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An Interview with Platon, Master of The Portrait of Power

In his latest book, Power: Portraits of World Leaders (Chronicle Books), New York-based British photographer Platon gets up close and personal with more than 100 famous and infamous past and present heads of state. The resulting portraits are respectful, insightful and presented without judgment. He leaves that to the viewer and to history.

Rather than run from one country capital to another to create this hallmark project, most of the world leaders came to him…in a sense. Over a 12-month period, statesmen and stateswomen sat and stood for Platon in a makeshift studio he assembled at the United Nations. Platon says that one of the most difficult things for him was not to be intimidated by the power behind his sitters—not easy when you have a president or prime minister a few feet from you.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon - platon photography
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Born in London in 1968, Platon was raised in the Greek islands by his English mother, an art historian, and Greek father, an architect. In the mid-’70s, the family returned to London. After receiving his bachelor’s degree with honors in graphic design from Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, he earned a master’s in photography and fine art at the Royal College of Art. This depth in the arts comes through in Platon’s work. He’s of the school that good taste comes from a studied awareness of the arts, past and present—music, sculpture, theater and any of the fine arts.

Platon left London in 1998 after spending several years working for the late John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s cutting-edge magazine, George. Since then, Platon has shot portrait and documentary work for publications including Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, TIME and The New Yorker. His advertising credits include Credit Suisse, Exxon Mobil, Diesel, The Wall Street Journal, Nike, Levi’s, Rolex, Ray-Ban, Tanqueray and Issey Miyake. In 2004, Phaidon Press published the photographer’s early portraits in Platon’s Republic.

Like any great portraitist, Platon is able to quickly establish a connection with his subjects, which allows the viewer, through his pictures, to glimpse into the subject, whether a prince or a pauper. Windows to the soul have never been clearer.

DPP: Who came up with the idea for your book, Power?

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - platon photography
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Platon: It started off as a crazy notion that occurred to me at the beginning of what we now call “The Great Recession.” It became apparent that there are very few problems a country can solve in isolation anymore, that countries have to start working together in a new and unprecedented way—almost forming something like a global administration. Imagine if there were, who would be at the table of power?

We’re presented with our world leaders under a shroud of branding, marketing and propaganda. So I thought, under these strained times, we should see our leaders as human beings, up close and personal. And then we should take all these individual character studies and bring them together to show a group dynamic. What happens as a communal spirit when they’re all put together?

DPP: How did you transform this idea into a tangible body of work?

Platon: I contacted David Remnick, editor at The New Yorker, who loved the idea. I’m on contract for the magazine. Visual Editor Elisabeth Biondi advised me very cleverly that I couldn’t go around the world photographing every world leader because it would cost millions of dollars—but most of them did come to the United Nations. It became a perfect metaphor because of the idea of everyone coming together to try to fix the state that we’re in. The UN is the only forum in the world where world leaders meet on this scale. After 67 meetings with the UN, they granted me unprecedented historic access.
DPP: Who came up with the idea for your book, Power?

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

DPP: Were most of the shoots scheduled in advance?

Platon: The New Yorker wrote hundreds of letters to missions to try to get them on board. In the end, only two world leaders—from Mexico and Brazil—agreed in advance to be photographed. Everybody else said either no, maybe or didn’t respond. So it turned into an old-fashioned street hustle. I was on the ground at the UN mingling and persuading, and slowly the project gained traction. After a while, it became a private club that they all wanted to be a member of. I had world leaders questioning, “Why haven’t I been asked?” At one point there were four or five in a line waiting to be photographed. They were all chatting as if they were waiting for a bus.

DPP: Where did you set up?

Platon: It’s important to note that these were not all done at the UN. I already had photographed Obama, Putin, Hu Jintao and George W. Bush. I did a lot of the key ones in private sittings, but the bulk of them were done at the UN. We set up a tiny studio about 10 feet away from where each head of state addresses the General Assembly. When you watch the speeches on TV, they’re in front of a wall of green marble. I was behind that wall in what’s like a corridor before they step into the green room, where they prepare for their speech. They had to pass me twice, so I had two chances to get them.

DPP: What was your lighting setup in this relatively tight space?

Platon: Very simple. One Profoto strobe with a shoot-through umbrella and a standard paper backdrop. It’s all how you use it that counts. My whole ethic is very simple. At this level, there’s no time to mess around with lighting. Hugo Chávez gave me three seconds. I shoot Fuji and Kodak negative film in a Hasselblad film camera, which we scan using an Isomet drum scanner. It’s pretty straightforward, my stuff.
DPP: Who came up with the idea for your book, Power?

Platon Photography

DPP: So it’s all about capturing the decisive moment and connecting with the subject.

Platon: I lay myself completely bare, and the sitter then reacts to that, and that’s what I’m capturing. It’s very intense. I don’t use a tripod. I’m handholding my Hasselblad with a 120mm lens on it. I’m very close to their faces with this macro lens. With Putin, I was a couple of inches from his nose. Same with Ahmadinejad. It’s not a comfortable space. It’s the kind of space where amazing things happen. Nobody else approaches these heads of state with this body language. It creates an incredible energy.

DPP: It’s amazing that their handlers let you get so close.

Platon: All their advisers are watching what I’m doing, and everyone is asking themselves, “Should we be allowing this to happen?” Even the world leaders are looking at me, thinking, “Hold on a minute, I’ve never done this b
efore.” But that’s what creates the power in the image. That’s what breaks down the facade that they’ve created.

They’ve consciously built this aura around themselves as part of their authority, and I think because we’re all struggling in the world, we’re all very insecure right now. We need to look into their eyes to see what’s the character of the person behind the brand, behind the policies. People have been buying brands for too long without asking questions. It’s clear to me that it hasn’t worked. You’ve bought the car. You’ve bought the house. You’ve bought the flat-screen TV. Did it make you happy? You bought the message from the advertising company. You bought the message from the political campaign that there’s hope, that change is coming.

DPP: Who came up with the idea for your book, Power?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - platon photography
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.
DPP: Who came up with the idea for your book, Power?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - platon photography
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

DPP: Did you use a particular camera technique?

Platon: It’s important to not get obsessed with technique. You have to be the master of your photographic tools, not a slave to them. It’s the content and the story you’re trying to tell. Photographers can get blinded by the science and forget that the whole point of taking a picture is to tell a story. The greatest photos in history are often not the most technically proficient, but the ones that have something that moves us into action. That’s the power of photography.

DPP: Is it very quiet between you and the subject?

Platon: It varies because they vary. Sometimes, they’re very gregarious. Other times, you can hear a pin drop. Mugabe was chillingly quiet. But Jacob Zuma of South Africa was in fits of laughter. He was laughing at me because, by that point, I was delirious and acting like a crazy man. Everybody has their own vibe. A photographer should never mess with that. If you really are observant and allow them to be themselves, you just see this incredible circus of psychology right in front of your eyes.

DPP: What’s next for you?

Platon: Now I’m going into reverse gear. I’ve photographed the powerful, and now I’m going to photograph the powerless, the people that have been robbed of power. You’re witnessing a complete change in the Arab world right now, and it’s all based on human rights. We’re definitely witnessing a time of people power. With technology now allowing everybody to learn about what’s going on in the rest of the world, I think people are rising up, for bet
ter or for worse, and trying to make a stand.

DPP: The question is, if some of these people rise to powerful positions, will it end up in an Animal Farm scenario. In Orwell’s book, when the pigs got power, they became like the farmers they were protesting.

Platon: I think power does distort, for sure. The position of power changes the goalposts. You can’t get there without people’s help. That help is already manipulating your clean record. It’s not that people suddenly become corrupt, but to get to that pinnacle of success, you’re already tainted from day one when you walk in the room.

To see more of Platon’s photography, go to

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