HILLARY: Let’s talk about photographing this issue's cover with Rand Paul. How did you conceive of the shoot in your mind?
PLATON: Well, I never think about a shoot before I do it. Because there’s no formula for people. What I try to do is to strip everything away rather than go in with preconceived notions. If I do that, I might miss a gem or a jewel that the person is offering me. It’s much more important to go in raw with a completely empty page to be filled. And it’s much more terrifying because you don’t know what you’re in for. You can’t plan for it. So you have to strip all your emotions down to be receptive and to pick up any tiny detail that might reveal someone’s character. It’s a hard thing to do.
H: When Senator Paul walked in to the photo shoot, what was your initial impression?
P: He was very defensive. And … how do I put this? He was very defensive, but I appreciate how he feels. Anyone who has their picture taken knows it’s a slightly uncomfortable idea to begin with. And certainly if you’re in the world of politics or business and you’re having your picture taken, it’s even more loaded because you’re dealing with your brand. Dealing with an unknown quantity like a photographer—who’s going to be capturing that brand—you’re working with someone who you don’t trust. It’s a very difficult thing to do. On top of that, Senator Paul was probably convinced that any serious portrait photographer is not really going to be a member of the Tea Party movement. So it’s a loaded situation all around.
H: So do you think he felt that you, as an artist, might be determined to propagandize him in some way?
P: I do. I think he wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that of most media people. He probably feels like I’m part of a movement to show him in a particular way. I saw it all over his face when he walked in the room. His body language, you know. He obviously agreed to do this, he wants to do it, for whatever reason. But it’s not a comfortable process for him. The first thing I had to do was to say to him, “Look, you know, I’m not a ‘gotcha’ journalist. And my job is not to be part of any propaganda movement. I do have my own personal convictions and values and I live by those. But as an artist, as a portrait photographer, my job is to tell the truth and to capture someone’s spirit on a certain day.” And it’s never the whole truth; it’s the truth I experience in a very intense and intimate fashion. If I can be true and honest, I can hopefully produce a picture that his family will look at and say, that’s our dad.
H: Do you think that his defensiveness is now an ingrained aspect of who he is as a public figure, and so if you capture that in a photograph, you are in a way portraying who he’s had to become?
P: Sometimes the mask tells you more than the truth. Every politician has to construct a mask; anyone who’s very successful knows that their brand is not really them. And the more successful the politician becomes, the more separation that occurs between the brand, the idea, and the person. I spend my life dealing with that separation. The subject walks in as a brand, but he walks out as a normal human being.
H: Do you think that happened at the shoot with Senator Paul?
P: Oh yeah.
H: Can you describe the transformation?
P: My process is so intense. It strips away the façade; there is actually no room for the brand in my space. The brand is left at the door. I fill the whole space with the truth. And that’s why everyone comes in feeling naked. But why would you not want to show the truth? So they do it.
H: So how do you feel about simple things like allowing people to wear their own clothes or styling their appearance?
P: I think it’s all interesting. It’s all revealing. If someone really does everything on their own, if they’re sort of “genuine,” then that says something. If someone is plastic, and comes in with a façade that is completely constructed by a team of people, that’s also very revealing. When I was younger, I used to fight it. I used to think, Oh, you have to work extra hard to construct an image. Actually you have to work very hard at backing off, and allowing the subject matter to think. I’ve had subjects like Nicolas Sarkozy scream at me and refuse to shake my hand, refuse to sit for me.
H: Tell me about Sarkozy.
P: He was the only head of state who’s ever refused. But that says something about his character. And it says something about what was going on in the day actually. We were at the UN and he had just been heavily criticized for moving a certain group of people out of the outskirts of Paris with a very heavy hand. It was a question of human rights. So he was not in the mood to be examined by a photographer at this moment when he felt vulnerable. Which is a story. It says something. I mean, when [President George] W. Bush sat for me, the first thing he said was, “You’d better be photographing a guy who is happy and not some kind of snarler.” And he was quite aggressive about that.
H: Do you think that that idea was a construction of what he wanted people to think about him?
P: Oh yeah. And he gave me the mask of politics. He gave me the mask.
H: What other moments with world leaders have been particularly enlightening?
P: In almost every shoot, something amazing has happened. When I photographed Muammar Qaddafi, I was at the UN, backstage. Barack Obama was making his first address as president. And I was surrounded by Obama’s team. So Hillary Clinton was there, David Axelrod was there, Rahm Emanuel was there, the sniffer dogs, the Secret Service, the medic team, the guy with the nuclear codes, they were all there. And I was waiting for Obama to finish his speech so I could get a portrait of him. But Qaddafi chose that moment—on purpose—to sit for me. So he approached me with his whole team, marching in a kind of slow-motion defiance, surrounded by his female bodyguards in head-to-foot military clothing, and confronted the White House administration. This breaks all protocol, you have to understand. You’re never allowed to have opposing groups meet in a very confined space. And it was all my fault because I’m the photographer; I created this mess. So he sits for me, and he gestures for me, as if to say, I will sit for my only portrait on American soil, but I will do it under the nose of the White House administration. And I want them to watch me in my moment of glory. And it became a defiant picture, almost like Custer’s last stand. That defiance permeated the picture in the end. Qaddafi wasn’t really just sitting for me. He was showing off to America. Look at who I am. Look at my glory. Look at my robes. Look at my arrogant style. And ironically, that became his downfall.
H: You’re known for photographing powerful people. But your Tahrir Square photographs, for instance, are of common citizens who invoked their own sense of power. How is it different? How much power does the piece of art itself have?
P: Oh, it has a lot of power. You know, I’ve been trained by business. I hold myself partly responsible for many of our ills in society. I’ve been one of the image-makers who created this concept of perfection. I’ve done a thousand magazine covers where I’m celebrating Hollywood, glamorous people. Which is all good. It’s all entertainment. We need entertaining; it’s titillation, and it can be inspiring, too. But I’ve also sold so many things. I’ve sold jeans, I’ve sold computers, I’ve done ad campaigns for everyone. And I know how the trick works. You’re presented with the idea of perfection. And you’re told that if you buy this product, whether it’s a magazine or soap or face cream, that you have a chance of being “better.” The reality is, that’s not true. And people have absorbed so much of that message that it’s left society feeling inadequate. And it’s lost its confidence. Now, with the failure of leadership and the change in technology, we’re going through an incredible change. And I have to look at myself honestly. It’s not enough to be successful anymore. It’s not enough to be wealthy or well-connected. What’s important is what you do with your gifts and your connections. So I’m turning the lens away from power to the people who have been robbed of power, to try and create a new set of cultural heroes that will not make us feel guilty, but will inspire us to be better. And these people have shown great, great courage.
H: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times, but who is the person you haven’t photographed, but desperately want to?
P: I have a good list. I would love to photograph the Queen. Because there is something about her that transcends all power. I mean in America, power is basically just what you do. If you do it well, you move up the ladder, you’re rewarded. The American dream. Anyone in theory can do it. The Queen and the monarchy in Britain are at a very different level; there’s something extraordinary about that. You see any president, who’s the most powerful man in the world, standing next to the Queen, and they are so humbled. So that dynamic of power really interests me. What is it that this sort of rather small-framed lady has that brings everyone to this level of humility? I’m also interested in a lot of the bad guys of our time, like Bashar Al Assad. I would love to get Assad. I would love to look him in the eye and say, “How can you do that to people?” But the journey continues, you know. It doesn’t end. Perhaps the most important people that I should photograph are the people who don’t have a voice. And I think that that’s the message of the day. That’s the most honorable thing to aspire to. To be able to give someone the chance to express themselves, to tell their story on a platform that they would never normally get. And in doing so, that platform shifts how we see the times that we are living in. So that really is my mission.
Hillary Kelly is the social media editor for The New Republic. Follow Hillary @hillarykelly
This interview has been edited and condensed.