Platon is a world-renowned photographer specializing in politics and portraiture. He documented the 20 most fascinating men in America for the premier issue of George magazine and since the early ’90s has shot for publications such as Time, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Harper s Bazaar, Esquire, GQ, Newsweek, Arena, i-D, The Observer and the Sunday Times.
MADE IT DOESn't EXIST
In the beginning, everything is hard, no matter what profession you choose. When I was young, I was always obsessed with the idea of How did other people make it ? When you re a student, you feel you’re on the other side of things, that there’s this beautiful, imaginary castle where everybody goes when they’ve “made it.” I finally learned “made it” doesn’t actually exist; it's just an idea you look up to when you’re beginning. When you’re on the track, it’s the continuous journey that makes a difference, not the end result. The end result is when you kick the bucket.
I always looked foolishly and naively at how other people became successful or “did it,” and I came to realize that it’s actually irrelevant how anybody else does it if you’re looking for a formula to apply to yourself. The truth is, everyone’s journey is different, everyone’s personality is different, and everyone’s talent or weaknesses are different. it's more important to really get to know yourself and understand who you are, understand your Achilles’ heel and your strengths, which can often be completely unrecognized in the beginning. Your instincts are your true guide, and a lot of young people are bullied into not listening to their instincts because they don’t fit into the protocol of the establishment. It’s your instincts and emotions backed with resilience, drive and confidence that make you empowered. If you keep pushing through, eventually you break the ice.
VYING FOR VOGUE
I was very driven as a young photographer and was obsessed with working for Vogue as a student. I had always envisioned what it was like to work there. I went in 36 times in three years with my portfolio before they finally gave me a job. I think I showed every single person my work, even the receptionist. I was just so committed to getting in there that, I think eventually, they just felt sorry for me and wanted to shut me up. You have to have the mentality that you won't take “no” for an answer and look at what you re aiming for at that moment in time and see how to make it happen.
As you get older, your journey and your aspirations change, as my journey has taken a completely different path into politics and portraiture. But I've always listened to that voice inside, and you have to remind yourself to listen to it even as you get older. I remember a few years ago I went to see the legendary architectural photographer Julius Shulman who s almost 100 now. Being a huge fan of his, I wanted to go and pay homage to him.
When I saw him, I said, “Have you got any advice for me? I’m a young guy trying to be successful. He said, “I've got great advice for you. You represent the younger generation who are all obsessed with trying to make it. I’ve made it now, and I’m an old man. I can’t even focus the camera very well, I need help getting up and down the stairs. This is made it ? If this is made it, then it sucks.
He continued, The beautiful thing is the journey, and you’re already on the journey, and you have to enjoy every single step of the way. This advice really put things into perspective for me, that there’s no arrival, because you ve always got the next step on the journey. Young people need to understand that, they need to feel that. When you’re intimidated by successful people, or feel like you’re not worthy in some ridiculous way, you’ve got to remind yourself that you’re on the same journey that they are, and believe me, they’re just as frightened of you as you are of them. You’re young, you’re talented, you have a burning energy they don’t have; you have no history, no skeletons in the closet, you’re just liberated. That’s a very empowering thing, and young people need to hear and realize that.
FACING YOUR DEMONS
When I’m taking someone’s portrait, I have to face my own demons every time. I have to get out of my comfort zone and reach out with an open heart. You have to be brave psychologically and emotionally to open up, because there’s a good chance that people will abuse that; they can be rude, or not play, or choose to offend you if you open yourself up too much.
I've come to realize that most of the time, people respond to my openness by opening up themselves, and human beings will always look to each other for a sign from the face or body that says, “Are you OK? Are you not OK?” That’s what smiling is for. When you smile at someone, you’re giving them a sign that you’re content, happy and that you have something to give. If you grimace at somebody, you give them the sign Back off, I’m vulnerable” or “I’m in pain, stay away from me.” That simple gesture can transform a meeting, can transform a human relationship.
Some politicians and movie stars seem to have figured it out — doing it as an act is one thing, but really believing it is another. People do know the difference. That’s something I learned early on, and that’s got nothing to do with photography; that’s just studying the human condition and really trying to understand what makes people tick. That’s much more valuable to me as a photographer than learning about f-stops and all that. What you don’t learn out of a book is people skills and overcoming your fears and being brave with your insecurities and saying, I’m just going to sail right out there and open myself like a bloody book for this person to read. Nine times out of 10, the most beautiful warmth comes back from people.
WELCOME TO THE WHITE HOUSE
Last year, I photographed Michelle Obama in the White House for her first iconic session. On meeting her, I held out my hand and said, “Mrs. Obama, it’s an honor to meet you,” and she brushed my hand aside, put her arms on my shoulders and gave me a kiss on both cheeks and said, “Welcome to the White House.” Now that’s a devastatingly beautiful thing. That’s someone who has something to give. Of course people can abuse that, people can choose not to be bewitched by that charm, but I found it incredibly beautiful. From that moment on, we connected.
This is a human thing. I’m not an intellectual; I'mreally not, even though I spend most of my life dealing with really clever people. I’m an intuitive person, I’m a human person. That’s my job, that’s my career. I find that I can be in a room full of the most intellectual people on the planet, but you can cut through all that by feeling something and showing it and being honest about yourself. You can't lie to people about yourself, because it shows. Honesty is the one thing you can connect to anyone about. You can meet a king or a poor man on the street, and the one thing you have in common with them is that you’re honest about life and yourself, and it’s an amazing thing to communicate with. We all have moments, we all have heritage, we all have family, we all have relationships, and we should never be intimidated to be open about that. It’s a relief for people to hear it. It’s like, Great, I can just be myself now.
The human condition is something so delicate, so precious, and I'moften thrown into meeting these fascinating characters but usually under the worst circumstances. They’re nervous, they’re frightened, they’re suspicious. … No one likes having their picture taken. It’s kind of like going to the dentist. My job is to use what people skills I have to try and throw away any bullshit, to get to the heart of it very quickly.
I’ve learned to use that weird intensity and all the limitations I’m given to my advantage, because it creates a hyper-real sense of energy. You’ve got half an hour with each other, or if it’s President Obama, you’ve got seven or eight minutes, so it creates an intense sprint for emotions. Everything they do becomes hyper-important, like the move of their fingers, the tilt of the neck while they’re responding to an interesting question. That’s beautiful stuff, and the body can’t help revealing their emotions, no matter how skilled they are. You can't hide what you’re really feeling, especially from me, because I’m good at catching it. In fact, I'mlooking for it.
CHANNEL YOUR NERVES
You can’t expect anyone else to go to a dark place unless you’re going to go there yourself. You can’t expect others to be brave in your company unless you’re being brave too. If anything, you have to be braver than them because you’re making the first move, and that’s just human nature that can be applied to anything.
You go into a business meeting, and the first connection you have with someone will reveal who you are. If you can somehow channel all the nerves you have in your body, and we all have nerves, believe me, I have them. Every shoot I'mon, I’m totally nervous, but I’ve learned to use my nerves and control them, discipline them. Nerves are just energy rushing through your veins. Your heart starts pumping and your breathing intensifies, and it's an incredible power to harness if you can learn to channel it through a pinpoint of intensity and aim it in the right direction. That makes you incredibly powerful in any genre. So that’s what I do. You try 100 percent all the time, and you can’t always succeed, because we’re all human — we all have good days and bad days — so it’s not a mathematical formula that you can apply to emotions, but the intent should always 100 percent commitment.
PREPARE FOR ANARCHY
For me, preparation is key. if you’re not prepared technically, then you have no foundation to stand on. The technical stuff has to be down, whether you’re an artist or a businessperson, it’s all about preparing for your meeting, preparing for your opportunity. Once you have that, then comes the emotional side with people skills.
Before you go into a meeting, you have to find a quiet moment just before the anarchy begins to calm it down and become very intimate with your soul. I often go into the restroom, look in the mirror into my eyes and remind myself who I am. It helps to quiet it down, take a few deep breaths and refocus everything, because just before a meeting is when the nerves and all the distractions come in. Lots of people come in, they throw new angles at you that you weren’t prepared for, and before you know it, you re panicking inside. So you have to refocus just before that begins and find a few key things you’re aiming for so you go in calm, excited and never afraid to show your enthusiasm. Never. Your enthusiasm is your biggest power.
That’s what I do. It doesn’t always work, but that’s where bravery comes in, because you have to be prepared to fail, and you can’t be afraid of that. You can’t be afraid to go into a meeting and say, “Everybody, I’m so honored to be here, I’m so happy to be presenting this to you,” and they all turn around and say something that’s humiliating to you. You have to take that on the chin, and it means you may lose that opportunity, but the next time, you try just as hard again. As long as you learn from your experiences, if it’s something you might have misjudged and you make sure you never do it again, you’re building something.
it's ABOUT THE ATTEMPT
With experience, you get better and keep improving upon the things you learn. Now I’m in my 40s, but when I first started, from one month to the next I got better. You think, Well, I’m better than I was a week ago. I’m better than I was two weeks ago. With that in mind, it’s always exciting and you’re always moving on. It’s never, I reached my point and now I’m going to cling to it and fight off all the opposition, because that’s the wrong mentality. You’re always moving, you’re always getting better. It’s going to be a journey and you’re going to have a new adventure every few weeks. That’s exciting.
As you get older, you mature and your priorities change. Now I have a wife, two babies and an office with staff, and my responsibilities are to them. A big fear is Can I deliver? Can I provide ? The larger fear behind that, one that s always been there, is of failure. The irony that I’m still learning is that you have to be prepared to meet failure again and again and over and over if you want to succeed. You have to fail and face it, not deny it, because we all fail, so denying it is just putting off the inevitable. Every great career will have highs and every great career will topple once in a while. It’s not about whether you’re winning or losing; it’s about trying. Sometimes you’re successful, and sometimes you’re a disastrous mess, but neither of those are what it’s about, ironically. It’s about the attempt. And as long as you’re always pushing yourself, you look back on a life and do see that it's gradually stepped forward in one way or another.
I'mACTUALLY KIND OF COOL
Unfortunately, our fears have been abused by the establishment. Big business and advertisers make money from our inadequacies and our fears. They amplify our fears and say, If you feel inadequate, buy our product and then you’ll feel better. It makes them money, but unfortunately, along the way, a lot of emotional damage is done, because you don’t feel better when you buy it.
You might have a temporary boost, but then you feel inadequate again, because you realize that you need a product to help you feel better about yourself. Nothing is really going to help you. You just have to accept who you are and say, “This is me. I’m OK with that. I’m not perfect, but I’m not supposed to be perfect. It’s all right to be me, and being me is actually kind of cool. We need to get back to basics and hold on to what we already have. That s a good state of mind, and we should always be like that.
AM I REALLY LIVING?
It’s not about achieving or winning or acquiring something. It’s more visceral than that. It goes back to Who am I? Am I happy? Am I mastering the art of living, or am I just being played here ? If you can really answer those very difficult questions, I do believe it’s the core of overcoming any fears you may have.
A TOAST TO THE SEA
When my father died four years ago, I took a real tumble. Losing someone you love and someone you’re close to is probably one of the biggest fears, isn’t it? Losing relationships has to happen — you’re given birth and you’re also given death. Those two fundamental things we have to deal with, and we can’t deny that they exist. But that was the first time I was ever really shaken. And New York is about success, right? America is always about success, but success can be very empty when you’re emotionally unhappy or in pain.
I remember going back home to the Greek Islands to find the answer. I was walking on the beach one day, and I saw this old man sitting on a rock — he was a fisherman, probably in his 80s, weather-beaten face and hat. I sat on the rock next to him and started chatting about life. I said, “I live in New York, and I feel very alone right now, very lonely, and I’m really looking for the answer.”
I said, “You’re an old guy, you must have lived highs and lows. Can you tell me anything I may find useful?” And he looked at me, and on his lap he had some olives and a piece of cheese and a little bottle with homemade wine in it and a glass, and it was wrapped up in a handkerchief, and he was sitting there having his lunch. So he poured a glass of wine, ate a piece of cheese, then an olive, and then raised a toast to the sea with his little glass, and he looked at me as he drank the wine and said, “I know the answer. He said, “It’s mastering the art of living.”
That was it. That changed everything. So I had to go away and talk to someone who wasn't necessarily successful in our eyes in America or London, this fisherman, probably the humblest person you can imagine, but who knew what life is about — that you must take a moment to raise a toast to the sea, to taste the wine, to look at your family or friends or even the person you’re talking to at the moment and just hold their hand and say, “This is amazing, isn’t it? We’re here. Aren’t we lucky?” And if you really mean it and can channel that energy from your gut, it’s so inspiring to share that with someone.
About: Born in London in 1968, Platon was raised in the Greek Isles until his family returned to England in the 1970′s. After shooting portraits for a range of international publications including Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ and the Sunday Times Magazine, Platon developed a special relationship with Time magazine, producing over 20 covers. In 2007 Platon photographed Russian Premier Vladimir Putin for Time Magazine’s Person Of The Year Cover. This image was awarded 1st prize at the World Press Photo Contest. Read more here.