Photographer Platon sits presidents and protesters on the same wooden box

Photographer Platon sits presidents and protesters on the same wooden box


Vladimir Putin, Muammar Gaddafi, Mark Zuckerberg. Presidents and Hollywood stars; political dissidents, abuse survivors and immigrants. One thing unites them all: a slightly scuffed, white wooden box.

“More world leaders have sat on that box than any chair in history,” the photographer Platon, owner of that very box, told CNN in an interview conducted over Zoom. For some world leaders, the scarcity of his set — sitting on the box in front of a plain black or white sheet of paper — can be intimidating, stripping them of their usual grandeur. For others it’s liberating, allowing the human to shine through the professional storyteller. For the subjects of Platon’s new book “The Defenders,” the box became an opportunity.

“There’s a statement that’s quite common in the human rights community,” Platon said. “‘Giving a voice to the voiceless’. I have learned through my experiences that it’s not right to say that. They have beautiful, powerful, strong voices; the issue is that those voices have been ignored.” Through his work, he explained his mission is to help amplify people’s stories, tuning into their humanity as though they were “an old-fashioned radio”.

Born in Greece in 1968, Platon Antoniou moved to the UK aged eight and completed his studies in photography at the Royal College of Art, before leaving London for a career in New York. There, he worked on George magazine with John Kennedy Jr. and as a staff photographer at the New Yorker magazine.

Barack Obama taken in 2006 before he ran for president. For some world leaders, the scarcity of Platon's minimalist set can be liberating.

“The Defenders” takes a different tack to Platon’s earlier work. As a young photographer, he confessed he was dazzled by the world of politicians and celebrities he was working with, walking the corridors of the Kremlin and Downing Street and “having a chat about life” in George Clooney’s garden. Turning his lens to the powerless, by contrast, has upturned his ideas of power altogether.

“Having photographed all these world leaders, often the people I meet in the trenches of the human rights movement are proper leaders,” he said. “They transform their adversity into compassion for others. And that’s something I very rarely see on that level in the political sphere. So I called them — I call the book — “The Defenders,” because it’s a superhero title. These are ordinary people who do extraordinary things, and I do think of them as superheroes. Changing the narrative is very important for me.”

Platon photographed Esther Faraja and her son Josue at Dr. Mukwege's Panzi Hospital in Congo.

Among “The Defenders” are Burmese and Egyptian dissidents, the imprisoned Russian punk band Pussy Riot, and survivors of sexual violence at Dr. Denis Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital in Congo. One of the girls that Platon photographed there was Esther Faraja. She appeared in an episode of Netflix’s “Abstract: The Art of Design,” profiling Platon, although he said the details of the trauma she suffered were “too harsh to put in the film.”

“As I was taking the picture, she wasn’t crying,” he recalled. “I’m a privileged, middle-aged white man, and I’m a mess. I said to her, ‘how is it that I’m crying, and you’re not crying? And yet, you’re the one that has suffered?’ And she said: ‘the reason I don’t cry in your picture is because I don’t want to make you feel sad. I don’t want anyone to feel sad when they look at a picture of me. My mommy and daddy brought me into this world to bring joy to the world. And I will keep my promise’.” Platon is as awestruck now as he was standing in front of her. “Now that is a leader,” he said. “I made a promise to her that I will deliver her message of compassion and strength, combined, to as many people as I can.”

Vladimir Putin apparently initially liked his Platon portrait, but the photographer said the Russian president's opinion of it has changed as the years have passed.

“The Defenders” is an attempt to tell dozens of stories like hers, each captured in one 500th of a second. “Time is a very interesting concept; it doesn’t really ever exist,” Platon mused. “You try to freeze a moment that helps us understand the past and will still be relevant in the future. And yet, it was a moment in the present. And it was such a tiny fragment of a moment that if you blinked, you wouldn’t even have seen it.”

Two political giants offer obvious examples of time’s bizarre effect. Vladimir Putin, photographed by Platon for Time’s Person of the Year in 2007, initially liked the image that Platon produced. He appears powerful. In the time since its publication, however, the same image has been taken, edited, and circulated by political dissidents to mock Putin and belittle his power.

“I heard in the last two years that anyone who’s caught circulating my picture in connection with human rights issues will go to jail,” Platon said. “Now, it’s the same picture. And Putin likes it.”

Bill Clinton, on a December 2000 cover of Esquire courtesy of Platon, has also been changed with age. “At the time, that picture represented insane levels of charisma,” Platon recalled. “He was great with people — everyone says there’s no one more charismatic than Bill Clinton. We look at it through a different lens now, but it’s the same picture. When I get it right, that same picture works for everybody.”

It doesn’t work for Hillary Clinton, though. “Hillary refuses to sit for me,” Platon noted. “She’s one of the only politicians who’s ever said no. And that’s interesting. The ‘no’ now is actually as interesting as the ‘yes’.”

Distilling broad, complicated, emotional human stories into one fleeting moment is a tribulation of all photography, including that of world leaders, but it was particularly difficult when it came to the sensitive topics broached in “The Defenders”. “Many of (the people photographed) risk their lives and their security telling me these stories,” Platon said. “I cannot be reckless. I cannot be — I must not be — a thrill-seeker.”

Exerting due diligence and handling sensitive subjects thoughtfully is something that Platon admits is a luxury of time; he is able to spend months on a project, producing the most considered and provoking images he can. Increasingly, however, a lot of the photography flooding social media is taken hastily, captured on phones and shared without so much as a pause for breath. In “The Defenders,” Platon remembers the Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi coming out of house arrest and being bewildered by the sea of smartphones pointed at her.

Platon photographed Burmese politician and activist Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010, shortly after she was released from nearly 15 years of house arrest.
Anastasia Smirnova is a spokesperson for organizations that document abuses against LGBTQ+ Russians and campaign for human dignity for all sexual orientations and genders.

“Now everyone’s a photographer, and everyone’s a filmmaker,” Platon observed. “In many ways, that’s fantastic. People are holding the powers that be accountable in a new way. The danger is that there’s so much information that we’re constantly distracted. It’s very difficult to get that moment of reflection and pause, and to stand back and think for yourself. As you’re even doing that, your phone is dinging and clicking and beeping — it’s constant noise.”

In standing back, Platon was able to join the dots between the movements he was documenting; they weren’t isolated struggles, he realized, but connected ones. “Obviously each geopolitical situation is inherently different, but they are all fighting for very basic human principles,” he said. “I photographed LGBTQ+ defenders in Burma and in Russia. That’s two very, very different countries, with the same cause.”

In capturing and amplifying the stories of “The Defenders,” Platon hopes to inspire and instruct other people, just as he was inspired and instructed.

Platon photographed members of the Burmese LGBTQ+ community who are living in exile and fighting against legislation that criminalizes same-sex behaviour. Their leader is Aung Myo Min (right).

“It’s really a handbook to the new generation to say: roll up your sleeves, get involved. Society needs a new generation of activists who will think differently. They will have a different path to navigate, but the principles remain timeless and the same. It’s the principles that unite us all. The way we fight, the tools we fight with, the strategies — we have to change those, because times change. But the principles stay the same.”

“The Defenders”, published by MW Editions, is available now.

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