Greek-Brit Platon has been a photographer for 25 years and counting. His images are likely a snapshot in your mind that you’ve seen through one media outlet or another – whether on television, web, or even a poster you may have passed on the street. He’s captured moments in time around the world with the likes of George Clooney, the late Heath Ledger, Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, Bill Clinton, Silvio Berlusconi, and Aung San Suu Kyi, just to name a small few.
From photographing the most world leaders than anyone else with his lens, to taking portraits of numerous celebrities, fashion icons, athletes, artists, and musicians for esteemed publications including TIME, Rolling Stone, New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and GQ, Platon is always looking for that moment, that “split second” where his sitter – or subject – gives themselves to him “completely.” And it’s not just about key public figures. It’s also about the poor, the revolutionaries, the people who stand up for themselves and society to improve their quality of life.
In 2009, he teamed up with the Human Rights Watch to help them celebrate those who fight for equality and justice in countries suppressed by political forces. The projects have highlighted human rights defenders from Burma, as well as leaders of the Egyptian revolution. In addition, Platon has become a keynote speaker, sharing his stories and experiences for various organizations as a means to communicate a message of humanity.
Born in London, and raised on the island of Paros until he was 7-years-old, Platon returned to the Mediterranean as a teen and began his “Greek project.” He started taking photos of some of the island’s hard-working residents, continuing the journey for the next 25 years. The collection was exhibited for the first time in Paris this past November.
In an exclusive interview with Greek Reporter, the award-winning photographer talked to us about his fascinating career and who he would like to photograph next.
In your 25 year-long career, what is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
That it’s not enough to be successful. We were told, until recently, that it’s all about success, fame, power, money, and it really isn’t. If you’re lucky enough to acquire any of those things, you then have to look at yourself in the mirror and say, “But what am I going to do with it?” It’s not enough to have it; it’s what you do with it that counts. I have committed myself to trying to make a difference by using my powers of communication and storytelling to make people think about life, and to make people think about who they are and what they can do to make things better too.
What has been your most interesting experience so far?
Wow, there have been so many. Working with Putin was overwhelming and I think that’s one of the moments where I graduated into the tough guy school of photography. That really stretched me, that taught me a lot of things about myself – that you have to stay cool, and negotiate, and keep pushing but when the moment comes, you have to let go of your mind and use your heart and just use your feelings and use your powers of observation. That’s a very hard switch to [go] from one thing to another. Negotiating with a Head of State can be very tricky.
So how do you do negotiate getting someone to be your sitter, or subject, and let them have you photograph them?
You do it with charm, with experience. You realize you have to be a good judge of character…who really is on your side to try and make a sitting happen. You have to try and figure out not “what’s right for me, but what’s right for the sitter.”
My aim is to try and get inside their mind and figure out what’s right for them, otherwise they won’t do it. It helps me negotiate my point to get them to do sittings. If there’s nothing in it for them, then they just won’t do it.
I have a little simple wooden box that everybody sits on, it levels everybody out. This wooden box I have, [Muammar] Gaddafi has sat on it, Putin has sat on it, revolutionaries around the world have sat on it….it’s probably had more powerful bottoms on it than anything else in history. One day it will be in a museum when I’m old and gray.
Who has been the most fascinating person to sit on that wooden box?
Well, Gaddafi was pretty extraordinary. I’ll never forget that moment. He picked the worst moment to sit for me. It was at the UN, it was the last time he was in America, and Obama was making his first speech as President of the United States so it was a historic moment. I was backstage waiting for Obama to sit for me once he finished his speech, so I was there, Hillary [Clinton] was there, [David] Axelrod was there, Rahm Emanuel was there, the sniffer dogs, the Secret Service, Obama’s medic team were there, even the guy with the briefcase with the codes inside. Everyone was there. Gaddafi had heard that I was at the United Nations and that I had full blessing to do a series of portraits of world leaders, and he chose that moment to sit for me; not when it was convenient, but when I was in the middle of the White House saga.
Gaddafi’s entourage clashed with the White House entourage, and he walked up to me surrounded by about 15 female bodyguards dressed head to foot in military clothing. He gestured with a defiant move, “I will sit for you Mr. Platon, but I will do it under the nose of the White House administration.” And that defiance permeated the picture.
I fully understand that no matter how high someone is, or powerful at the moment I witness them, I know that the cycle can downturn and this person covered in this beautiful regalia and be walking around with all these bodyguards, can end up crawling out of a concrete hole covered in blood and eventually be shot.
Is there someone or somewhere you haven’t photographed yet that you would like to?
Oh my goodness, there’s so many. I really am turning my lens to the powerless and I want to create a set of cultural heroes, and I do believe I can play a role. Whether it be a small role, doesn’t matter. I can do my bit to try and rebalance values in society. I believe the heroes of our time, particularly in America, are the poor. These are people who have no voice and they’re showing great courage to get through life.
These are the people I can put the spotlight on, and through my photography, perhaps some of them could have a voice.
I never got Assad, I really would love to get Assad. I think he’s one of the tyrants in history.
Why the decision to focus on world leaders?
It wasn’t just because I wanted to photograph as many powerful people as I could. It was really to try to humanize power. And in times of confusion and fear, to look into our leaders eyes and say, “We trust you with our affairs and our well-being,” and, “Who are you? Are you really legitimate?”
How does that play into what Greece is going through right now?
Greece is going through a terrible ordeal – economically, as well as almost an identity crisis. It goes much further than just economics. The Greek ideals are being questioned. The bizarre thing is, there was this massive movement to almost move away from Greek tradition. All the young people whose families came from villages, all gravitated towards Athens; they wanted a better life, they wanted better education, they wanted better opportunity, and that’s what we all want. What they were promised, wasn’t delivered. In many cases, young people are retreating back to their homes because their quest failed and they’re going back to tradition, and in many cases, back to a simple life that their grandparents lived because there’s no opportunity. Society failed them. That’s part of the reason why my Greek project is so relevant. On the surface, I was criticized by some people for just showing a romantic, old view of Greece. But that was my intention; this is the Greece I grew up with. A lot of the images are 25 years old. It’s true, that in many ways, the Greeks I photographed disappeared. It was a reminder to the world, but really to Greece to say, “Yes, but look at who you are, look at the real values. Don’t let globalization destroy this beautiful history and legacy you have.”
Who are the people you photographed in Greece?
All the people I photographed are not rich, they’re not famous, but there’s an earthiness to their spirit. I’ve photographed so many celebrities who have either had face surgery or once it’s in the magazine, their skin is retouched. So what we’re doing is completely eradicating real signs of living and we’re obsessively being young to the point where we’re denying ourselves the pleasure of getting old. On top of that, we’re actually denying ourselves, as a society, the value of going to the matriarch or patriarch of our family and saying, “I’m lost…and you’ve really lived. Can you advise me?” We’re not asking the elderly in society those questions, and they know the answers ’cause they’ve done it!
One time, I was terribly lost; my father had died. Despite having this big studio in New York, and having done okay with a career, none of it meant anything anymore. I went back to Greece that year in wintertime, not to take pictures on that trip, but to really look for the answer. I was walking along the beach one day, and I saw this old man and he was sitting on a rock. He had a handkerchief, which he had opened up – he had a piece of bread, a little plastic bottle with homemade wine in it, and he had some olives. And he ate one olive, then he ate a piece of bread to go with it, and then he raised his cup to the sea, made a gesture and then drank it. I went over to him and I said, “Excuse me, I’m from New York, where everyone says it’s the center of the world and it’s the best city in the world, and I’m a photographer. I thought I was doing okay, but my dad just died and it’s wiped out any sense of direction for me…and you’re an old guy, you must have lived, you’re sitting here toasting to the sea, you must know something that I don’t.”
He looked at me, and he said, “I know what the answer is young man. The answer is to master the art of living, and only then will you be free….you have to have a moment or two on a regular basis where you recognize how good it is to be alive.”
My Greek project is to say, “Stop. Just think for a moment what it is to be alive. Look at this old man’s boot. Look at this old lady’s hand. Look at the beautiful way this old lady ties her hair. And just sit and feel.” That’s what it’s about.
Do you have any plans to possibly move from still photography into making movies or documentaries?
Most photographers fancy themselves as frustrated filmmakers, or they love the idea of film. I mean, I’m interested in film only as a storyteller…I’ve started to interview people a lot because on-set, they say very personal, honest things to me, and it’s nice to have that captured on film. But quite honestly, the kind of people I’m going for, the moment is so rare and so precious that it takes all my energy to capture it as a still.
I’ve learned in my work that the rush creates the moment…It’s like asking a sprinter to run a marathon, they’d kill themselves. It’s the same thing with me; I’d become, in a way, a photographic sprinter.
Let’s talk a little bit about your shift from photography to being a keynote speaker. How did you get involved in that?
I signed up with the Washington Speakers Bureau last year, and it’s becoming a bigger part of my operation than ever before. I’m being asked to speak at places all around the world, talking about humanity, and storytelling about compassion, and what I feel is right and wrong, and using my journey as a photographer and the fascinating people I’ve met along the way to get points across as illustration through my work.
I find I’ve been very privileged; I’ve spent time with some of the most extraordinary people of our time. The pictures are one thing, but what’s really amazing is the connection between the sitter and myself; that’s what I live for. I keep very strict diaries of everything that went on, and I find myself recounting these stories and threading them together as a kind of theme of what is good leadership today, and what are our values, and what have we become, and what should we be, and what is fair or what is not fair.
I think it’s important to tell both sides of the story. In today’s society, if you watch the media, particularly in America, everything is so focused and marketed that if you’re watching a channel, it’s either to the left or to the right; there’s no cross section of storytelling. It’s all marketed for an audience driven by advertising and big corporations. So you never really get a straight story. It’s time for people to look at humanity, and I’m nothing more than one of the storytellers.
To see more of Platon’s Greek project, and to view some his other work, visit http://platonphoto.com