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Photographer Offers a Portrait of Myanmar’s ‘First Lady of Freedom’

Aung San Suu Kyi; photo by Platon for Time

Over the last two decades, many of the world’s famous and powerful have found themselves in front of Platon’s camera.

The renowned portrait photographer dropped his last name early in his career. It happened by mistake after someone in the art department at Vogue Magazine failed to include it in his photo credit.

“I was too embarrassed to complain to the creative director because I was still a student at the time,” Platon said from his office in New York. “I was just grateful for the work…and it stuck somehow.”

Platon has gone on to do portraits for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Esquire and GQ, among others. He’s photographed actors, musicians and more than a hundred world leaders, including President Obama, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (a photo TIME Magazine used for its 2007 Person of the Year Issue) and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yet Platon says his most recent Time Magazine portraits, one of which graces the cover of the Jan. 10 issue, could easily be the best set of images he’s ever captured.

“She is a symbol of freedom,” he said of his latest subject, “and we all take for granted the freedom to walk down the street and criticize our leaders.”

He is referring to Aung San Suu Kyi, the 65-year-old Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was recently released from house arrest in Rangoon. Platon and colleague Hannah Beech were able to secretly photograph and interview the former politician, who has been dubbed the country’s “First Lady of Freedom.”

Suu Kyi, who was last free in 2003, has become a powerful symbol of resistance against the country’s ruling generals. Platon said many Burmese citizens he met carried laminated photos of her as a badge of support.

It was a substantial journalistic feat just to get cameras and microphones into Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, and their reporting trip was almost derailed on several occasions by the junta’s ubiquitous police force, which, according to Platon, tracked the pair’s movements constantly.

“I am not a photojournalist and certainly not used to the Jason Bourne type stuff that some photographers have to deal with,” Platon said. “I’m a portrait photographer that’s used to shooting celebrities, and I usually need time and all kinds of lights and a studio to set up my shots.”

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Platon devised a makeshift set after he and Beech finally locked down an interview and photo shoot with Suu Kyi at the headquarters for the National League for Democracy, a political party that was stripped of its electoral power by the junta after she led it to victory at the polls in 1990.

Platon asked Suu Kyi what music she liked because, he said, “We all know about her politics but I wanted to know who she was as a person.”

Suu Kyi told him that she enjoyed listening to Bach and Mozart but also smiled and said, “I do quite like Bob Marley.”

“It’s her spirit, man, I’m telling you,” Platon said, “It takes your breath away.”

Watch a video of Platon describe how he and Beech were able to sneak out of Burma.

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