The Face of Leadership
February 05, 2018
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Even if people haven’t heard of him, they have undoubtedly seen his remarkable work. His portraits of world leaders in politics, business, sports and the arts are unmistakable and iconic. They have graced hundreds of magazine covers, from Time to Wired to Vanity Fair, and the pages of countless other publications. Among his subjects: Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Muammar Gaddafi, Serena Williams, Bill Gates and Muhammad Ali.
His name is Platon, and he is a world-class photographer who has been face-to-face with a remarkable lineup of world leadership and power. His striking portrait of Russian president Vladimir Putin, which graced Time’s “Person of the Year” issue in 2007, offered an unblinking and penetrating look into the cold blue eyes of the intimidating but inscrutable Putin. It is a photograph worth well more than a thousand words.
“I’m one of the few people who got to be an inch and a half from Putin’s nose, and I could feel his cold breath on my hand as I focused the lens,” Platon says. “I got to look into his eyes more than Bush ever did. I was really in there.” What he saw in Putin is the same refraction of the light of leadership that he has encountered throughout his career. He feels it is his job to try to humanize the power system by presenting an honest portrait, good or bad, and finding the truth in that portrait.
With his 50th birthday looming in 2018, Platon is in a long process of taking stock. He claims that photography is actually “boring” to him. “The camera is just a tool,” he says. “What is interesting to me is what’s happening in front of my camera.” To that end, Platon (pronounced Plah-ton) considers himself a storyteller, a speaker and an activist who brings a deep level of passion and commitment to the world’s trouble spots. In 2013, he founded The People’s Portfolio, a nonprofit foundation that aims to create a visual language that breaks barriers, expands dignity and enlists the public’s support for human rights around the world. His photos are all about capturing a moment in time in which that particular truth speaks volumes, even within the fast-changing, dynamic, technological world in which we live.
Born Platon Antoniou in England to a British mother and a Greek architect father, Platon spent his childhood in the Greek islands before moving to the UK, and now lives in the US. Trained as a graphic designer, Platon later picked up a camera and found his calling. Extremely dyslexic, he struggled to read and eschewed technology (he has never written or sent an email), and through the lens, he found a method for telling the stories that drew him near. After working for British Vogue for several years, he got a break when John F. Kennedy Jr. spotted his work and invited him to New York to photograph for his new publication, George. With newfound access to A-list celebrities and political and business leaders, Platon’s career skyrocketed and his unique portraits created insatiable demand. We spoke with him about his efforts to illuminate the face of leadership. (Questions and answers have been edited.)
● Somebody once described you as “capturing the essence of a world leader in a single frame.” That’s a powerful statement. Does it feel that way to you?
There is no such thing as a complete truth. There are just true moments. And depending on how you catch somebody, depending on the context of that experience, you get a different side to their personality. My role is to always be authentic. If I’m true to the moment I was living at the time, I’m going to give you that specific moment. I’m committed to it. I will die for it. It’s the truth as I felt it. But it’s never all the truth. You can’t tell a complete truth in five-hundredths of a second.
● Still, your portraits have often sparked controversy.
I’m often criticized by many intellectuals for showing charm in dictatorial leaders. What they don’t understand is that my job is not to go in with a preconceived idea and paint a dictatorial, two-dimensional cartoon. My role is always to be honest. And what you find when you are a few inches away from someone’s nose is that you experience things that no one can write about from the comfort of their armchair and laptop. It’s complicated. If a world leader has great charm but has done terrible things to humanity, I think it’s an important thing for us to know. Because we will always underestimate [such leaders] if we assume they are charmless. If they are charming, they are capable of recruiting, of winning people over, of persuading people.
● So your goal is to get to that essence?
Absolutely. To strip away artifice. And that’s difficult to do because everyone is media-trained right now. If you look at how our leaders are presented to us around the world, there’s this air of glamour and perfection and control and ease. I don’t see a connection between that propaganda and the reality. So I set about this challenge to try and humanize the power system. Whatever it is, I’m going to find it. Picasso always said, “If there’s something to feel, I’ll feel it.” I’d rather say if there’s something to find, I’ll find it.
● You’ve certainly had a unique perspective.
Many people meet world leaders with a very stiff, formal handshake, but do they ever break through that barrier and get in their spirit, in their soul? I use a little apple box, not even a proper chair, for them to sit on and I’m guessing more world leaders have sat on that apple box than any single chair in history.
● How do you define leadership?
I’ve seen power, authority, intimidation, charisma, seduction. But there’s a side of good leadership that I often don’t see. That is something called service. I humbly believe that if you are a great leader, you have to be strong, you have to be charismatic and inspirational, but you also have to think of yourself as a servant of the people. That is a very complicated conflict to resolve. Because on one hand you have strength and then you have submission. I would say there are only a handful of world leaders in history who were ever able to take those two opposite poles, put them together and drive positive change.
● It’s one thing to photograph a famous person but quite another to capture the essence of that person as you seem to do over and over. Is there a secret formula?
I am not blinded by authority. I’ve never been dazzled by the light. I always thought it was a bit weird that this person seems to think they are superior to everybody else. I just never got that joke. So I am able to just say, “Well, hold on a minute, with great respect, I know you are so-and-so but you are still a person. You have the same weaknesses that I have. So let’s just be authentic with each other, right?” So it’s up to them. It’s like putting a spotlight on the truth. Some people find that very liberating and others feel very threatened by that.
● So it takes a bit of chutzpah and courage.
You have to be courageous. You can’t expect your opponent or collaborator to be honest with you unless you are going there first. And I always go there first. It’s devastating, frightening for me every time, even now. It’s not a trick. It’s just wiping the slates clean of all facades from myself and my subjects.
● Is there a portrait that you consider your most successful?
My picture of Bill Clinton was my first-ever president—and it probably should have been my last. It was certainly not like any other official portrait of a US president. There was so much criticism. But it was about charisma. Clinton—everybody says it—had more charisma than anyone on the planet. Of course, that same charisma got him into trouble. But it also took him to greater heights.
● These days, it feels as if there is a dearth of great leadership out in the world. How do you deal with that?
If I were to ask you who is the next Martin Luther King Jr., the next Gandhi, the next Mandela, who are the inspirational figures in society that teenagers would have posters of on their walls, I don’t think you or I would be able to come up with more than one or two. To me, I know the leaders are out there because I know them and work with them all the time. But their voices aren’t getting heard because of the sea of white noise. We have to amplify those voices. That’s our responsibility as storytellers. My goal is to give a voice to the voiceless and an enhanced platform of leadership.
(click the image to enlarge)