Photographer Platon has captured images of a wide variety of people, from the homeless to a who’s who of cultural icons. During his ED (Filene) Talk Sunday at CUNA GAC, Platon shared his stories of being in the same room as some of the most recognizable people who have ever lived—the good and the bad.
“I’ve seen power up close and personal, but I haven’t seen the magic ingredient to being a good person or a good leader in most of these people,” he said. “I think the answer is in a little word called ‘service.’ I think that a great member of society has to think of themselves as a servant of people in order to make things better.”
Platon recalled sharing a love of the Beatles with Russian President Vladimir Putin (favorite Beatle: Paul; favorite song: “Yesterday”) and an admiration for Winston Churchill with President George H.W. Bush. He’s listened to George Clooney decry society’s echo chambers, was moved by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s thoughts on feminism, and captured the “power and discipline” in Apple CEO Tim Cook’s eyes.
He also called Christopher Walken “the weirdest guy I’ve ever met in my life.”
Platon often finds himself capturing his subjects at a time of transition. Sometimes the subject is on the rise, like when he took a photo of then Sen. Barack Obama, minutes after he announced his campaign for president. Or when he took the first official portrait of new First Lady Michelle Obama.
He took the final official portrait of President Bill Clinton during his second term. Later, he photographed then-candidate Donald Trump, just as his presidential campaign began to pick up steam.
He also snapped the last official photographs of physicist Stephen Hawking and professional boxer Muhammad Ali. It was Ali who told Platon one of the most shocking confessions he’s ever heard, along with a lesson he’s carried ever since.
“He said, ‘I wasn’t as great as I said I was.’ I told him, 'That’s the biggest confession I’ve ever heard in my life. Everyone knows you as the greatest.' He said, ‘I think you misunderstand me. It wasn’t me that was great, it’s the people who saw themselves in my struggle. The people who saw themselves in my story,’” Platon said. “He said, ‘If you can get people to see themselves in the story that you put forward, then you have a chance of achieving greatness.’”
But it’s not just the most famous people of the last century who inspire Platon. Then-11-year-old activist Naomi Wadler, during a session, told him to “talk with people, don’t talk at them. Listen to them, don’t just hear them,” advice he immediately wrote down and has referred to since.
In his closing remarks, Platon said he wanted to leave the audience “not with an answer, but a question” for them to take away.
“Leaders in this room: We need you now. Now is the time to think about your legacy while you can still shape it…Are we to be bystanders, like moths dancing around somebody else’s flame?” he asked. “Or are we to light the darkness ourselves with our own torch of compassion?”
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