Platon is famous for getting big personalities to open up in front of his camera. He’s worked with many of the world’s most eccentric leaders — Putin, Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad — but always found a way to make a picture.
That’s why he didn’t stress when Mark Zuckerberg showed up for a recent portrait acting — as the Facebook founder has become known for — a bit awkward and nervous.
“He was very polite, but he was pacing the room like a wild animal put in a cage,” says Platon.
It took some coaxing, a little yelling and a promise from Platon that the strings on his sweatshirt would appear at an even length, for Zuck to eventually open up.
“He finally gave in for a few seconds and I caught something that was beautiful and elegant,” Platon says. “There is an openness to his soul that is not usually there.”
It’s a testament to the scope and quality of Platon‘s work that he has achieved single-name status in the photography world (his full name is Platon Antoniou). Even if you don’t recognize the name, you almost certainly know his work. His portraits of Putin, Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi have been on the cover of TIME magazine. In 2009 he photographed dozens of world leaders at the United Nations in a series called Portraits of Power that was published in The New Yorker magazine and also became the book Power. More recently he’s also turned his camera on those who’ve stood up to power. In 2010The New Yorker published a striking portrait series of still-living civil rights leaders and he’s photographed human rights leaders across the world.
Now he’s captured many of tech’s biggest leaders for Wired’s 20th anniversary issue, out this month, of which Zuckerberg is one. His secret to working with powerful and important people, he says, is that he doesn’t pay attention to titles. It doesn’t matter if he’s photographing a president, the leader of the web’s biggest social media site or a random person on the street.
“It’s irrelevant to me who they are,” he says. “All that matters is if it’s a good picture or a bad picture. That’s all I care about.”
A good picture for him revolves around a moment. A glance, a breath. Something that peals back the façade and reveals the personality of the subject.
“Photography is just the technique, it’s the grammar, but it’s never the content,” he says.
Congressman Bobby Rush — a former Black Panther — was one of the people photographed for the Civil Rights series in The New Yorker. He told Wired that Platon’s ability to capture the humanity in all of his subjects is what he admires most.
“He is able to take the vicissitudes of our vast human experience and capture them in a single shot,” he says. “He creates a common language that we can identify with and respond to.”
Finding that moment and common language is harder with some people and easier with others. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, like Zuckerberg, put up a fight. Platon says Ballmer walked in and immediately tried to establish his authority.
“I told him, ‘Let’s get one thing straight. I’m not scared of you at all. I have no fear but I do admire you.’ As soon as I said those two things he was mine,” Platon says. “It was like doing a president. It was very familiar territory.”
The result is a compelling and uncharacteristic picture, with Ballmer facing sideways with his eyes closed. Many of the photos Platon made for the Wired portfolio show the tech leaders in poses and with expressions we’ve never seen.
Platon, who just turned 45, is not always fierce. He’s also very charming and can make conversation with anyone. There’s a famous story of him using a common love of the Beatles to break the ice with Putin, and in interviews and and speeches he’s articulate and prepared.
MaryAnne Golon was the Director of Photography at TIME who assigned the Putin portrait. She says she’s always admired Platon’s ability to work with people.
“He’s got an amazing presence and personality and he really is fantastic at putting people at ease,” she says.
Golon, who is now an Assistant Managing Editor and the Director of Photography at The Washington Post, says she remembers another TIME cover he shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Bloomberg together. Looking through his take she says the two leaders were stiff in the earlier photos but began to loosen up as time went on.
“They started to clown around which is what we were hoping for,” she says. “You could see that he was working his magic.”
Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, told Wired it was fun to work with Platon and called him “effervescent.” He says he was humbled to be photographed and instead of fighting him wanted to do everything in is power to help Platon make a good picture.
“It really blew my mind when I realized that [people like President Obama] had been in the same position being photographed by the same photographer,” says Ohanian. “It was undoubtedly a moment of imposter syndrome.”
Not so for Platon. He says he sees Ohanian and the other tech leaders he photographed as on equal footing with any of the power brokers he’s ever photographed. At a time when people are using Facebook and Twitter to overthrow presidents, tech leaders have the potential to overshadow the traditional political elite.
“They have really empowered people with tools that hold our leaders accountable,” says Platon. “And that is an incredible revolution.”