Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaité, President Barack Obama, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and South African president Jacob Zuma were among the 110 world leaders Platon photographed over five days at the United Nations.
It was déjà vu all over again at last night’s National Magazine Awards, at least in the design and photo categories. The evening featured impressive threepeats, as Wired and National Geographic collected their third consecutive wins for design and photojournalism, respectively. And Platon pulled off back-to-back victories for The New Yorker in the photo portfolio category. The idea for his “Portraits of Power,” an astounding body of work spread lusciously over The New Yorker‘s December 7 issue, was sparked when the photographer happened to catch Henry Kissinger being interviewed on Charlie Rose early last year.
The veteran statesman was explaining how the contemporary political landscape makes it impossible for a country to solve even internal problems in isolation. Addressing international issues, he said, requires special relationships between world leaders. That gave Platon, a staff photographer at The New Yorker, an idea. “I wanted to show a new collective personality, as if all these leaders were now on one team, highlighting the difficult challenges and strained tensions, as well as the new optimism and goodwill, generated by Obama’s election,” Platon told us in an interview in advance of last night’s awards. He proposed an ambitious portfolio of world leaders to editor-in-chief David Remnick, and they decided on the United Nations as the ideal setting. “It is the place that brings together a family of nations and functions as the platform for world understanding,” said Platon. “It provided the perfect cohesive setting for my portraits for this project.”
Six months of intense negotiations later, Platon was at the UN constructing (under extremely close supervision) a small portrait studio beside the podium where each world leader would deliver his or her address to the 2009 General Assembly. “It was certainly the most relentless suspension of physical and and psychological tension I have ever experienced in my life,” said Platon. “To negotiate a portrait sitting was often as challenging as the portrait itself.” But it’s not the historic and unprecedented access that distinguishes the 110 resulting portraits, taken over five long days. What makes the portfolio so entrancing is the extraordinarily personal quality that Platon managed to capture in his diverse subjects amidst the cacophony of the conference proceedings, suspicious security teams, and idling entourages. “The portraits sit together as individual and intimate character studies. I wanted to show what it was really like to meet these people ‘up close and personal,’” he explained. “Collectively however, the portraits give us a communal spirit of the contemporary global, political power structure.”