The Eye of the Beholder: Platon’s “Portraits of Power”
By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2009. All Rights Reserved
Platon—Muammar Qaddafi, 2009, photograph (courtesy The New Yorker).
Since the early 1990s, British photographer Platon has enjoyed unparalleled access to personalities and potentates. Nowhere is his work with the latter group more effectively displayed than in the recent photographic essay “Portraits of Power,” which appeared in the December 7th issue of The New Yorker. The accompanying blurb provides entertaining background:
This past September, when nearly all the world’s leaders were in New York for a meeting of the United Nations, Platon, a staff photographer for this magazine, set up a tiny studio off the floor of the General Assembly, and tried to hustle as many of them in front of his lens as possible. For months, members of the magazine’s staff had been writing letters to various governments and embassies, but the project was a five-day-long improvisation, with Platon doing his best to lure the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chávez, and Muammar Qaddafi to his camera.
For the few minutes available in this chaotic setting to prepare and capture an image, it was the photographer who held the true power. Absent were the endless preparation, preening and pretense of a more formal studio environment. In these spontaneous moments, has Platon managed to capture the true essence of his subjects? That often depends on the context in which the images have been displayed and the eye of the beholder.
It is not a mystery why Ahmadinejad and Obama occupy the first spread (in the magazine). I didn’t wish to read too much into the obvious difference in their format (the former was shot in color; the latter in black and white); and yet I thought I detected a particular glint in Ahmadinejad’s eyes. Was it bravado or just the germ of a new scheme designed to annoy the West?
In his portrait Boris Tadić (President of Serbia) seems to emit kind-heartedness and benevolence. But he’s been paired in the magazine presentation (though not online) with Stjepan Mesić (President of Croatia), suggesting an altogether different reading. I could not help but ponder their respective faces for remnants of the intertwined and unhappy history of their two countries.
Above them, perhaps as an intended counterpoint, Brian Cowen (Ireland) and Gordon Brown (UK) have been joined in the amicable grin of inescapable fraternity.
Most of the African delegation has been grouped together (again in the magazine presentation), and I wondered whether their individual expressions—laughing, pursed lips, eyes averted, and no apparent emotion—reflected the current outlook their respective citizenry.
As I scanned the online grid, one disarming thought predominated—for all their worldly power, these people looked surprisingly normal. Pretty much indistinguishable from the rest of humanity. Paul Kagame (President of Rwanda) could be an accountant, except that he happens to be Africa’s biggest success story. Adury Rajoelina (Madagascar) might work as an engineer at Google, were he not the youngest President in the bunch, having come to power in a coup. Michelle Bachelet might be been someone’s very cool aunt; well, she probably is that, along Chile’s first female President. In these images once again is revealed the paradox of the human face—i.e. in the countenance of one is reflected the multitude.
Sometimes the most disarmed was the photographer himself. Of Qaddafi Platon notes:
This picture was probably one of the most intimidating moments I’ve had in my life. . . Obama had just arrived with a huge security entourage and then of course Qaddafi chooses that moment to come and sit for me. So as he’s walking towards me there’s probably 200 people following him. It was just like a crazy, intimidating circus. And then I start noticing that the American secret service guys who are guarding the steps of the room where Obama is, their eyes are darting around really really fast. They’re looking at each other in a very aggressive way, because they see this chaos coming toward them. And he (Qaddafi) comes up to me completely in slow motion. . . He’s got no eyes, his eyes are so dark, I couldn’t see them. I felt like I was in a weird dream.
Platon—Silvio Berlusconi, 2009, photograph (courtesy The New Yorker).
And, finally, there was my personal favorite, Silvio Berlusconi, for its perfect readability. No guessing here—the naughty smile of an impudent man!