Earlier this week I watched Abstract: The Art of Design - a Netflix documentary that features artists from different fields, giving you an insight into both their professional and personal worlds. One episode featured British photographer, Platon, who is known for his portraits of the world's’ most famous and powerful people. The episode gave a fascinating inside view into the life of a high-status photographer, and the process of what goes into making a great portrait.
When we think of the artistic world’s most successful elite, we can sometimes be guilty of thinking they are awash with ego and self-importance. However, within the first 5 minutes of the programme, Platon had already dissolved that stereotype. This is a man who has photographed political leaders, yet his approach is no different than when he shoots the person next door. He has a passion for understanding human behaviour and getting to the crux of what defines a person and makes them tick.
The programme seldom focused on what gear was used, but rather on how Platon, with somewhat effortless ease, was able to make people relax and connect with him. It was clear that most of the work was done way before a camera had even been picked up. There was always a dialogue, from the moment the subject arrived, right through to the point where they were sat in front of the camera lens.
The photographic world gets so obsessed and suffocated with f-stops, bokeh, pixels etc that the true art of the craft can become lost. It was refreshing to see human behaviour being at the forefront of Platon’s artistic approach.
During a shoot with a Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State (2001-2005) there is a scene that shows Platon having a discussion with him; A deeply personal discussion about his experience during one of the most sensitive times in America’s history. At the start of their meeting you could see that Colin was not someone who was overly thrilled to be having his portrait taken, yet after spending some time with him conversing, there is a pivotal moment where Platon realises he had been able to extract the emotion that was inside. He was quick to ask his assistant for the camera, and took the shot.
“Taking a picture is very technical, but 99.9% is spent on this connection that allows me to reach someone”. Platon.
When I first started photography, I was obsessed with exposure triangles, the best camera, how to do a solid composition etc. All these things are easily taught, however it takes a special kind of person to be able to tap into the relationship that needs to be built in order to take a good photograph.
It does not mean it cannot be developed, however I feel we really have to dig deep within ourselves, our own personalities, to really be effective when interacting with our subjects.
One of the more touching moments in the episode was when a 17 year old woman named Esther was the centre point of one of the shoots. One year previously Esther was tragically raped by a gang of men for 4 straight days. She was able to escape and get to the nearest hospital, where she was treated for horrific injuries and trauma. 9 months later Esther gave birth to her son, Josue.
On the day of the shoot the environment was of course emotionally charged. The interaction between Plato and Esther was something to be truly admired in itself, however it was a comment made prior to their meeting that really struck me.
“We all have to be aware. We are dealing with a group of women who have been through the worst circumstances in their lives - and we are a bunch of guys. Just be gentle…”
That ability to be empathetic and see the world through his subjects eyes, for me is the biggest step towards what makes his work so strong. Empathy, true deep and meaningful empathy, is not always a quality you find in people. Despite his success, Platon comes across just like an everyday person who, having had his own struggles in life, is simply one of us.
From his portfolio to the way he works with his team, nothing ever feels hierarchical.
Platon provided me with the emotional connectivity that made me want to be an artist in the first place. He reminded me of why I follow the path I do and taught me that the biggest challenge we face within our craft is who you are as a human, not as a user of cameras.
Thanks for reading
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