Kazakhstan's interim president, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, may be finding life in the spotlight a little too harsh since the surprise resignation of longtime President Nursultan Nazarbaev in March, reports Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
RFE/RL has discovered that official pictures of the new Kazakh leader have been dramatically altered with photo-editing software.
The aim, it appears, is to digitally nip, tuck, and smooth the 65-year-old ex-diplomat and former prime minister's appearance -- and possibly ease his path to a five-year term as the Central Asian powerhouse prepares for its snap presidential election in June.
Toqaev (right) receiving the credentials of U.S. Ambassador William H. Moser in March 2019. The photo was shot by a Kazakh news photographer and published by the Kazinform press agency.
This photo, taken a moment later and from a slightly different angle, was released by the interim president's office. Toqaev's facial contours and skin texture are strikingly different, while Moser's face appears unchanged.
Toqaev meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in April, on his first foreign visit since being appointed interim president.
A photo of the same meeting released by Toqaev's office. The pictures were taken three minutes apart. Toqaev, the candidate of Nazarbaev's long-dominant Nur Otan party, is not expected to be seriously challenged in the June vote.
During the Moscow meeting, a Kremlin photographer captured the two leaders chatting.
This photo of the same conversation was released by Toqaev's office. In all cases of apparent image doctoring that RFE/RL has seen, only Toqaev's face and neck have been altered, while other people appear unretouched.
In late April, South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) visited Kazakhstan. The European Pressphoto Agency (EPA) released this photograph of the meeting.
Soon afterward, Toqaev's press office published its own photo, shot from a slightly different angle.
After Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Kazakhstan in April, his press office published this photo of the official visit.
Soon afterward, Toqaev's office released its own image of the meeting. The difference in color between the two photos is likely due to different cameras (a Canon 5D Mark IV used by the Hungarian delegation versus a Nikon D5 for the Kazakhs) and image-editing tastes.
But an expert RFE/RL contacted said he was "almost 100 percent" certain Toqaev's photos have been photoshopped to change his appearance.
This photo of Toqaev in April 2019 was distributed through Reuters and has been widely used in international media.
One of the world's leading retouchers, who asked to remain anonymous, told RFE/RL he believed the picture had been altered "mainly using surface blur to even out the skin of the face."
He added: "You can see it's uneven when looking closely at the face; some parts contain jpeg artifacts and some parts are smoother. I work with this every day, and it looks like it's definitely been smoothed out."
None of Kazakhstan's elections since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 has been deemed free and fair by Western observers -- a history that suggests Toqaev will walk into the presidency in June without much real opposition.
But RFE/RL Central Asia correspondent Bruce Pannier says the photo manipulation might be an attempt to present Toqaev as a fresh new face, despite his age.
"[Toqaev] will be 66 next month. You're replacing a [78-year-old man, Nazarbaev] with a 66-year-old man; it's not much of a change. So I think they're trying to give the idea that [Toqaev is] very youthful and dynamic and energetic, despite the fact that everyone knows that he's going on 66."
RFE/RL has found no such clear evidence that "Leader Of The Nation" and now ex-President Nazarbaev (left, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 28) was retouched during his reign over the Central Asian nation, but the most recent pictures released by Nazarbaev's office indicate some light photoshopping.
This photo of the April 28 meeting released by the Kazakh government's website appears to have been edited to remove age spots on Nazarbaev's face but shows no evidence of the wrinkle-smoothing retouching used in Toqaev's images.
RFE/RL requested comment from the Kazakh president's office but had not received a response by the time of publication.