I had the pleasure of interviewing the inspirational New Yorker staff photographer, Platon, before his speech to the CT ASMP in New Haven two summers ago when his book Power: Portraits of World Leaders came out.
A charming man, Platon’s able to connect with anyone and work fast and tenaciously to get the shot. Part Tony Robbins, part raconteur, and part social activist with a camera, he’s very tuned into human nature and what’s real and what’s b.s. He gives great insight for anyone wanting to compete at the top and I think it’s still very relevant!
What’s your ideal way to work?
“I’ve always had a healthy disregard for authority and power and I certainly never realized it would become an important part of my psyche to help my career. It always got me in trouble at school. But now I find I need it because if you are too in awe of power you can’t breathe, can’t function.
“The thing is, it’s not about me. You think it is because you see my name associated with these powerful people, but that’s actually misleading…it’s about the people I photograph. I just happen to be the connection. So it’s never really about what I want, it’s what I’m given. I’ve always taken my best work when I’m the underdog and I’ve taken my worst work when everyone thinks I’m more important than I really am and there are great expectations….it creates a stiffness.
“If there was an ideal, I’d never shoot more than 40 minutes with anyone. I’ve gotten used to working very quickly and intensely. I can’t sustain my concentration for longer than 40 minutes or an hour and neither can my sitter. I’m very comfortable working within 5 minutes. People say, how can you get someone’s soul in 5 minutes. Well, you can’t, you can’t show the truth in 5 minutes, an hour or five hours. What you can show is a truth, a true moment, it’s 1/500 of a second…it’s just a connection between myself and a sitter and I just hope I’ve captured that something on film.”
What’s your advice for commercial photographers who want to succeed and take it to the next level?
“To succeed [you need] a combination. You’ve got to have a talent…you’ve got to be good. You can only go so far without talent. But you’ve gotta do your homework, man. If your work doesn’t look rich, it’s because you’re not informed enough. I studied seven and a half years at art college, I know my art history. I don’t know everything, there’s always so much more to learn and I’m learning now, every day.
“It’s shocking how many photographers there are that couldn’t tell a Picasso from a Matisse… You need to enrich your brain. Because that’s going to inform your work and make you better. It’s really important that you soak up good taste because that’s what’s going to make your work have taste and it comes from every genre whether it’s music, sculpture, theatre, any of the fine arts.
“The last element is just total determination because you are challenged every step of the way for the rest of your life. There’s not this magical point where you just step over the wall and then it’s just a breeze. I think everyone thinks there is that and I used to think that
“What there actually is just a treadmill of struggle and you have to make friends with that struggle and just say “we’re partners you and me” we’re in this together ’til the day I die. “Me and the struggle, me and the fight.” And you have to keep going and you have to fight with charm and fight with passion and not negativity. The day you become bitter, and resentful, and envious of what other people are doing, is the day it’s all over.
“There are many photographers who do that and it’s very easy to do that because you are surrounded by other people’s so-called “successes” and every magazine you look in there’s another photographer doing another commission that you should have got or every advertising gig you think ‘I should have got that’. That’s the worst thing you can do, you are just wasting positive energy on something that’s going to eat you like a cancer.
“You’ve got to think purely about your ambitions, where you want to be and then you’ve got to invest your life into that dream. And it’s a full-time, round the clock commitment.
No one would believe the sacrifices I’ve made in my life to get where I am and where I want to go…it’s very, very difficult. I’ve given up a lot. A lot of people are out boozing nights and I’m working round the clock.
“So whoever is going to start, they are up against someone like me who is so driven about as driven as you can be, but I’m driven with a positivity and that’s a really key thing. If you are driven by negativity, no one wants to be around you. You can’t lecture people into helping you, you have to inspire them. When I did the world leaders project, I had to go to the Secretary General and inspire him to get the United Nations’ support. It’s the same way at the New Yorker. I had to go in and inspire them about the project.
“There’s always a point where someone says I don’t think this is going to work. But you have to keep going and push past this barrier of pain and doubt. But it’s possible and this is one of those projects where I proved, mainly to myself, that it’s possible to keep going ’til you get to the top.
“There are other times when you will fail. You’ve got to make friends with that. And that’s okay. You can’t be frightened of failure. Losing is nothing. It’s about the win. So you lose, what the hell…you spit out your gum and start again.”
What’s it like being a staff photographer vs. a freelancer?
“It’s completely changed how I work. I used to be a jobber…waiting for my next job to come it, living job to job. Now I work in partnership with the New Yorker to create portfolios, generating ideas and concepts. It can take three months or more to come up with the concept, pitch it, get it all worked out before the shooting even begins. That’s what happened with my portfolio that became the book “Power”–it took 67 meetings before I could even take the first shot.”
How involved are you in running your business?
“I’m very involved in the business and consider myself a business man. I have a staff and a studio that I need to take care of. Sometimes I will take jobs that I’d rather not to ensure everything moves forward. Other times I can take months doing what I love.”
Where are you going next, photographically?
“I photographed very powerful people for a long time and people have associated my name with that power. There’s a virus called power. If you are around it you’ll get it. And some people have this assumption because I’ve worked with Putin and all these tough guys that I’ve adopted this type of aura, but that’s not true, I’m just a very humble person who connects with people and you are going to find now that it’s time to stop celebrating the powerful, and the famous and the successful.
“I need to turn my lens on the people who have been robbed of power, the really courageous people who stood in the face of oppression for civil rights or human rights. I’m not ashamed to say that I believe in the dignity of the individual and I appeal to this international community that I’ve photographed in the Power book to unite its forces and come together against the problems that we face today.
“You can’t have peace and progress without a fundamental respect for human rights. I’ve just been to Egypt and I photographed everyone who led the revolution in Egypt. I’ve just got back from Russia and I photographed all the people who are fighting against oppression with Putin’s administration. I’ve been to Burma, I’ve photographed San Suu Kyi, I’ve been to Thailand, and photographed all the people who had been exiled from Burma, former political prisoners.
“So this is my new racket, I believe that we need a new set of cultural heros and it’s better for our society that we start seeing courageous people on the cover of magazines vs. just celebrities intimidating us into feeling we’re inadequate. I know how to sell a magazine, I know how to sell advertising billboards…I’ve been part of that myth for a long time but now I’m using the same tricks to sell something that’s much more important, much more healthy for us to digest and that is courage and a belief in the human condition and a belief that we need to look after people that are more vulnerable than us. I think our society has got quite ill with self indulgence. The Power thing is quite misleading…it’s actually a clever trick that’s been flipped upside down and you’re going to see the underdogs as my subject matter in the next three years.”