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Powerful Portraits: An Intimate Look at Humanity and Leadership

This year’s MHEDA Convention Keynote Speaker, Platon, is perhaps the most experienced story-teller in the world. He has worked with every living American President and has had more personal sittings with world leaders than anybody in history. He has shot portraits for a range of international publications including Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Esquire and GQ. He has produced more than 25 covers for Time including the 2007 “Person of the Year” picture of Vladimir Putin. In addition to his work with world leaders, Platon has also been intimately involved with human rights defenders around the world.

His presentation, Powerful Portraits, will take place on Monday, May 1 at 8:00 a.m. at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah. Platon was kind enough to speak with The MHEDA Journal about his upcoming presentation.

The MHEDA Journal: Could you give readers a brief overview of some of the things that you’ll be discussing?

Platon: Well I’ve had extraordinary access and privileged access to the front line of history for 25 years through my work. I get to have intimate access to the movers and shakers of our time. And I’ll be talking about power and leadership. I’ve seen it up close and personal working with all of our living American Presidents. They tell me now, I’ve had more personal sittings with world leaders than anyone in history. So I really have seen power and authority in a very human, intimate way. So I’ll be talking about all those human experiences from working with President Obama, to President Trump, to Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush, the Clintons. And then I’ll talk a bit about the other side of good leadership, which is service. Because good leadership is not just about power and authority, but it’s also about serving the people and empowering and improving peoples’ lives. And in many cases, with world leaders, I don’t see too much sense of service. So I had to go somewhere else to find that. And often, I turn my lens to the people who have been robbed of power. Human rights defenders around the world. But also, specifically, I did a project, which is actually a book that came out last year called Service and it was honoring all of the ordinary men and women who serve in the U.S. Military. They are the ones who taught me about service. They taught me about sacrifice and respect for your fellow man and woman. And loyalty. So, through my journey as a photographer and story teller, through my access to the historic events that we all go through, I get to weave a narrative of how to be a good leader. A moral compass. The difference between right and wrong. The importance of compassion in leadership and how to be a responsible global citizen. And I’m also, now, fascinated by this idea of technology and the disruption that it has caused. The fourth industrial revolution has brought us so much empowerment. More technology than we have ever had before. More connectivity than we have ever had before. And yet somehow, we seem to know less. And we are in great danger of being trapped in our own echo chamber and our own filter bubble. Because if you want to get the news, you’re probably going to go to a source online that confirms what you already believe. And that magical thing, called a shared experience, where we all respectfully debate each other’s different value systems is rapidly disappearing. So my role, as a cultural provocateur is to find common ground between a divided people and to fight the idea of tribalism and to remind people that, if I can help people see themselves in my stories that I tell, then they relate to something that they thought was alien. And I think that becomes a very powerful thing. And I don’t believe in being political. I talk a lot about politics, but I never approach my stories from a political persuasion. I think we’ve seen way too much of that division and divisiveness, so my role is a unifying role and a healing role, and to help people see that we are all stakeholders in this. We are very privileged to have certain freedoms, and we have to use those freedoms to exercise respectful debate and to learn from each others’ differences and it just might be that we might be enlightened by a different value system that we didn’t know about. So my role is to do that.

TMJ: You said in an interview with Fareed Zakaria something that I thought was really interesting. You said that what you do is 3% photography and the rest is complete psychology and people skills. Could you expand on that a little bit?

Platon: People get side-tracked by the idea of photography or even big business. The most important thing that makes anybody successful is whether they have people skills. It’s whether they can read someone’s body language and see that despite someone’s authoritative behavior, deep down they’re deeply insecure and they want validation. And so, this is what I deal with. I don’t think about photography anymore. For me it’s like breathing. I’m actually not that interested in photography. I’m interested in stories and using these stories to provoke society in a healthy way. So, I’ve found that people skills, breaking down barriers very quickly in an environment that is very challenging has become my life’s work. When you meet a head of state or government, you often have very little time, you’re surrounded by lots of handlers, there is this idea of brand and image that I have to fight and to make a human connection in an inhuman environment is really challenging. And that’s what I do. Every picture that worked out for me was born from a moment of connection with that person. And it’s never a political connection or a business connection, it’s a human connection. With Putin, I asked him if he liked The Beatles. And it was that pop art connection that allowed me to get close to him. And actually, it’s the only private sitting he has ever done, because of that. That’s how I approach it. It doesn’t matter who you’re speaking to, whether it’s a human rights defender in the Arab Spring who is really taking great risks for certain freedoms or it’s a head of state, you have to start from the beginning and earn their trust in a very short space of time. Humility is important. Respect for the human condition is important but to put aside your own agenda and to immerse yourself 100% in the person’s humanity that you’re dealing with is the only way that you’re going to catch the nuances of their personality. And if you can do that, then you can find a connection and break through all the white noise.

TMJ: One of the things that I think is so interesting is the dichotomy that you’ve experienced, working on one hand with human rights defenders and working up close and personal with people who are struggling for basic human rights, and on the other hand interacting with people like Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and people like that are accused of repressing those rights in their countries. How has that affected your interactions with these powerful figures?

Platon: I think of myself as very privileged because there are very few people who get to cross over from one side of the line to the other. And that gives me an extraordinarily different perspective. I’m not totally immersed in the power system because I get to cross over the line and interact with the very people who are being abused by bad leadership decisions. So, my lens these days is really trying to give emerging leaders an enhanced platform of authority so that they can help sway the moral compass in today’s challenging times. When I’m in the presence of someone like Ahmadinejad or Mugabe, I am not dazzled by the lights. I’ve always had a healthy disregard for power and authority and that allows me to be objective. I’m not out to get anybody either. I don’t believe in trying to make an evil picture of a dictator who has done terrible things to people. I think their legacy is the thing that does that. It’s not my position to judge and manipulate my skills as a photographer. But what I can do is get as true to the moment as possible and if I am as true to the moment and authentic, it always turns out that that picture becomes an icon of the times because it resonates with people. And it represents the leader’s legacy in some way. If a leader has done great things and becomes an inspirational figure, hopefully my picture becomes the banner for that legacy. But also, if the leader sways to an authoritative side and abuses human and civil rights through their platform, then my picture can become the banner to drive change because it shows everything that is wrong with power and authority sometimes. And my pictures have been used in demonstrations around the world to help bring down authoritative regimes and they’ve also been used to create banners for change in a positive way by showing someone that is in inspirational as an icon. If I get it right, and I’m authentic, then I can give the people images that can help us all understand the times we’re living in. I do believe in curing society’s amnesia. That’s my role. And we do tend to forget, very quickly, the abuses of power that have happened. If I can create an icon that somehow humanizes that abuse of power and brings it to life forever, freezes it in time, then it is something that we can constantly refer to as something that went horribly wrong or wonderfully right.

TMJ: You mentioned that you are the person who has photographed the most world leaders in history. You’ve had proximity to power that runs the gamut of political ideologies and beliefs. Is there any kind of unifying or universal trait that these leaders have that you’ve observed?

Platon: I have found that everyone is completely unique and completely different. I have learned that you can never go in and judge someone in advance because of the platform that they carry. If you have a seat of a large corporation, I can’t go in before I meet them and assume that they are going to be a “CEO type.” The only thing that unifies the world leaders that I have found is the fact that they are all somewhat trapped in a brand that isn’t completely authentic. And all of their unique personality traits are normally buried and hidden and suppressed by this idea of protocol. They’re very often much more human than we would expect them to be in person. My role is to tap into that humanity. And that can be a very menacing thing. Or it can be a very inspiring thing, depending on who it is and what I have found that day. I have, sometimes, photographed someone who has a terrible human rights record as a leader and yet they showed great charm to me. And I’ve found that much more chilling than if they were a two-dimensional, dictatorial cartoon. If I capture that charm on film, no one should ever assume for a minute that I’m promoting that leader’s brand. I’m certainly not. What I’m doing is I’m saying, “It’s important that you all know that this leader, who has a horrific human rights record, is capable of charming people and inspiring people and motivating people.” And that makes that world leader much more dangerous than any intellectuals had predicted. That’s my role. That’s often misunderstood. The picture of Ahmadinejad I did did show some charm in his face and many intellectuals didn’t like that in America because they felt that I was somehow showing him as a nice, charming man. But the fact that he is capable of charm meant that we would always underestimate his powers of persuasion. And story-telling as we have found with the U.S. election is very very important. It’s more important than the facts. If you can connect with people and persuade them and tap into their hopes, dreams and in some cases their fear, that becomes a very powerful skill.

TMJ: You photographed Donald Trump long before he became the President. And I saw the video interview that you gave to the Huffington Post about the experience and about how skilled he is in dealing with the media. When you were interviewing him at the time did you ever get the sense that you could be dealing with the future President of the United States?

Platon: I did not. But I did feel an incredible comfort that he has in his own skin. He has a very powerful presence. And he loves to lead. My take on the election, and this has got nothing to do with politics, I have no interest in pushing one political side or another, I believe in bringing people together, but nevertheless, I did find that my connections with Donald Trump were always that he just loved this. And I felt that Hillary loved the idea of it but the practicalities of dealing with people and story-telling and connecting, it wasn’t her forte. I believe dealing with the media, just being comfortable on stage and coming off as authentic, Donald Trump was better at that. And so, it wasn’t a surprise to me that he got elected. I was telling people a year and a half ago, that I think he could do it. And everyone laughed at me. Everyone said “That’s insane.” But what I saw from my experience was a man who is very skilled at story-telling and is so comfortable in the media and in the public eye. People respond to that idea of authenticity. I think the idea of a groomed politician who follows protocol, reads every speech…when people are frightened, they don’t feel that that is authentic. And someone like Donald comes along and he’s a game changer. And he’s using social media and he’s playing with the cameras. He knows how to get great ratings because he ran a Reality TV show. If we really look at what is happening in post-election analysis, we’re going to see the perfect storm here. In fact, I remember saying to him, and this is before the campaign, there was always a storm around Donald Trump. He was always proactive. Always in the media. Always raising eyebrows. And I said to him, “Donald, how do you weather the storm?” And he looked at me and he said, “I am the storm.” And that was always in the back of my mind when I watched this play out during the election campaign. He is the storm. He created it. He changed the narrative and he changed the political landscape. He took on the media, took on the Republican Party even. He is the storm. From this moment on, all bets are off. I have no idea how this plays out. Because we can never predict what history will throw at itself. So we’re all watching and riveted. It’s interesting. Often, these very personal moments that I have with people become very informative. I remember with Obama, on his desk as a junior Senator, he was reading a self help book, called Be Quiet, Be Heard. And it was all about raising delicate issues with an opponent and still finding common ground. And it totally, I think, informed his presidency because he did try to find common ground. Some people may say he compromised too much. He wasn’t tough enough. Some people say he didn’t compromise enough. But I thought that self help book was very revealing. And the little Donald Trump quote about being the storm was also very revealing.

TMJ: You could argue, and many have that that was the story of the election. Donald Trump, whatever you may think of his politics, was the “authentic” candidate who says what is on his mind. And Hillary Clinton was always kind of keeping the media and the public at an arm’s length.

Platon: That’s right. If you don’t engage with people, then you run the risk of never connecting. Of course, you also avoid the risk of getting things wrong. But in this day and age, this is the time of connection. And I believe that with the disruption in the media and the fourth industrial revolution bringing more connectivity than ever before and more information than we have ever seen before, somehow we still know less. And so what you’ve got is people who are hungry for a human connection because everybody is focused on their mobile devices now instead of making eye contact with each other. And along comes someone on TV who gives the feeling of that pure connection and we’ve all been starved of that. And I think that’s what resonated. I think Hillary was always…this is only my take but I felt that Hillary was always reluctant to get into the fray in case a mistake was made. She was too cautious. She never engaged. She always kept everybody at an arm’s length. And Donald Trump, for better or worse, got involved. And he tapped into something. Connection is the most important thing. The facts are less important. The objective data is less important. What we need now is a human connection and he provided that, irrespective of whether one agrees with his politics or not.

TMJ: More of a light-hearted topic after the serious topics we’ve discussed. Of all of the work you have done, do you have one photograph or set of photographs that you consider to be your favorite?

Platon: That’s such a hard question to answer. And everybody asks me that. I have had a few magic moments in my life. When I asked Bill Clinton, as President, to show me the love, that was the moment when I became Platon. And I broke the rules in the way that we view our power players. No president had ever been photographed like that before. And that was me being authentic. It wasn’t about sex or scandal, that picture. It was about charisma. And I tapped into it and so did the people. That was the moment, really, when I first bared to be authentic myself in an environment where you’re not supposed to do that. And once that happened, I found that I could repeat that break in protocol again and again. As long as I did it in a respectful way. I think it’s good to be human. I think it’s important to tear down the barriers. And just because someone is a world leader, I don’t see why I should believe in the illusion of supremacy. We are all the same. And the homeless lady on the street is, to me, on the same platform as a world leader. In fact, in some cases, she’s even higher. I have had a few fantastic moments. Working with Edward Snowden was pretty fascinating. Dodging the CIA. I’ve been in revolutions. I’ve been chased by secret police in Burma. I just got back from the Congo this year, which was one of the three most dangerous places in the world. I find that my life is always in the action and in the front line of history and it’s a great privilege to have that.