My response was to the post asking if we are nuts, do we have no sympathy. Did you notice that my reply was to Mr. Barbiaux? That's my point.

David Pavlich's picture

About half.

Tony Northrup's picture

Agreed; the punishment should fit the crime. Nobody was hurt. Ignorance of the law isn't an excuse, but manslaughter is punished more lightly than murder because intent matters. If there's no evidence of ill-will, slap them with a big enough fine to deter them and anyone else from trying the same thing and send them on their way.

I suspect the comments would be far more sympathetic if these photographers were using traditional cameras. People HATE drones.

Carlos Dacosta's picture

Im surprised by your comments, specially knowing that you are well traveled and a so called "Profesional". Surely you have heard of Russia, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, China, etc. I dont agree with their laws or lack of democracy, but i am smart enough to know that you must respect their laws when you visit these countries. Further, for any other country country I visit, even the USA or the UK, i make it a point to research their customs and basic laws so as to protect myself and family when visiting.

Mike Ditz's picture

Ha, usually the comments here slant unsympathetic, often favoring big biz, corporations, police over fellow photographers.
A lot of photographers like to say it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission...that didn't work for this guy,

People are kind of oblivious to how different countries regulate things like airspace and borders. Flying a drone in places like Cuba, China , Russia, Iran, N Korea might be trickier than USA, Canada, France, Norway...

Robert Nurse's picture

People "hate" drones because enough photographers have used them with poor judgement. Now, because of them, we have all these laws and regulations. Flying them near commercial and military air traffic and over other people's property, you have to know you'd be asking for trouble. But, yeah, we "hate" drones. I hate stupidity a lot more.

Deleted Account's picture

How things OUGHT to be and how thing ACTUALLY ARE are two different things. If you're going into foreign territories, it behooves you to do your research on their laws-particularly if said country is a totalitarian state because that's a pretty good sign that you're not going to enjoy the same rights that you would expect in the USA. As far as the notion that the punishment should fit the crime, the punishment almost never fits the crime, even here in the USA.

My lack of sympathy comes from the disrespectful attitude of going into someone else's home and assuming that their reaction ought to be commensurate with your personal expectations rather than taking the time to research what their reaction would actually be. That's arrogance and this guy got burned for his. "It's no big deal." is a relative thing. Something that's not a big deal to you may easily be seen as a big deal to someone else.

I would feel the exact same way if it was a normal camera. If you're walking into a country like that, you should realize that there's a high likelihood that they're going to be extremely paranoid about anything that could be seen as being in the vein of espionage or information gathering. Hell, just look at how police in the USA respond half the time as soon as they see a lens and this is a country that explicitly protects the rights of its citizens in its own Constitution. Does anyone here really think that things are going to be any better in Cuba (or Russia, China, Iran, etc.)?

I want to emphasize here that I'm not saying that it's RIGHT, but you're far from home and they're the ones with the guns so use your brain and be mindful about the power dynamic in play because you're the only one who's going to end up suffering.

Terry Waggoner's picture

Sorry, but yet another insipid response...........(sigh).........

Carlos Dacosta's picture

When you travel to another counyry, learn their basic laws and practices. Same thing when you drive in another country. No excuse for ignorance. Specially with drones where even in the USA, thete are local rules and a registration of the drone is required deoending on the size of it. May be a harsh penslty, but not all countries are like north america.

Timothy Roper's picture

Nope, not much sympathy for someone who travels to a communist country known for it oppression, and willfully ignores its laws with surveillance equipment like a drone. You have to be a special kind of stupid to do that, and sympathy is not called for.

Eduard Garcia's picture

Get a Cuban flying a drone to film the Pentagon and you will see how a "capitalist country known for its oppression" react.

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

You should know better than to speak of something that's a bit above those current level of morality. These are people who throw stones while living in a glass house.

Tarek El Wazzi's picture

You have sympathy for the cuban story, but the photographer flying a drone in Iran and over a border. That is pure stupidity and you are asking for trouble. Unless he is completely shut off from news and history, everyone knows that although Iran is a beautiful country, you are take precautions security wise.

Timothy Roper's picture

Would make for a good episode of "Locked Up Abroad." Too bad he didn't watch a few episodes before he left.

Chad L's picture

Just a FYI, Cuba, Iran & China aren't the only countries with laws against photography -- Japan has laws against taking pictures of people without their permission. Japan is a popular spot for photographers but I rarely hear anyone mentioning their laws.

Timothy Roper's picture

It's not so much the laws that matter, but the penalties for breaking them. And whether or not the country has a US Embassy to help out if things go south.

Jim Tincher's picture

Yeah.... you don't do stupid stuff like that in Socialist/Communist countries.

Eduard Garcia's picture

Or the US, which is not Communist or a Theocracy.

Eduard Garcia's picture

So, you break the law, you assume the consequences. He was filming the Ministry of Home Affairs, and I doubt he wasn't aware of that (definitely, his Cuban friend knew). What would you expect to happen if a Cuban citizen fly a drone to film the Pentagon or the Capitol?

Bill Lewandowski's picture

So, two things. First, the text of the article above is not bad and if you dragged the paragraphs in a different order its would have been OK in my opinion. Two, I skimmed through the video and its clear he just assumed being an American in what is considered a non-friendly country he could fly his drone with impunity. OK, he says it was a while ago and admittedly there were probably little if any rules on the Internet, he was a dumbass.

There are also great comments below on its not only drones. Example: The U.A.E. Their most beautiful Mosque is in Abu Dhabi. You can take all the pictures you like ‘as long as you are facing the Mosque’. But, don’t turn around and take pictures of the beautiful Ritz Carlton. Why? U.A.E. Military HQ is right next to it. No sign but either is there one at the Pentagon. You will be pulled aside and you will be forced to show them you deleted the photo’s from you phone, camera, whatever. If its a smartphone you will have to prove it did not get uploaded to the Cloud (They are no stupid military guards, they all went to schools in the US and they all own iPhones). Sounds bad? Yep, to many westerners it is but its their country, their rules and if you don’t know the rules it sucks to be you. Many other rules in many countries. At the Mosque for example all you have to do it ask. You ask and in my experience all is fine (and you get in to areas where they are not allowing the public).

I wont go there about a French idiot who took a drone to Iran and does not understand why he still sits in an Iranian prison claiming he did nothing wrong and just cause its not what western countries do, its not wrong. Oh, try flying your Drone in Washington DC or near NATO HQ in Brussels?. You want to see ‘the men in Black’ or ‘ninja’s’??? I give you <30 sec. You gots to know your limitations.