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How photographer Platon gets up close to capture a person’s truth

April 6, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
Photographer Platon has captured portraits of the most famous and powerful people on the planet: Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and many others. How does he break down the personal barriers his subjects put up? Platon gives his Brief but Spectacular take.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, another in our Brief But Spectacular series, where we ask people to describe their passions.

Tonight, we here from the photographer Platon, who has taken photographs or portraits of many world leaders and well-known figures. His latest book is called “Service,” and he runs a nonprofit foundation, The People’s Portfolio.

PLATON, Photographer: A portrait, to me, is about closeness, it’s about truth.

Sometimes, someone’s fame, power and success actually becomes a prison, and the person knows better than anybody that they can’t live up to that ideal.

My job is not to be disrespectful, but to be authentic, to say, who are you really?

The first American president I ever came into contact with was Bill Clinton. The magazine said, we want a nice dignified head shot. I thought to myself, look, I’m never going to be in front of another president ever again anyway, so I might as well do the picture that I was born to do.

I shouted out, “Mr. President, will you show me the love?”

And there was silence in the room. I think his chief of staff leaned forward and said, “Mr. President, whatever you do, do not show him the love.”

But Clinton then says: “Shut up. Shut up. I know what he means.”

He puts his hands on his knees, and gives me that Clinton charisma. It became an icon of controversy, dubbing it as the crotch shot, that it’s all about sex, that the tie is actually an arrow, that the face is smiling, saying, I got away with the biggest sex scandal ever.

It wasn’t about any of those things. It was about charisma. He’s a rock ‘n’ roll president.

I was led into Mark Zuckerberg’s office where we were going to do the picture. His neck was tense. His eyes were wide open, and he almost resisted every opportunity I made to connect with him.

And then I said to him, you know, you have succeeded more than any other person I have ever met on the planet, but you must have failed along the way. And when you fail, how do you cope with failure? He looked at me, and he said: “There is no failure. I just love what I do.”

And so, I said, “Show me,” and everything changed.

It’s extraordinary what a simple question can do that connects with his value system.

With Putin, I think that was the first moment I ever had to deal with this sense of intimidation. He walks in with this giant entourage that makes P. Diddy look like Mickey Mouse.

I nervously said: “Mr. President, it’s a great honor to be in your fine country. I have a question for you. Before we take the picture, I want you to know that I’m an Englishman, and I love the Beatles. And I would like to know if you like the Beatles.”

He says, “I love the Beatles.”

I said, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know you spoke English.”

He said, “I speak perfect English.”

I said, “Well, who’s your favorite Beatle?”

And he said, “Paul.”

“Wow. What’s your favorite song. Is it ‘Back in the USSR’?”

He said, “No, it’s ‘Yesterday.’ Think about it.”

I ended up an inch-and-a-half away from his nose. And that’s how I got the truth. This is the cold face of power in Russia.

I worked with Donald Trump quite a while ago, but even back then, there was this chaos and madness that surrounded him.

I remember saying to him: “Donald, how do you weather the storm? It’s madness around you wherever you go, whatever you do, whatever you say. There’s this sort of frenetic energy.”

Suddenly, this quiet calm came over him, and he said, “I am the storm.”

All this sort of frenetic, crazy energy and sense of chaos is very easy for Donald to navigate through that, because he created it. And it’s actually us that can’t cope with it.

My name is Platon, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on speaking truth to power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wow.

And you can find additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, pbs.org/newshour/brief.

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