In a lecture at the Tulsa Town Hall series, photographer Platon discussed his career of capturing people in power.
Tulsa Town Hall hosted a lecture by British photographer and human rights activist Platon on Friday, March 8. Platon has worked with some of the most influential political figures, actors and musicians in the world. His work has been featured in publications like Rolling Stone, Esquire and Time, where his portrait of Vladimir Putin for “Person of the Year” won first prize in the World Press Photo Contest. Platon started his chronicling of experiences by telling the audience “I’m going to take you on a journey of power as I have been privileged to see it.”
Platon got his big break photographing Bill Clinton for the cover of Esquire. “This was my first ever president, and some people say it should have been my last.” He recalled being told he was the fourth choice to shoot the president at the time, but all of the more qualified photographers were out of town. Platon was given eight minutes to complete the portrait and told to avoid shooting in his characteristic style, from below and with a wide lens. However, in the last 30 seconds of the shoot, “to the horror of [his] assistants, [he] put on the wide lens.” He slipped the single photo he took in this style with the rest of the more traditional portraits, and it ended up making the cover.
Platon described first hearing which photo was chosen when it appeared a CNN news report where Larry King and Bob Woodward called the “sexualization” of the president “disgusting.” He recalled looking over at his wife in horror as she told him, “There goes your Green Card application.”
Later, Platon photographed Barack Obama for his first Time cover right after Obama announced his candidacy for president. After winning the 2008 election, Obama invited Platon to the White House to photograph Michelle as well. This portrait now hangs in the Smithsonian. The photo, Platon felt, was not about politics, but rather represented a significant cultural moment in history as Michelle Obama was the first African-American first lady. He recalls embarrassing himself in front of her when they met, to which she reassured him, “when all is said and done, I’m just Michelle.”
Although Platon has also photographed several notable American politicians, including Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, George W. and George H.W. Bush, it was his portrait of Vladimir Putin that won him the World Press Photo Contest. For this shoot, Platon had expected to visit the Kremlin, but was instead brought to Putin’s private estate where he was led in at gunpoint.
When he met the Russian president, he asked him, to the confusion of the servicemen present, whether he liked the Beatles. Putin admitted he “love[d] the Beatles” and that his favorite song of theirs was “Yesterday.” Through this humorous question, Platon was able to connect to the Russian president and create a shockingly intimate image of “the cold face of power in Russia.”
With the connections Platon made at the Kremlin, he was able to pursue a project to photograph Edward Snowden. After being invited to meet Snowden, Platon had to reach out to these contacts to get a Visa to enter the country. When he met Snowden, he asked him a question that had been burning in the minds of many Americans at the time: “Are you a patriot or a traitor?”
Snowden responded, telling Platon to not get too bogged down with labels. Posing with an American flag that Platon took to many of his shoots for good luck, Snowden explained that he felt a moral duty to exercise his own and others’ rights to debate about the state of the American government.
Platon made a name for himself by photographing political leaders, even achieving a monumental photo project by making 49 portraits of world leaders during the United Nations General Assembly. He has also worked with several notable pop culture icons such as Adele, Muhammad Ali and David Beckham. He photographed Ali shortly before his death, capturing a moment where he punched at the camera defiantly in spite of his suffering from Parkinson’s.
Recently, Platon has moved to photographing people outside of these positions of power and prestige. “I am now dedicated to amplifying their voices,” he told Nancy Bizjack in an interview for the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.
As part of this mission, Platon has photographed victims of sexual assault in the Democratic Republic of Congo and worked with recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace prize, Dr. Denis Mukwege, a doctor who treats these women. Platon described to the audience that rape was used in the Congo as a weapon of control by militia gangs. These gangs often fought for control over the semi-precious stones that are exported and used to create smartphones. Platon aims to use photography as a means to establish empathy for the victims of this system, reminding to the audience, “We are all stakeholders in this story.”
Using an intimate portrait style, Platon aims to establish personal connections between his subjects and the viewer. By engaging with powerful leaders like Putin or Obama, Platon encourages viewers to reconsider the role of politics in justice and the place of the individual in systems that suppress justice.