Platon, Portraits And Power To The People

Time stood still in November last year as for many the moment they never thought they’d see actually happened as Aung San Suu Kyi walked free. Some weeks later Time stood still again for another moment deemed never to re-occur as the Lady returned to grace the magazine once more. Last night saw internationally renowned portrait photographer Platon and the person who took ‘that’ cover shot present a slideshow of his work to promote his new book “Power” at LSE in London. Interestingly also having begun his career at Central St Martins in London he went on to RCA (that’s where the similarities end for now as I was rejected twice!) and over a 20+ year career has photographed a plethora of celebrities and world leaders often in his unique and renowned style. Wide angled lenses right up close an inch and a half from the face of Gaddafi and Mugabe, like it or not, his work is different, engaging and at times incredibly powerful.

Platon’s cover shot of the Lady on show at his talk in London

But it was often the stories behind the image that proved more compelling as he recounted tales from the Kremlin to the White House in a self depreciating and humourous fashion. Interestingly when you consider all of the people he has photographed, from Obama to Pacino, the only person who he was not permitted to discuss at all was his shoot with David Beckham. Four non-disclosure contracts he was forced to sign saw to that. Licence to roam between facts and fantasy is the right of the storyteller and likewise the right to pass judgement on any alleged ego or self importance that anyone may show in so doing is up to those who choose to look and listen. It is too easy to slate someone in the public eye or in a position like Platon’s for having an ego, however big or small one might think it is or however right or wrong one may be in thinking so either through fact or jealousy. But there are many in this world be they photographers, celebrities, politicians or ordinary people who have their own agendas and are at times deluded by grandeur – I’ve been accused of having an ego for not telling people who I really am or for not showing my face. At times it often seems there’s just no pleasing anyone. I’m not interested in passing judgement publicly on anyone’s character and whilst his trip inside Burma and the resulting frantic car chase may at times seem a little OTT at least he went there (and wants to go back) and it was superb to see him dedicate a large section of his talk to his work with Human Rights Watch on the Thai-Burma border as well as his visit inside to meet with the Lady. An audience who perhaps had come to see the power of Clinton or the beauty of Monica Bellucci were instead stunned into further silence at the horrors of Burma. I got the chance to catch up with him after the event and we chatted about Burma, the Lady and working inside the country amongst other things. He was genuinely deeply humbled by the work that undercover VJs do inside the country and all those whom he had met on the Thai-Burma border. On a personal note it was great to meet him due to a mutual relevance in the work he has recently done for Burma and so many of the people he has met and photographed. He told me something that cast aside any self-doubts I ever had and means more to me than he could ever know (for those thinking my alleged ego is creeping back into the room it was not him saying how much he admired my work or how brilliant it was. Nothing like that. Rather it was something that others had said to him about it). An invitation to meet up with him in New York at the end of the year was laid on the table and that is an opportunity I hope might happen. Who knows, I might finally learn to use lighting.

Thailand Day 15: Mae Sot

In trying to make the most of this extra time here on the border it just constantly seems that there is never enough time. Meetings that just never seem to happen meaning that my plans to get to Chiang Mai and catch up with Rachel, and friends at Chiang Mai and DVB are likely to be put on the back burner again and may not happen at all this time which is a shame. The week has been busy with re-editing and re-shooting mixed with plenty of “R ‘n’ R” mostly over at Generation Wave’s HQ where I’ve been staying for a bit. So far this week I’ve retaken a number of portraits and yesterday and today once again we managed to do U Sandawbartha (16 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons), Moe Myint (12 years in Insein prison on 4 occasions) and Dr Tun Thu (8 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons).

Dr Tun Thu

Unfortunately Dr Tun Thu has been suffering from what is possibly a serious case of post traumatic stress syndrome due to his time as a political prisoner. Last year when I met him he was fit and healthy and working as a doctor in the Mae Tao clinic. In the months in-between I was very sad to learn of his failing mental health and he appears to have suffered very badly indeed. But meeting him now it would actually appear that he is hopefully turning the corner. One can’t begin to imagine how the mind has suffered through years of torture and abuse as a political prisoner. The body can show you the scars of pain but it’s what’s inside that can so often be so much more painful. There is no support system for former political prisoners other than their friends and colleagues here on the border. But there is possibly hope that comes in the form of the ‘Borderline Project‘ for former political prisoners which is a proposal to form a safe house, training and rehabilitation project here in Mae Sot and is being set up by my friend Thiha and Markus Baude. It is an excellent proposal and I can only hope that they are successful in their search for funding… I know how difficult that is (not one penny funding received yet for this project – ed). Also I’ve been busy with more UNHCR work today and will continue tomorrow as well as interviews need translating and more need to be taken… but still no response to my requests for a meeting with the UNHCR office themselves.

Other news I learn today is about Human Rights Watch plans to step up their political prisoner campaign “2100 by 2010“. They will be holding an exhibition (installation) in Grand Central Station in New York in June possibly around Aung San Suu Kyi’s 65th birthday. It looks really impressive and will hopefully keep up the awareness in the public domain – it certainly should being in one of the worlds busiest train stations. They have arranged for one of the world’s top portrait photographers Platon to come and photograph former political prisoners to be part of this campaign. Nice idea… wonder where that came from? I had meetings with HRW back in December 2009 about my work linking with their campaign but despite initial meetings outlining how ideal it was unfortunately nothing came of it… and here they now have one of the world’s top portrait photographers instead. That’s just life, but I am more pleased that one of the worlds top photographers is showing an interest in Burma and in particular political prisoners. I for one can’t wait to see his pictures and I only hope he does my friends justice…

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