Hailed as one of the world's greatest portrait photographers, Platon has captured the likings of world leaders, actors, musicians, and human rights victims. What does it take to capture the world’s most recognizable images? I spoke to Platon himself to find out.
Culture Is Inspiration
Platon thinks that creative people have to be like sponges. We are all drawn to different types of inspiration. He always thinks of inspiration as fuel in a gas tank. If you don’t absorb lots of good stuff over the years, then your gas tank is empty, and you can’t go anywhere. For Platon, inspiration comes from culture. Although Platon is known as a photographer, he doesn’t look at other photographs anymore. Most of his inspiration comes from architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier are his two absolute heroes. Le Corbusier has inspired Platon's color and form. Sculptors like Rodin further inspired Platon’s work. Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker has great similarities with Platon’s work. The hands are prominent, as are the legs. The wide angle distortion that he uses sometimes adds further similarity to Rodin’s sculptures. The monumentalism in Platon’s work is a direct page from Rodin's book. Other sculptors such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth have also inspired Platon. Although Moore and Hepworth are more abstract, there is still a degree of monumentalism in their work. Applied to people, Platon seeks monumentalism in his subjects. It is common to see people as mountains in Platon’s work.
Van Gogh is another source of inspiration for Platon. There is a lust for texture color and form. When Van Gogh draws someone’s hand, you really understand the form of it. There are contrast levels that describe form. His black and white pen and ink drawings are prime examples of that.
Picasso has also heavily influenced Platon’s portraits. Although Picasso’s portraits are very abstract, you still get their power, their spirit coming through.
When I’m photographing someone, it’s not about aesthetics. Far from it. What is important is to capture their spirit, their soul.
The Beatles also inspired Platon, so much so he named his son Jude after “Hey Jude.” What really is amazing about The Beatles is how they would always change and push themselves to enjoy something different that’s new. We all get trapped in our own fear of change. Sometimes, you have to destroy what you created in the first place to move forward. Miles Davis is inspiring to Platon, particularly, the way he always pushed for change in his work. He was not afraid to destroy and move forward with his work.
Frank Sinatra had the capacity to tell a story in two minutes. Frank Sinatra’s Capitol songs do that best. You really feel how Sinatra tells an epic film in just a short song. In terms of photography, Platon has to tell stories with his work, especially when he is dealing with human rights issues. It’s far from a pretty picture, and sometimes, it’s not pretty at all. It’s a powerful story about humanity: abuse of power, someone rising above adversity. Those are powerful stories. They are stories of the human condition.
The way Sinatra takes a song you listen to for entertainment and transforms it into a story about life struggle, heartache, being lonely, or feeling the joy of life. Can you take that out of the song and put it in a photograph?
Culture comes from everywhere. If you’re a really good photographer, you have to be like an investigator. Books, films, exhibitions, music, everything, it’s all good for inspiration.
In conversation with Platon, he hasn’t described a single photographer that he looks at. He believes that if you only look at photography, you are looking at 1% of everything that is out there. By looking someplace else, you in fact become more original in your work. Don’t just look at other photographers, because then you’re just copying. Be more authentic with your work by having multiple influences.
At the end of the day, Platon says that photography should be close to your heart. The closer it is, the more powerful it is.
A Great Portrait Is Not About Aesthetics, It’s About the Story It Tells and Change It Brings
A portrait always tells a story. There is a story going on when you’re photographing someone. A lot of photographers get freaked out by the nerdy side of photography. They forget that their job is to capture history in front of their camera. There’s something going on, and your job is to document it, freeze time.
When we look back at 20th-century history, we often look at photographs. It was photographs that helped end the Vietnam war. The educated people on how horrendous the war was. It was only thanks to brave war photographers that the world saw how awful it actually was, it helped educate the world on the horrors of war.
Photography can be important if you believe is it important. Platon says to himself every time he picks up a camera: this will be an important moment. If he feels invested at that moment, chances are his subject will also feel invested and feel his passion and commitment. They will work together to create something that means a lot to both of them. If it means something to them, chances are it will mean something to the audience who sees the image too. Platon says that when you approach photography in this way, it gets very interesting.
Photography helps cure society’s amnesia.
People know that I photographed important people, famous people. It is relatively easy to take an important picture of someone who is important. What is interesting is when he turns his lens to someone who was robbed of power, who nobody knows, who was neglected and abused. Can you make an important picture of that person?
If you really care and believe that photography is a transformative tool, then that picture of a human rights victim can become more important than any picture of a famous person. It dealing with an issue or a story of our time. For Platon, photography is interesting when it is being used to drive change.
Your Job Is Not to Judge, Your Job Is to Be Curious
There is no method to dealing with anyone. If you want to be authentic with someone you have to be curious and less judgmental, even if it is someone you disagree with, even if they’ve done things that you know are wrong in history. There is no point in taking a picture of them if you’re not curious.
Everyone is jumping to judgments about each other, especially on social media. We stopped asking questions about each other. As a photographer, my job is to put aside my judgment and capture them. It is not my job to make someone look good or bad. I’m not in a position to judge. My job is to describe what it is to meet that person. It is their legacy that will judge, its history that will judge.
Platon photographed Harvey Weinstein. That picture used to represent bad-boy Hollywood swagger. As time went on and we discovered his abuses of power, the meaning of that picture changed. The picture is the same: it’s him, he looks like a gangster in it. What changed is what we know about him as a human being. If a picture is good, we can read all of those things in him at the same time.Platon’s image of Putin is no different. He was told that Putin likes that picture because it shows him as a strong leader who wants Russia at the table of global power. Putin supporters like that picture too. Yet, his opponents, such as Platon's colleagues in the human rights moments, also find that picture interesting. To them, it shows everything that is wrong with power and authority in Russia. That picture has become the banner for demonstrations across Russia. People would adopt that picture: the LGBTQ+ community would put a rainbow on that image. There are hundreds of versions of that picture — so many that the picture is apparently banned in demonstrations. What makes that image for both sides is that it is him.
When you’re photographing someone, you have to be very curious and capture them on film. It is not my position to say that this is a good person or a bad person. History does that for us.
Finding Magical Human Moments in the Most Inhumane Situations
What is that magical moment? You can describe it. Everyone knows what it is. It's not a photography thing. When you're with someone that you care for deeply. Have you experienced a moment when something magical happens? Perhaps they'll touch you with their little finger across the table. When you smell someone’s perfume that you have a feeling for, that does something to your humanity. It's your senses connecting to your heart. It's very powerful stuff. It's what we live for. Platon's job is to find these moments of human connection. His senses are so open that he is able to pick up the slightest hint of such a moment. Every person knows what those human moments of connection are. If a picture Platon took resonates with you, it is simply because you recognize the connection that he found.
It might be a moment of chill, his image of Al-Qadhdhāfī taps into his defiance and monstrosity. He was a monster of his time, and he tapped into that menace. When you look at it, you can’t feel anything but a disturbance of human values. A corruption of human values.
However, the image of Remy Essam is different. He was the singer of the revolution who sang positive, unifying songs every day. Remy came to Platon after he was tortured by the failing government who felt threatened by him. He was tasered by them until his back caught fire. When Platon saw the marks, he burst into tears. He said" “the marks on your back are horrible, I’m sorry about them. People should never be hurt in this way.” Remy responded by saying that he wears these marks with pride, he wears them as evidence that he stood for change. Platon photographed Remy in an unusual way. Remy stands showing his marks while also holding his guitar, not as an instrument but as a weapon. That picture became like a poster in the revolution. Everyone understood the price of change.
Applied to today, how prepared are we to make sacrifices to bring change? Speaking of the environment, there are people lecturing each other on climate change. Do we know where the conflict minerals in our phones come from? We are not asking these questions on a mainstream scale, yet we are all accusing and canceling each other because of a decade-old social media post. Meanwhile, there are horrific abuses going on right now. People talk about slavery and BLM. Platon has been to places where slavery exists; he saw it first-hand. His job is not to lecture people on what’s wrong or bad, his job is to raise awareness.