Platon on Photographing Gaddafi, Tahrir Square Stories and Our Need for New Cultural Heroes
You’d be right in thinking that a man who has taken portraits of some of the world’s most well known faces – including Barack Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Muammar Gaddafi, Vladimir Putin, Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone and Vivienne Westwood – would have a story or two up his sleeve. Platon recently took time out of his busy schedule to share with us his experiences photographing Gaddafi, the stories behind his portraits of protestors in Tahrir square, plus some wonderful advice on finding success in the world of photography and beyond.
Tell us about the dynamic between yourself and the sitter. How do you form a connection or quick bond with your sitter that results in intimate portraits?
Well there’s no formula with people, and that’s the difficult bit. Everybody is completely different and if you want to rely on gimmicks and tricks on the surface, it’s a lot easier. For me, there are no gimmicks and there are no tricks. You go in raw and naked. You go in very humble and you hope the person responds in an honest way.
Do you see these images as insights into a character? I’m thinking particularly of the portraits of Berlusconi and Putin, with their subtle, cheeky smirks.
I don’t think a picture ever shows a complete truth, I think it shows a true moment. I always try to show what it was really like to meet this person, but I often only have very little time with them, so it becomes a hyperreal situation where every second becomes a lifetime. Every tiny movement or gesture becomes a history of intricacies. You just have to be very observant. If there was an analogy in sports I would be the sprinter, rather than the long distance runner.
Most of my shoots are done in ten, fifteen minutes so you have to go into this weird, super alert state, where you’re aware of every tiny little detail. A raising of an eyebrow from Putin is a rather terrifying moment when you’re an inch and a half away from his nose. There are so many moments – a wry sort of smile from Berlusconi totally gives away that he adores the media and he’s flirting with it.
The stakes are high. You go in trying 100% but you can’t guarantee the circumstances are perfectly adequate for me to get something very soulful. Sometimes I’ve had situations where a politician or head of state has come out of a terrible meeting and they’re in a foul mood, and that either cancels the shoot completely or it infiltrates the mood of the shoot.
The highs and lows are all interesting. If they are difficult with me that’s revealing too. If they give me nothing they’re actually giving me everything because I’m still coming away with their resistance. That’s the kind of mind set I go into. I don’t think of myself as a photographer anymore – it’s a technical tool I use. Really, I’m trying to cure societies amnesia. By documenting people’s existence, trying to capture their spirit and personality, I want to help society remind itself who was either in power, or who was robbed of power. Much of my work is also dealing with the people who have been oppressed. So it’s a balance.
I’m one of the only bridges between the powerful and the powerless. You very rarely get people who hang out with world leaders hanging out in Tahrir square in the middle of Cairo during a million man revolution. It’s a very odd pendulum that I swing and I find it very interesting. I think you need both to get a full sense of what’s going on in the times that we live in.
The UN project has resulted in a unique collection of images of our world’s decision makers. Tell us about the most memorable sitters from the UN, and especially about your experience photographing Gaddafi.
Gaddafi picked the worst moment in history to sit for me. Obama was actually making his first address as President of the United States to the General Assembly, so it was a historic moment, and I was a few feet away from Obama backstage. While he was talking, I was surrounded by the White House entourage and backstage you had sniffer dogs, the armed guards, the White House Secret Service, his medical team, Hilary Clinton was there, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, all his chief advisors, and suddenly, down the corridor we saw a giant crowd swell of about 200 people.
The White House people started freaking out because you’re not supposed to have a crowded area so close to the President. On top of that it was actually the Libyan entourage and in the middle of this crowd swell was Gaddafi, marching in slow motion defiance – like a madman, and he was surrounded by all his female bodyguards dressed head to foot in military clothing. It was like a scene from Star Wars. Gaddafi marched right up to me and the secret service were just, you know, having heart attacks. It was a clash of two entourages and in the history of the United Nations this has never happened because they make a protocol decision to make sure everyone is kept apart. So it was my fault, because I was there taking pictures – so Gaddafi agreed to have his picture taken under the nose of the White House administration. And that sense of defiance permeated the picture.
A colleague of mine Tim Hetherington, the war photojournalist and film-maker, a friend of mine as well, was killed in Libya covering Gaddafi’s madness. I remember the day I heard of Tim’s death. I happened to be printing colour tests of Gaddafi’s face on my printer in my studio with my team and it was the most bizarre, chilling reminder – that a friend of mine had been blown up and killed while I shared these intimate moments with the very man that caused the whole revolution. It’s another reminder that I’m very privileged to have met the people I’ve met, but it’s also a huge responsibility I carry sometimes. I have to try and keep it honest. The people I photograph are often in some cases champions of human rights, and in other cases they have the worst human rights record on the planet.
I used to go into this lightly. I used to go into this thinking power is amazing and it’s such a coup to meet these people, but obviously as I get older and better informed, every meeting now is loaded with information about humanity. And I’ve learnt the only thing you can do is be honest, and as truthful as you can. Their character and their record of success or failure for mankind will speak for itself.
You worked in Egypt during the Arab Spring/Libyan revolution. Tell us about your portraits of civilians and children. What was the energy like in Egypt at that time?
I think Egypt was one of the most fundamental experiences of my life. I was very privileged to be in the middle of the revolution. I set up a studio one day in the middle of Tahrir square and I invited the revolution to come and sit for me. There were a million people there that day. We brought battery packs, so I was using a strobe light and we put a background up just like I would in New York, in a photo studio. The energy it created was just incredible. It was terrifying, because obviously I’m not a photojournalist – traditionally anyway – so I didn’t know what the authorities would make of me. I didn’t think they’d take kindly to seeing my big set up. We were prepared to be arrested, detained or compromised, but the people surrounded us so much that I think that they wanted us there.
I remember one elderly man came up to me and he looked at me with such intensity, I thought he was going to hit me. He actually kissed me on the forehead – as if to say thank you for telling our story, we need you here. And after a while I became very much part of the revolution. I made incredible friends and I felt totally committed to helping them tell their story.
We’ve all seen pictures and pictures on the news of crowds in the Arab Spring – in Syria, Tunisia, wherever – rebelling. There’s lots of statistics about how many people were killed, how many people were in this town, it’s all numbers but no one ever talks about why they rose up and what made them revolt. If you look at what’s going on in the Arab Spring alone, and if you look at what’s driving it, it’s this desire for people to be equal. But no one is saying ‘people were systemically tortured, no one was allowed to meet on the streets as a gathering, religious groups were kept apart, Coptic Christians and Muslims were encouraged to hate each other’ – it was another world. I learnt so much and the people taught me so much.
Another day I set up a studio in a hotel nearby, walking distance from the square, and that’s where I invited a lot more sensitive and intimate stories to be told. And that’s when we were able to photograph a guy who was a folk musician and was playing on the square, like a young Dylan. He played a lot of folk songs to entertain people in the square during the revolution.
The authorities wanted to make an example of him so they grabbed him, they ripped the shirt off his back and they tasered him and gave him electric shocks on his back. Their policy is that they do this until you scream and then they stop.
He refused to scream, and in the end his skin caught fire. He’s still alive, and I photographed him with his shirt off and he presented me his back holding his guitar and I took a very defiant picture. Not a victim, but a victor.
I remember saying to him, ’I’m so sorry, what happened to your skin, these marks are just awful, these scars,‘ everyone in the room was in tears, it was a very poignant moving moment. He said, ’Don’t feel sorry for me. I wear these scars with pride. These marks are evidence of me changing my country for the better. I hope they never fade – it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.‘ He said, ’The more they electrocuted me, the stronger I got.’ So that’s the man I photographed, and we sent that picture around the world.
I think it’s very important to present the world with a new set of cultural heroes. I think we’ve been celebrating the celebrated and powerful for too long. I have been part of that process I have to admit. I have helped promote this idea there are these super beautiful, super human specimens – that we are all less than and they are more than. I’ve realised through meeting these incredible people that we have to change, we have to now start giving society something more uplifting to live for.
Our heroes should not just be the David Beckhams and the Obamas, the Al Pacinos and the movie stars. Our heroes should also be people who have shown great courage, like Aung San Suu Kyi, and the man from the revolution with the scars on his back. And that’s what I’m trying to do.
I’m in a very unusual position where I know the media, I know what makes a cover of a magazine and I know how to build an ad campaign cause I’ve done it for almost every product under the sun. So I have skills that perhaps many photojournalists don’t have. They certainly have skills that I don’t have, but I bring something different to the table. It’s the same content, but I present it in a different way.
At the recent Semi-Permanent conference in Melbourne, you mentioned the ‘power of humanity’ as your main focus or ambition in photography. What did you mean by this?
Well I don’t think it can change the world. I’m only a photographer, I’m not anything really special, I’m certainly not an intellectual. There are always many more smart people in the room than me. I do believe in the idea of the human condition and I believe we’re all the same at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter if you’re a millionaire or a world leader or an everyday person on the street like myself, we’re all human beings, we all have the same rights…I believe if I can tap into the human psyche, I can connect with people, and I can communicate a feeling that a million words cannot. Also it translates instantly into any language because it’s just a face.
I believe what can change a national dialogue, or national conscience, can be a picture; photography certainly helped end the Vietnam war in America. Since then, many countries at war have tried to manipulate the media for that reason, and we know how effective that is.
I believe a portrait of intimacy can be devastatingly powerful, and it’s often the everyday people that lose a nation, not the world leaders, who we are so used to seeing now. But when you see a picture of just someone and it resonates with you, it can change how you feel.
And I’ve proved it many times over in my bumpy career. I believe in hope. What can I say? I’m an old fashioned optimist. I know it’s not supposed to be easy and I am prepared to take the blows. There will be many and there have been many. But it’s something that I was born to do.
When you were a student who did you look up to? Who were your heroes (in the world of photography or beyond) and how did they motivate you?
Well, I never really wanted to be a photographer. My father was an architect so all my heroes were of design and architecture. One of my all time heroes was Frank Lloyd Wright. He was 75 when he started doing his greatest work and died in his early 90s, so I always find that very inspiring. My father used to say to me, ‘never think like a pop star – think like an architect’. A pop star has their moment because they’re young, they’re accidentally part of something and have talent to go with it. An architect has a talent, refines it and gets better with development and age.
That sense of building has helped me. There’s no way I could be doing what I’m doing now when I was younger. I didn’t have the the emotional capacity, or even the understanding of politics or how the world works. I’m only in this position now because of building blocks. And I get that inspiration from the idea of the architect, because that’s how an architect thinks.
If you had to give one piece of advice to emerging artists, what would it be?
People always ask me ’What’s the answer? How did you do it?’ It’s the big answer that everyone is looking to be given. The reality is that you are the answer. You can’t be someone else. You’ll always be a second rate version of the person you admire. So you have to be yourself and if you are really honest you become original. I find myself now taking a ’Platon’ picture because I’ve come to terms with who I am. What I want, what I feel, what I strive for – it’s purely me and I’m not trying to be anybody else.
That’s what I tell young people now. I say to them, ‘You have the answer. It’s inside you. You have to listen to your heart, listen to your mind, mix them both up and that’s the beginning of the journey’. If I did it, anybody can do it. It is difficult but it’s supposed to be difficult. People don’t make a difference easily! Especially with something where you’re in uncharted territory. You have to create your own formulas – in business, in design, in creativity – to make it effective. I always try and empower people with this sense that they can do it.
A huge thanks to Platon for taking the time to share his experiences, insights and advice with Redbubble. If you’d like to check out more of Platon’s portraiture, head over to his website where you’ll find even more inspirational work.