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Here Is How Platon Captures the Most Significant Portraits in Modern History: Exclusive Fstoppers Interview With Platon

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. 

©Photography by Platon

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 helps cure society’s amnesia.  

©Photography by Platon

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. 

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. 

©Photography by Platon

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. 

©Photography by Platon

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. 

©Photography by Platon

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. 

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24 Comments

Tammie Lam's picture

I wouldn’t put a bloody dictator’s face in the preview section…

Fra Kresch's picture

Please... this is about photography, not about your political preferences.

Tammie Lam's picture

I'm sorry - I didn't mean to hurt *your* feelings ;)
Apparently for people like you it's ok to take portrait of Putin/Hitler/Kim Jung Un etc... if money right?

Lee Christiansen's picture

Yes it is ok.

A portrait does not mean we are condoning the actions of someone or that we favour that person. And with the angles that Platon uses, it usually isn't about flattering the subject either.

Instead these (or any other portrait), can be a study of what makes a person tick. A look at their eyes and seeing why they are who they are. A portrait offers a unique perspective of a person that books and news articles can't offer. "Eyes are the window to the soul" is never truer with close portraits, and with strong personalities, these subjects have a hard time hiding that soul.

What would you prefer? No pictures of anyone who is a dictator. Maybe that should extend to people who we don't think are good people. Or extend it to people we just don't like. (Heck, some people think Obama is evil... sheesh....)

And then when we get rid of those portraits, we should consider banning any future books or discussions about these people - and whilst we're at it, we should get rid of the existing ones too, lest we accidentally promote the dictators in history.

Next thing we know, we only have pictures and writings of fluffy bunnies and internet cats - because everyone loves a fluffy thing.

I tell my headshot clients: "No one cares what you look like." Because a good headshot is about telling the world about the whole person - but in my case, I'm always trying to portray them positively... like an advert.

But Platon isn't doing this. He isn't trying to "sell" the subject or make them look good. He simply aims to extract their inner-self and show us who that is.

It is a mistake to link these studies of people, to agreeing with their actions, politics or history. A portrait - a good portrait, is a study of more than what a person looks like. It is a study of them and all they are.

Kelly McKeon's picture

Lee, your statement copied here is difficult to agree with. You stated- "Eyes are the window to the soul" is never truer with close portraits, and with strong personalities, these subjects have a hard time hiding that soul.

Hard time hiding that soul? I have never adopted the notion that a portrait I have made, or any I have viewed, showed a persons soul. That’s a long reach, in my opinion.

Looking at the above portraits, even staring at them, does not afford me any context into who these people really are. Only when people are famous can I conjure some sort of, eyes are the window silliness, and only as a direct result of what has been written of them.

I’ve never viewed an image of an individual, without any written information supplied or visual clues in the image of their vocation, with the ability to distinguish their character.

Yes, when viewing an image where the subject appears irritated, exhausted or emotional can I form some sort of context, but that is far reaching as well since I have no facts.

If we could capture the souls of others, or their true character in photographs…well, we would be able to predict behavior, intent and perhaps spare us from some very bad people.

Oh, I get that people can appear crazy, mentally unstable and dangerous, but if look at photographs of people who have committed unspeakable crimes, there is no way to see that in their eyes.
It is only because mentally, I make the connection of bad, with the appearance of said person.

Photographers should not be selling the notion, eyes are windows to the soul, it simply does not add up. However, portraits can absolutely demonstrate some personality providing that person opens up and using the forty-three muscles in the face, show a bit of their true selves emotionally, but note, emotion is not character, it’s just emotion.

Platon is demonstrating and speaking of his approach and style. He has no magic ability to capture soul but he possess the ability in human interaction and thus, affords his subjects to open up for his camera resulting in interesting portraits.

I’m guessing my opinion may not be popular, but remember, I’m just vocalizing in a world of too many opinions and misunderstandings, mine included.

Lee Christiansen's picture

The problem with trying to take a well known phrase and take it literally, is that the point is often missed.

Let me use another word instead of "soul." Let me use the word "character." Or I could use "life-story" or I could use "experience."

There is something about photograph that tells us more about a person. It doesn't tell us everything - because people are complicated things. But study the face and yes the eyes, hard enough, and you'll get some insights as to what makes them tick.

We're creatives, so we speak in creative terms. Hence the word "soul."

Kelly McKeon's picture

I like these discussions Lee, and before I continue, let me state I have the upmost respect for you and your work. But I’m still not in agreement.

In your reply, you state that if we studied a persons face and eyes hard enough, we can gain some insights as to what makes them tick.

I don’t think we can obtain this insight for all the reasons I first stated. If we had that ability studying faces in photographs, our world would be much different. Preemptive for sure.

Again, no disrespect, but I will say, personality is about all one can summarize from any given photograph, and less if there are no further visual clues in the image such as environment. Even harder if there is no descriptive text or story accompanying the photograph.

Perhaps were both trying to define the same end result, just different ways of expressing it. I’m smart enough to grasp the literal context, but I simply cannot agree that we can gain any insight of another by looking hard enough into their eyes.

I’ll end by saying I’m not trying to spar with you, I’m just a photographer with another opinion and an appreciation for others opinions as well. Thanks for the discussion.

Lee Christiansen's picture

The beauty with art is that there are often different interpretations. An image is a difficult thing to define. Perhaps if we can define it simply, it has failed.

Gosh... that does sound arty... Ha

Eric Robinson's picture

Your missing the point.

Eric Robinson's picture

too right.

Usman Dawood's picture

The story behind that portrait might change your mind because it perfectly fits the concept behind this article.

John Haniotakis's picture

Putin always looks the same anyway. But it's not the highly visible and known dictators you have to worry about, but the other kind.

Fristen Lasten's picture

Who?

Rob Pul's picture

Good article and amazing photographer. It's what great photography is about, go beyond the actual subject and provoke emotions.

Erpillar Bendy's picture

Platon is a great photographer and I always appreciate his wisdom. I just wish the article was the actual interview, with questions and answers, rather than a conversation summary, especially when the title promises an exclusive interview.

Jim Bolen's picture

Well, the images shown are very easy portraits to do. Really, no posing, one umbrella. Pretty simple.

Eric Robinson's picture

You really think that? Give it a try some time. By the way it has little to do with the one light and everything do do with the mindset of the photographer. Like many people you focus far too much on the hardware involved rather than what is going on in the mind of the photographer. The reason why people, like you do that, is its an easy comment to make rather than taking the time to consider the whole photographic process, where the one light is a relatively small part.

George Pahountis's picture

''Simple'' is not always easy to do. Try to pull those off when you *actually have those people in front of you.
Most people would not be able to do them as they would be overwhelmed by who they have in front of them. My take as a professional photographer is that it takes balls of steel to pull those of.

Lee Christiansen's picture

First I will say that I love Platon's work. I have his website bookmarked for the occasional reference. And there is something about the densities in his B/W images that I can't quite put my finger on. (Wish I could).

His work is undoubtably quality throughout, but sometimes I am torn when deciding just how good someone is.

He is blessed with confident characters in front of his lens and we tend to appreciate portraits of well known people more than if they were of Bob down the road. I'd love to see what he'd make of some of my clients - who don't know their left hand from their right elbow, and some of whom have left their personality at home... :)

No doubt much of his skill is not letting a famous face dominate his control. That comes with experience.

I remember once, when filming Katie Melua for a TV interview, her manager asked how I'd made her look so beautiful? "To be honest" I replied, "She just sat down in front of my camera and there we had it..." Sometimes we're gifted with amazing subjects that ooze character or beauty.

I do love the crazy wide angle style of Platon. It isn't anything new and he does tread a few favourite poses quite often, but he does it very well. Not so sure about the shot he did for Stephen Hawking - it doesn't work for me. I think my favourite is the one he did with Michael Douglas where his jacket was over the chair and shoulders.

When he has these sort of subjects, it isn't hard to capture their spirit. I think it might be harder to hide their spirit... ha.

But plonk me in front of Putin, and I'm not sure if I'd remember where the shutter button was. :)

Erpillar Bendy's picture

Platon has made equally great portraits of ordinary, non-famous people in a Greek village.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Those are pictures I'd like to see. But without lessening his work, we've all seen amazing images of people full of character taken by unknown photographers, and those pictures are often spectacular too.

I say this, (and as a Platon fan), because I sometimes feel when photographers are held up as "one of the world's greatest," we forget that it is often their subject matter which we're attracted to more than anything.

Platon's work is great. BUT... if none of his subjects were ever famous, we might be commenting on the over-use of blue vignettes or the repeated poses, or even the distortion. Because we see these critiques all the time, when confronted with reviews of non-famous photographers.

I guess it is because I tend recoil from "worlds greatest" type phrases. I prefer to think that some of us are good, some of us are better, and some of us are lucky enough to be good with great subjects. (And Platon is certainly very good). I feel the same way about A. Leibowitz.

Now... I just need some of my portrait subjects to get more famous... ha.

John Haniotakis's picture

Unique signature work for sure, highly artistic.

Momchil Yordanov's picture

Putin looks much different than this nowadays. Fuller cheeks and the unmistakable botox-related limitation in facial expressions.

J.d. Davis's picture

At first glance ~ a bit quirky especially using the one light, BUT, after a while the distortion is bothersome. Nothing presidential about HUGE HANDS and seriously, without at least captions many would not know who these people are. Rather than trying to emulate a sculptor ( whose work is in perfect proportions when viewed at eye height) - he should seriously consider using a different lens!