THE Q&A: PLATON, PHOTOGRAPHER

Few photographers find themselves grasping Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by the hand, facing down Robert Mugabe or eliciting a grin from Binyamin Netanyahu—all within a 72-hour period, no less. Platon, a London-raised and New York-based photographer, is the keen eye behind "Power: Portraits of World Leaders" (Chronicle Books), a book of 150 photographs of world leaders, all of them taken at the United Nations.

This collection is full of surprises and affirmations alike: Hugo Chávez has all the penetrability of an Easter Island statue; Victor Yushchenko could be a friendly school principal; and Muammar Qaddafi is a villain straight out of "Star Wars". Securing the portraits required tenacity, quick reflexes and the wiles of a fixer. More Intelligent Life spoke with Platon, a staff photographer at the New Yorker, about his adventures in assembling his portraits.

David Remnick writes in the introduction to your book that most of the photographs were taken over a few days at the United Nations building. Will you describe, in a practical sense, one of these days?

We arrived at about five in the morning to pass through security and set up our equipment. Every head of state has to address the General Assembly, and there's a podium where they all stand to make their speeches. I stood a few feet away from the podium backstage, down two steps and past a wall. I built a portable studio in the corridor right there, and since everyone had to pass me on their way to and from the stage, I had two chances to secure a portrait session with each person.

When we set this up, we only had two pre-confirmed sittings: one with Brazil and one with Mexico. No one else agreed beforehand, so once I was in the building, getting the photographs was an old-fashioned hustle. And it took about 67 meetings with the UN in New York to get to the point where I was in the building—I remember counting all the meetings because it felt like it was going on forever.

Will you describe the first day?

The first day was the most intense. Obama was making his first address to the General Assembly as President, and it was during his peak honeymoon period. The Bush era was over; Obama heralded a new spirit. There was an insane energy in the GA room, with people climbing on each other to get a glimpse of so-called wisdom from this new political messiah.

While Obama was speaking, I was backstage surrounded by his security people, his medic team, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Hilary and others. It's a small space. Down the corridor I noticed a different crowdswell coming towards us. My heart dropped when I noticed that in the middle of the swell was Qaddafi. I was swamped by the White House entourage and Qaddafi had chosen that moment to sit with me! There was a clash of the two entourages backstage, and the White House guys started freaking out. In terms of protocol, it was not what was desired. But there was Qaddafi, followed by two or three hundred people—including a team of female bodyguards in military green—wearing huge, illustrious robes. He seemed to walk in slow motion.

I kept saying to myself, "I can't believe he's going to sit for me." When you see what's going on in the world today, it seems remarkable that we did the session right in front of the White House security guards.

How did Qaddafi strike you?

I'm not sure whether he was the craziest person in the room or the smartest person in the room. What I do know is that he's not to be underestimated. I'm not sure what level he's on, but he's on another level. There's something dark about him. We were close—I could almost feel his breath on my arm while I held the camera. Sometimes, as a photographer, you see demons in people. I felt something dark and chilling with Qaddafi.

Did you give him direction?

I didn't need to with him. He wore the robes and a hat that was taming his wild hair. His eyes were dark black slits. He walks into a room and everything changes.

With other heads of state, did you find it necessary to give direction? What was it like to command some of the most powerful people in the world to, say, tilt their head to one side?

I've always had a healthy disregard for authority—it allows me to do my job as a portrait photographer and not as someone who is playing the power game. With this project, I wanted to show our leaders up close and personal. With branding and marketing, we're used to seeing the image that leaders want to portray, whether it be dictatorial or charismatic. I wanted to see these people as human beings, and to get a study of the human condition, rather than a perpetual myth of power, intimidation or glamour.

I'm not a politician or a scholar or political historian. I'm just a photographer who’s trying to capture a spirit. It's not an intellectual process; it's an intuitive process.

How does political charisma translate into film?

Every leader has something. Putin has a brutal, no-nonsense, tough-guy image that came through. Mugabe had a very strange quality about him. He was dapper. He had the strangest skin—it looks very shiny, but it's not oily. It's stretched very finely over his flesh. His eyes have layers of cyan crystals in them. It was a quiet, dark moment when I took his picture. As he walked away, another head of state came to sit for me and refused to take the stool that Mugabe had occupied. He said, "I won't sit on that chair. There's blood on it."

When Ahmadinejad came down the steps after his controversial speech, he was immediately surrounded by admirers. I found myself in a strange bubble of adoring Ahmadinejad fans. At that moment I went into the crowd, grabbed his hands, and said, "Come with me. I'm going to take your portrait." As I looked into his eyes, I pulled both his hands, and he allowed me to lead him to the chair. I think he was slightly embarrassed to be photographed, and in the picture there's a disturbing, sinister leer in his eyes. It implies a human quality that doesn't match his actions and intentions, politically.

Which photograph do you consider to be the most successful of the bunch?

Certainly Qaddafi is one of the strongest images. Tim Hetherington, a friend of mine, recently died in Libya. Tim and I once joked that I photographed the people in power while he photographed the people who suffered the consequences of the abuse of power. Now I stare at the picture of Qaddafi knowing that a colleague of mine—who I respected so much—has died in that conflict. It's a very poignant subject for me. It gives me the chills that I spent an intimate moment with this figure who is terrorising the world, and more importantly, his own people.


There were other, more humorous moments. Berlusconi was entertaining. Everyone approached me formally and shook my hand, but Berlusconi glided in sideways, perched on the stool, gave me a Hollywood glamour look, and then continued sideways out the other side. It was like Fred Astaire doing a sidestep.

Did anyone refuse to be photographed?

Only one person categorically refused, and that was Sarkozy. It was all set up with his people, but when he approached me and I offered my hand to shake, he brushed it aside. Then he started screaming and stormed off in anger.

Why did he do that?

I don't know for sure. He had been heavily criticised for forcefully clearing immigrants out of an area outside Paris. It could have been timing—he may have been in a bad mood and unreceptive to something as superfluous as having a picture taken.

You really feel it when you've upset a head of state. It winded me for a couple hours. This whole project was based on confidence, and I remember saying to myself, ‘You've got to get your confidence back. Don't let this rattle you.’ Photography can be a volatile situation. It can be very potent.

"Power: Portraits of World Leaders" is published by Chronicle Books and is out now in America; it will be released in June in Britain

~ MOLLY YOUNG