“Qaddafi sat on that stool”, the photographer Platon said to me as I sat down on the wooden box with a pillow glued on top. There are certain sentences you never expect to hear, and certain experiences you never think you’ll have. Here were two firsts in one as I settled in for my New Yorker photo shoot.
“I don’t know how that makes me feel”, I pondered to myself. Platon has photographed nearly every significant world leader including President Obama, Vladimir Putin and the aforementioned Libyan dictator. So you could understand my humility.
This was not as intimidating as going on PBS Newshour for example because I didn’t have to make sentences, but the emotions were very similar. To represent this proud 41 year old organization is a privilege I do not take lightly.
The essay “Platon’s Adversaries” is meant to depict people fighting on various issues of importance in the election. They were apparently going to do portraits of the candidates but thought that was too boring. I only wish global warming, its causes, impacts and solutions – the issues we actually work on at Greenpeace – were more of a topic of debate in this election. Both candidates seem bizarrely shy about talking about the climate. Romney has fallen into the Koch Brothers climate denial vortex and desperately hides his solid green stripes from his Massachusetts days so as not to scare off the Limbaugh-Beck extremists and Tea Partiers. Meanwhile President Obama is busy trying to proclaim he is a bigger oil man than George Bush. The planet is heating up and the nation has experienced the warmest year on record with bizarre, extreme weather events galore and a devastating deep drought covering most of the land. Maybe the candidates spend so much time indoors they don’t have to think about the weather.
The gentleman to my side in the magazine layout, Mike Duncan, is part of the influence peddling political corporate polluter pressure cooker. Former RNC Chair is only part of his bio. He is former chair of the board of Tennessee Valley Authority, a huge federally owned coal burning utility which he joined after their historic coal ash disaster in 2009 and left in 2010 to become the founding chair of American Crossroads, the Karl Rove 527 political machine that has dumped almost $70 Million into the 2012 elections, mostly on attack ads. Duncan is apparently a long time friend of Rove’s. Most recently, this summer, Duncan decided to take the job of CEO of ACCCE, the American Council for Clean Coal Electricity, which is running a $35 Million campaign to save coal (and America) from the “job killing” Obama EPA.
But the reason we were /I was considered for this photo essay really says more about the team at Greenpeace than anything else. 2012 has been a great year for Greenpeace Research including:
- a brand takeover of the American Petroleum Institute’s Vote4Energy campaign
- helping along the breakdown of the broken Heartland Institute
- the release of Steve Coll’s landmark book on ExxonMobil Private Empire with several chapters worth of material from our ExxonSecrets files
- work behind the scenes with journalists from Popular Science and PBS Frontline’s new documentary Climate of Doubt,
- the release of hundreds of BP oil spill photos retrieved via FOIA request including oil-damaged sea turtles and whales,
- an expose on Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul’s climate denying past in August
- the publication of an archive of decades worth of coal propaganda ads published by utilities and their front groups in the New York Times and other papers.
And the year isn’t done yet.
Back to the New Yorker essay. Now, first of all, when someone goes by one name you expect something of an ego, think Madonna, various supermodels and soccer players. But when I met Platon, here was this totally cool and warm person, openhearted, straight up and honest about what he wanted from the shoot. A total pro. We connected immediately as he described the concept of essay to me and Travis Nichols from our media department. Travis was my wing man and witness for the afternoon which was a great support and also provided an phone camera (see image above) so I could prove to my wife and kids that I wasn’t making this up.
Platon is just incredible at his craft, coaxing just that expression he wants or sees in your face. Check out this video interview below at his studio or this New Yorker audio interview for a sense of how he works and his philosophy.
He works at very close range, with the 4×4 camera sometimes inches from your face. Did I mention he shoots film? Actual film, not digital. There were honest to goodness rolls of film going in and out of cameras…a tear of Kodachrome nostalgia welled up in me. His fast moving assistants would utter the number of remaining shots on a roll when it got down around 4 or 5 left in the camera.
He changed poses and camera angles about four times over the 45 minute shoot, constantly uttering directions “chin down slightly” “move your head left” “lean forward” “move your thumb” “drop your face” “hold that” “beauuutiful!” “be as a child” “now, power!”
You can tell this guy has spent an awful lot of time looking at faces. He knows exactly what he is looking for (which feels like, your soul). Most of his portraits are of deep calm, serious or serene expressions…no fake smiles in the lot.
To say that this was a once in a lifetime experience would be an understatement.
To have the opportunity to work with Platon, who in 2009 produced an essay that became a book called Power, by parking himself for a week with a makeshift studio outside the Green Room at the UN General Assembly where he photographed Qaddafi, Putin, Obama, Netanyahu, Chavez, Ahmadinejad, Berlusconi and about a hundred other world leaders. These portraits are quite personal and powerful and show a “strength of character” in Platon’s words.
Platon has had a remarkable career. He worked for the late John Kennedy Jr. on the innovative political magazine “George”, has done twenty TIME magazine covers, has done a number of remarkable photo essays for the New Yorker on subjects ranging from US civil rights leaders, military service to a project with Human Rights Watch on Burmese exiles.
I was humbled to be invited to participate in this project by the photo desk at the NewYorker. I hope we get a chance to work with Platon again sometime. There is nothing like an artist with a passion for perfection and a heart and soul as well.