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Storyteller | Platon

‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’

Celebrated photographer Platon successfully crossed the Atlantic to conquer New York, where he’s developed a reputation for his striking portraits of the world’s most powerful and influential figures.

It’s not easy to photograph powerful politicians and heads of state.

obama Barack Obama by Platon

For a start there’s the question of access: how exactly do you arrange a sitting with someone who runs a country?

The more important someone is the bigger their entourage and the tighter their security and PR control, diminishing the chances of snatching a defining moment.

If you do manage to set up a shoot the danger is that you have to play by their rules and work within the very limited time you’re allowed.

All of which makes the achievement of Platon in producing an extraordinary set of pictures of some of the most important figures to ever strut the international stage – including some of the more notorious ones – all the more jaw dropping.

george-wGeorge W. Bush by Platon

Just how, for example, did he get Bill Clinton to drop his guard for a very revealing portrait – nicknamed by some ‘the crotch shot’ – and what exactly is the story behind that iconic, and slightly menacing, picture of Vladimir Putin?

The story of how Platon not only did all of this but also, in the process, crossed the Atlantic to conquer a city as hyper-competitive as New York is a fascinating one, and the way in which he’s confronted his challenges and turned his apparent disadvantages on their head should act as an inspiration to anyone that has ever been cowed by the thought of taking the next big step.

ClintonBill Clinton by Platon

Platon’s opportunity to go and work in the Big Apple came about when he was invited to work for the late John Kennedy Jr. and his political magazine, ‘George.’ He was already established as a successful portrait photographer at that time, having worked for British Vogue for several years, but even so it was a brave move for anyone to make, considering the very different living and working environment that would inevitably be encountered.

“Although the British and Americans share the same language I think culturally we are very different,” he says.

“The British are still entrenched in this idea of Victorian values, tact, diplomacy and keeping a calm surface. However, there’s also an inherent class system in England, and the taboo of moving up or down in that is still entrenched in our psyche. In America, however, there’s liberation from that; you’re as good as yesterday’s work, so that’s all you need to know. If you’re dedicated, committed and talented and can deliver then you’ll get another opportunity.

dreDr Dre by Platon

“This means that things move really, really fast here. When I first came to America I arrived with just a camera and a suitcase and a year later I was in the White House working with the Clinton administration. I just don’t think I could have done it that fast in the UK: it’s a whole different thing. Having said that, the British tend to see the details that perhaps we sometimes don’t notice in New York. Here it’s about doing stuff, achieving, winning and scoring. Working in London is much more subtle and complicated. I’m not sure one is better than the other, and maybe whether you thrive or not just depends on who you are.”

The Big Names:

The first famous person Platon ever photographed was soul singer James Brown, and he came away from the experience slightly deflated. It hadn’t been a private sitting, rather it was a press junket for an upcoming show he was doing in London, and there was the usual jostling for position and the feeling of having to accept whatever was being handed out.

m-obamaMichelle Obama by Platon

“I had this incredible guy in front of me and I knew he wasn’t mine. There was this gang of hungry predators with cameras surrounding him, and I was in totally the wrong environment to grab an intimate portrait. For me it was a crystallizing moment where I realised this wasn’t me: I didn’t want to fight from the crowd for a look in the eye, I want this guy on my own, in my environment where I can reach him, get to him, figure out who he is and connect with him.

“From that moment on my goal was to do things another way. For me the sitting, the intimacy, the connection, the privacy and the mutual respect is what is so inherent in my work and I can’t function any other way.”

snowdenEdward Snowden by Platon

Often given just a matter of a few minutes – or less – within which to capture his subjects Platon has to work fast, and to do this he has to mentally strip back the façade that his subject might have contrived, to find an essence of the real person, however famous and unapproachable they might initially appear to be.

In an age where even ordinary people, carefully constructing their selfies from the most flattering angle, are presenting a ‘brand’ image, it takes an insightful eye to cut through to achieve a more realistic interpretation that might actually reveal a little more.

pacinoAl Pacino by Platon

“I believe that more than ever we need a sense of authenticity and truth,” says Platon. “We need the opportunity to look into someone’s eyes and say ‘who are you really?’ What’s it really like to meet this person?  What do you feel like when you’re in the presence of Putin or Obama? What does that do to you?

“I feel it’s essential to tear down that façade, and it doesn’t matter if I have 30 seconds – as I did when I photographed Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela – or an hour. It’s not about time; it’s a question of power and a commitment to connect. However, this approach is intense and you can’t sustain it for long, it’s just too exhausting, for the sitter and me. So you have to do it fast and be prepared to tear down that wall.

nelsonWillie Nelson by Platon

“Above everything you have to be a human being, and not be seduced by an illusion of supremacy, because it doesn’t exist. I don’t believe that anyone reigns supreme over anyone else: we’re all just people we all have talents and, equally, we all have flaws. My job as a photographer is to humanise the system and destroy the illusion of supremacy.”

It also helps, of course, to have a good opening line and to be naturally confident around people, however big their reputation might be. When Platon was sent to Moscow by Time Magazine to photograph Putin, for example, he had to dedicate a week to the shoot so that he would be ready at a moment’s notice to grab his camera and set up the shot. It was five days before a black BMW pulled up outside his hotel to take him to his appointment, which was in Putin’s private dacha, located in the middle of a dark gothic forest outside Moscow.

“When I arrived there were snipers everywhere and three or four feet of snow,” he says. “It was like a scene from a cold war movie. They made me go through all my equipment in the snow before ushering me into the building, and made me wait in a room for eight and a half hours. Then they said: ‘You’ve got 15 minutes to set up your lights.’ I had 20 guys watching every move I made. I needed power at one point so I went to pull a plug out of the wall. Instantly the guards screamed at me and pointed to the wire I was about to unplug. It went into a red telephone with a button on it, which sat in a glass case on his desk.”

putinVladimir Putin by Platon

Platon dissolved the intimidating atmosphere with his first comment: “I’m a big Beatles fan: are you?” When Putin responded that he loved them the ice was broken, and it was then possible to have a conversation and, at one point, to arrange a Hasselblad just an inch from the Russian premier’s face for a gangsterish-style portrait. “At the end he asked if he could have his picture taken with me. So I asked one of his guards to hold my little snappy camera and I put my arm around him for the shot.”

The Perfect Tool:

Because he’s focused so intensely on watching out for the moment Platon has never been obsessed with his camera gear, preferring instead to work with something that he trusts implicitly to simply do its job. Currently his tools of choice are Hasselblad H5D-60s. He has used the brand for years: he knows it will do everything he asks of it and that gives him one less thing to worry about.

gaddafiMuammar Gaddafi by Platon

“The first time I really connected with photography was when I was at art college studying design and they gave me an old Hasselblad to experiment with in the studio,” he recalls. “From that moment on a door opened, and I’ve grown up with Hasselblad as a brand. I have no interest in experimenting with other medium format cameras: I don’t experiment for the sake of experimenting and prefer continuity. Quite simply, if it works I’ll stick with it, because my energy goes into the message, the picture, not trying out a million different cameras to see which ones feels right.

“The Hasselblad creates a moment of theatre; I’m not capturing a fly on the wall, I’m collaborating with my sitter to make a moment that will last forever in time. They are aware of it, I’m aware of it, the camera is in between us and it just feels more powerful and stately as a tool. I do use 35mm cameras on occasions if I’m working with available light, and they’re great for capturing things like a shaft of light from a window. I find 35mm more informal, and I really enjoy the bounce from one to the other, but the Hasselblad creates a weight, a stately quality that both my sitter and I feel.”

clooney George Clooney by Platon

Starting out, could Platon have ever envisaged coming quite so far as he has? His answer is disarmingly honest and speaks volumes about the confidence he has in himself, but it’s simply intended to be realistic rather than arrogant.

“I expected to be where I am now around 15 years earlier than it happened,” he confesses.

“Sometimes I wish things had moved faster because I have this terrible feeling of time running out. However I’m actually glad it didn’t because I’ve matured in that extra time and now know how to avoid the pitfalls of ego and my moral compass going haywire. I’m more effective now, more aware of the highs and lows of life and more appreciative of what I have. If I’d been here earlier I would have blown it.

adele Adele by Platon

“Zuckerberg has a poster in his office that says ‘what would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ That’s become a quiet mantra in the back of my mind: if I weren’t afraid, what would I be doing? It’s a great call to arms for everyone. Time to be courageous folks, time to reach out with the open hand of friendship. I happen to have a camera in my hand, and that camera happens to be a Hasselblad.”

Platon talks about working with his Hasselblad

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