Platon and Russia's Leaders in Human Rights
In 2012, in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, five women in knitted balaclavas mounted the dais and performed their punk rock song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away.” It was the eve of the Russian Presidential election with Vladimir Putin as the overwhelming front-runner. He had held the office before the contemporaneous president, Dmitry Medvedev, whose term Putin’s presence had overshadowed. His powerful grip on the Russian politic had never loosened despite gestures of stepping out of the spotlight. Those gestures never turned into real action, and the political career of Russia’s latest Czar was concretized just a few days after the Cathedral performance with his affirmative election to the Presidency. Putin remains President to this day.
The five women in that church that day were all members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot. Their performance landed three of them in jail; Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were arrested for hooliganism while Yekaterina Samutsevich was arrested later on similar charges. They were eventually found guilty and sentenced to two years in Russian Penal Colonies, and would eventually be released shortly before the completion of their full sentence.
Platon, the perennial documentarian of the personalities behind cultural conflict had the opportunity to shoot both Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova in his New York studio for the most recent issue of Wired Magazine. Anyone familiar with Platon’s work should find no surprise that Platon was the photographer tapped for this project. Activists of innumerable ilk have sat for the photographer to display the humanity of their actions. “Through this whole period I had watched Pussy Riot make a giant imprint on the world with their own brand of courage and flare,” Platon explains. “They have proved not just to be cultural icons, but also to be effective contemporary activists with a capacity to inspire the next generation.” Inspiration comes from the persuasion of possibility. By showing the humanness behind figures like Pussy Riot their actions and philosophies become far more accessible and we realize that these forces for change are the same flesh and blood as we are. It forces the viewer to ask if they could make the same choices. “I wanted to show a sense of tenderness and humanity. These activists are the real deal and it was imperative not to show them as merely a two-dimensional media-made cartoon. They are epic humanitarians and I am honored to know them,” says Platon. Activists: they’re just like us.
Bernstein and Andriulli makeup artist Gregg Hubbard was also on set to help complete the vision of the final look. “Everyone agreed that by who they are and what they’ve done these women are fighters,” says Gregg, explaining how he approached the delicacy of this project. ”So they walk in and there’s mistrust. You have to win them over. It’s about winning their trust and going slow.” Platon’s imagery is always so intimate, and about the humanity behind the face, so Gregg had to be sure his work fit into the final composition. He explains: “What I have to do is come and see how they arrive and just present the best version of them. So they still look and feel like themselves, but they’re just a little more camera ready.” By presenting who they are we can better grasp their story and their message. Even if we are not convinced, we can understand. Platon and Gregg worked together to ensure that there would be no filter between us and these women. It’s up to us to make the decision about how we feel.
With the shoot capturing Pussy Riot, Platon has created a portfolio that includes some of the biggest names that have come out of the most trying social conflicts in Russia from the past few years.
The TIME cover that Platon captured with President Vladimir Putin has proven to be loved in both Putin's regime and by his detractors in America. The image shows a man who to the Russians seems powerful, while others read it as a false display revealing an impotence of authority. This image inspired the trust of Putin's company, allowing Platon access to a government and a people that has proven more difficult considering international relationships that started as simply tenuous and have since become outright aggressive.
That special relationship allowed Platon the access he needed to get the ungettable. Through a nine-month process orchestrated by Wired Magazine, Platon became the first photographer to shoot Edward Snowden since Snowden took his place in history by leaking the documents exposing the tactics of the CIA against the American People. Code names and fake social media updates worked towards securing this impossible shoot that shocked a nation back into considering who this man was and what the values of his actions were.
“My relationship with Russia has been fundamentally important to my life’s journey as a photographer and human rights activist,” explains Platon. “It was through this process that I was privileged to meet and interact with some of the most courageous people on the planet- people who believe in freedom of speech and respect for the dignity of the individual.”
We've included photos from these projects that have defined, in many ways, what Russia means to us as Americans. Sanctions have vastly narrowed Russia's ability to export oil, perhaps making their greatest export visible social issues. Platon has done what he can to bring our attention to these pitiable and remarkable errors. It's now in our hands to see what we can or should do to set them right.