Platon ‘The Defenders’ Photography Book Interview 2024


How This Renowned Photographer Went From Shooting Celebrities To Human Rights Activists

Platon was known for his portraits of powerful people. Then, a trip to Myanmar changed everything.

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Fifteen years ago, Human Rights Watch approached celebrity portrait photographer Platon with a pitch: They wanted him to help educate the public on the human rights crisis in Myanmar by capturing imagery of the people there. It was going to be a dangerous, months-long job with no pay. Platon’s wife had just given birth. He decided to go anyway.

The trip swerved the trajectory of Platon’s career, putting him on a years-long path of putting a face to those affected by and fighting against human rights violations. Now, Platon is releasing those photographs in an ambitious book titled The Defenders: Heroes of the Global Fight for Human Rights, which is accompanied by a major exhibition of portraits at UTA Artists Space in Los Angeles, on view from May 3 to 25.

“You photograph them the way you photograph celebrities and world leaders and models,” Platon says of his subjects in Myanmar. “I photographed them not as victims; I photographed them as powerful, resilient human beings who refuse to be broken.” When he returned from Myanmar, he went to The New Yorker and urged them to publish the photos; after those ran, the media began “seeing human rights defenders and activists as heroes,” he says. “It was a different mindset.”

In 2013, Platon formed his own human rights foundation, which gave him the resources to document the Egyptian Revolution, as well as to Russia, where he photographed dissidents under Vladimir Putin's regime. He went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, capturing images of people fighting against sexual violence. He spent a whole year crossing the Mexican-American border, taking photos of families torn apart by immigration policy. The Defenders is a compilation of all this work over the last 15 years.

“I've spent so much time in front of powerful people,” Platon says. “They say I’ve photographed more world leaders than anyone in history now. I've seen dandruff on world leaders. I see if they're nervous and their eyelids flutter. I feel their pulse. People ask me a lot what I think power is. I think power is something that, if you are lucky to acquire any at all, you have to share it. You have to use it to help others.”