You Need To Know Platon, The Photographer Who's Changing The World
2016 is a particularly unpleasant time in American politics. A man who looks like the living embodiment of a Cheeto is currently yelling at us to be exclusive, to be hateful, to essentially be cruel to our fellow man. The whole mess begs larger questions; like, for example, is the entire American experiment a failure? It’s all quite exhausting.
So the work of British photographer Platon (who only goes by his first name) is simultaneously maddening, emotional, and overwhelmingly life-affirming. His series, “Service,” originally shot for The New Yorker and slated for a showing at the Milk Gallery starting June 22nd, chronicles the domestic experiences of servicemen and their families during the Iraq War. Primarily shot during our last election cycle, the images show families torn apart, loyal servicemen and women brought together, and the overall devastation of war. The photographs could be classified as nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean they are objective: as Platon told us, he has great feeling for his subjects, and he is a purposeful, subjective storyteller (his preferred term for his occupation).
Before “Service,” Platon had consistently photographed the world’s major leaders. As he told us, his portrait of Putin has been used in protests by the gay rights community, his photos of Hugo Chávez have been tattooed on women’s backs, and his legendary “crotch shot” of Bill Clinton was a major part of the news cycle. Most powerfully, his photo of a Muslim mother grieving over her son, who was killed while serving in the American army, inspired Colin Powell to support “a more inclusive candidate,” Barack Obama. And while Platon’s portraits of the world’s dominant authorities are, well, powerful, nothing can touch the raw emotionality of “Service.” We sat down for a chat at Milk Studios—where the photographer has captured everyone from Al Pacino to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the athletes who delivered a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics—and talked about his politically potent images.
How did you make the transition from photographing world leaders to “Service?”
What is good leadership? I’m always in search of that. Leadership is about power, authority, confidence, and charisma—all those facets of the human condition. I think at one point I had photographed maybe 160 or 170 of the world’s leaders. I had seen up close and personal that sense of supremacy, but there’s another side of leadership, and that is service. To be a good leader, technically speaking, you are a servant of the people. [You need to] empower them in some way. To be a servant implies a sense of being humble, of being aware, and having compassion. This service side, [however], I didn’t see too much in our [media]. I did not see this idea [of being] subservient to the people’s right to dignity. So, I kind of got sick of politics, and I got fed up with propaganda. And after the collapse of the global economy in 2008, I thought our leaders have let us down. So, where do you go to find service? I thought if I focused on the idea of serving your country, maybe I could find some answers.
What answers did you find?
I consciously attempted to avoid politics. I didn’t want to photograph anyone famous or powerful. It was the men and women who served their country. I expected the Pomp and Circumstance, the bravado of going to war. I got embedded with all our military as they trained with our most recent wars. It starts with graduation day at West Point, goes all the way to first day of basic training when your head it shaved and you’re given your boots, all the way through basic training, which is hardcore. Then, there’s deployment, the day you‘re sent away for a question mark. You don’t know how long you’re going for or exactly where you’re going. The ship sets sail and everyone says goodbye to their loved ones at the dock. At that point, I started to see the toll it takes on families. And then you start to see the toll it takes to serve your country.
“There are psychological scars, there are physical scars. In some cases people come back in a coffin.”
The people who come back from war have seen and experienced things that you can’t learn form a book. They will never be the same. There are psychological scars, there are physical scars. In some cases people come back in a coffin.
But on the other side of that, funnily enough, I discovered the true meaning of love and compassion. When you talk about war, you don’t think of those sides of the human condition. But I learned that the love between soldiers is so deep that they will take a bullet for each other. That’s a kind of love that you don’t really have in normal society. You have a small platoon, and the survival of the platoon depends on your performing constantly at the highest level. If someone stops, you’re actually endangering the others. So it forces this bond between soldiers that is absolutely incredible. Consequently, when you lose someone in your platoon, the toll it takes on the fellow men and women you’re serving with is just unbearable.
I read in Slate that you don’t consider yourself a photojournalist. Is there a problem with the term?
Everyone loves labels. Once, I asked Edward Snowden, “Are you a patriot or are you a traitor?” And he said to me, “Don’t get bogged down with labels.” I refuse to be given an identity by someone’s restrictions.
I’m nothing. I’m just the messenger. I’ve filtered these messages back into society. I think that now more than ever, we need healthy debate. It’s odd, because we know we have so much information at our fingertips now, so much connectivity, and yet we’re starved of wisdom.
Somehow we know less, and I think we’re all in danger of being trapped in our own echo chambers, because if you want to get the source of information of news or anything you’re probably going to go to a source online that confirms what you already believe. So that magical experience, the shared experience, where we all come together and debate with respect, is rapidly disappearing. And we are losing the capacity to learn from each others’ beautiful differences! It’s beautiful if someone believes something different, if someone has a different value system or a political belief or faith. It shouldn’t make you feel so threatened about what you believe. You should have the confidence to open up your heart and mind and see how other people think and feel. And my job, the way I see it in these troubled times, is to help recreate that beautiful shared experience, and say, ‘I know you think you’re different from this person, but here’s how this person sees the world.’
You’ve spoken about this previously, sort of stating that your photos, which were taken in 2008, have a special relevance now with this election cycle and all of the horrible rhetoric going on in the world. How would you apply the photos to today?
The interesting thing about [this series] is that it’s called “Service;” it’s about patriotism, it’s about serving your country. That’s something that cuts across the political line. So it’s the perfect territory to bring up interesting issues about our society, because it’s something that everyone feels involved with emotionally. It’s multifaceted: what should we do with our military? Should we get involved with wars that are unjust before we send human beings into harm’s way? We have to make sure, as our leaders have to carry that responsibility very heavily, and I think it’s pretty evident that in the past that hasn’t happened.
In terms of the divisions in America, I found that in this set of images there are human stories. Everyone serves their country in this project, whether it’s a young boy dressed in a mini version of his dad’s marines uniform, allowing his father to leave; or the widow who holds the flag that was draped over her husband’s coffin. And then there’s the Muslim mother who gave her son’s life. Now, her son was a kid during 9/11, and he witnessed the towers come down on TV, and he was so devastated as a kid, as an American, and he wanted to give back and support his country. He waited until he was just old enough to serve, he joined up, and a few years later, he was tragically killed in Iraq. Now, his mother serves her country. And yet somehow in society now, some of us are trying to create the impression of division. Everyone in the pictures that I show has served, and they are all incredibly powerful stakeholders in this idea that is America. It raises a very powerful question. Are we a country made out of beautiful differences? Isn’t that what we were formed to be? And if that is the case, why are we picking each other apart?
See Platon speak at an artist talk at Milk on Thursday, June 23rd.
Stay tuned to Milk for more from Platon.