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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Platon: Master Of The Portrait Of Power

Artistic, charming and apolitical, Platon has captured intense and revealing photographs of world leaders. The photographer refrains from passing judgment on these subjects—he invites the viewer to do it.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
DPP: So do you get a truer sense of who that person is through a careful study of their portrait?

Platon: You can't get the whole truth in a picture, and anyone who says they captured their soul is bullshitting. But I think you can get a true moment. In Putin, you see that steely committed sense of power. With Qaddafi, you get a sense of complete defiance. This guy is going to go out fighting. That defiance permeates the picture. Obama's face is about the rise to power because I photographed him during the election campaign. So what you see in his eyes is a man who's plotting out a very complicated path to the White House. He's a very thinking, cautious man.

DPP: Did you have any difficulties with any of the world leaders?

Platon: The worst was with Nicolas Sarkozy who point-blank refused to sit for me. He was very aggressive. He wouldn't shake my hand; he wouldn't sit in the chair. He was yelling at the top of his voice at me and at the whole setup, "Qu'est-ce que c'est? Je deteste la photo!" He walked off in the worst mood you could imagine. When you piss off a world leader of that caliber, it's pretty intimidating. I have to keep in mind that these people aren't celebrities. They have really big problems on their shoulders. He's the only one who refused to sit. There were a few others I couldn't get because of scheduling, but generally, everyone we approached realized that this was a historic study of the current global power system.

DPP: Although you're working on a much bigger scale, your project is reminiscent of some of the studies that Yousuf Karsh did, such as his portrait of Winston Churchill.

Platon: I love that picture. Karsh pulled the cigar out of Churchill's mouth, which gave him that grumpy look. It wasn't a gimmick when he did it; Karsh just preferred the shot without the cigar, and it irritated Churchill. But it's never as simple as that. You're in the moment with these people. There's no plan. There are no tricks. You're just scrambling to find a human connection. When I photographed Ahmadinejad, he ended up performing in front of about 200 people. There were all his admirers backstage, and I was entrenched with his entourage in this relatively small space. For a second, he lost his composure and got embarrassed, and it created the most sinister leer. People have criticized me for showing warmth in his eyes. The reality is, a lot of world leaders with terrible human rights records have a dangerous capacity to show warmth, to inspire people, to motivate people, to be very charming. They're not two-dimensional cartoons of dictatorial monstrous figures banging their fists or banging their shoe on a table. It's important to face the problems of the world as they are and not stand back from a safe distance and call each other names, the way the Democrats and Republicans are doing to each other, instead of getting together and solving problems.

DPP: That's a very politic way of looking at things. There's a shot that Arnold Newman did years ago of the German industrialist Krupp who used slave labor during World War II. Newman lit him from underneath to make him appear ghoulish.

Platon: Personally, I disagree with that method. I've photographed some great people. I spent the day in Burma with Aung San Suu Kyi, but I've also photographed some menaces, from Robert Mugabe to Muammar Qaddafi, so I've been in very close contact with a whole cross-section of morality. But I do believe that all you should do is be honest and be human, and their record is to be judged. I think it's very dangerous as a photographer to play "gotcha" journalism and catch somebody like they did on the cover of Newsweek with Michele Bachmann. Even though I don't agree with her politically, I felt it was a cheap shot. It's a gimmick.

These people are so fascinating with crazy track records, there's enough there to look at. What you don't know is what they're really like as a person. If the photographer is going to cover that up with their own political point of view, then they're missing an opportunity to reveal something. When you're dealing with a portrait, I think you have to allow their personality to fill the space. If it's filled with charm, and they've done terrible things to fellow human beings, to me, that's the most menacing combination you can have. It's almost too easy to assume that someone who has abused people in any way is going to be just mean and incapable of feeling any human warmth. If they're capable of showing and feeling a sense of humanity, and they still are doing these terrible things to mankind, then I think that makes them even worse.


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