How Platon Photographed 44 Immigrants, including my 91-Year-Old Friend, in 36 Hours

Posted by on Tuesday December 20, 2016 | Photojournalism

Photos © Platon. The three cover portraits for New York magazine's story, "44 Immigrants on Living in a Sanctuary City."

For the cover story in the current issue of New York magazine, Platon made portraits of 44 immigrants, ranging in age from one month to 91 years old. His portraits of the subjects, photographed singly and in groups, fill nine pages in the annual “Reasons to Love New York” issue. Platon photographed the parade of people in only a day and a half. “It was madness,” he says.

“The idea was we were not being partisan,” he explains. “We were focusing on the human side of the story and showing people as courageous, rather than victimized.”

I was eager to see the layouts because the oldest subject in the story is a long-time friend of mine. When I saw a note New York photo editor Marvin Orellana posted on social media, looking for older New Yorkers born in other countries, I suggested Claire Procopio, 91, whom I’ve known since I was 18. She came to New York City from a village in Abruzzo, Italy, with her mother and older sister in 1928. Claire told me she was game for a photo shoot. But once I made the calls, I was nervous: How was she going to look, and what would she think of the whole experience?

Photos © Platon. From New York's story, "44 Immigrants on Living in a Sanctuary City." That's Claire Procopio on the right.

Photos © Platon. From New York’s story, “44 Immigrants on Living in a Sanctuary City.” Claire Procopio is on the right.

Platon has previously shot large groups for The New Yorker, The National Center for Civil Rights and other organizations. He founded People’s Portfolio, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, “to build bridges and do positive storytelling about the challenging stories of our time,” he explains, and produced a portfolio on U.S. immigrants about a year ago. Jody Quon, director of photography at New York, contacted him in November to do something similar on New York immigrants. Platon recalls, “She said: The great news is you’ve got 10 pages to fill, plus three covers. I said: What’s the catch? She said you’ve got a week to do it.”

On the day in late November when the subjects made their way to his studio, Platon posed each person alone, then had them pose in groups or duos, so people from different countries posed together. “It felt like a happening,” he recalls. A reporter gathered each subject’s story. Says Platon, “You can’t put them all under one umbrella as ‘immigrants.’ They’re all unique with different stories, but I could bring them together.” He shot the cover portraits the next day.

Though the lighting setup was consistent, Platon’s directions had to vary with each subject. “I had some people who just adored being photographed. It was their chance to be heard and be seen,” he says. Another woman was nervous about what to do, he recalls. “I had to go into a different gear. I said: It’s not about you performing for me like a circus animal. We’ll do it together.”

My friend Claire’s reaction was a little impatient. She said after the shoot, “He did take an awful lot of pictures. He took 50 and 75 shots at least.” He then photographed her posing with Reinhard Mergeler, 77, who was born in Germany. When I told Platon what Claire said, he pointed out that at 91, “being in a magazine photo shoot doesn’t mean that much.” True. Claire is very proud of her three wonderful kids and two grandchildren. Being photographed by a guy who’s photographed every living U.S. president can’t touch that.

Claire also told me, “The photographer was very nice and encouraging and he said, ‘That’s great, that’s wonderful,’ so that made me feel good.”

She added, “He did a variety of pictures and then he told me to look very proud and dignified. That’s what I tried to do.” I asked Claire, who sang in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera and has, in recent years, performed with The Village Light Opera Group, if being photographed is at all like performing on stage. “I know when I get on stage to be ‘on,’” she said. “I think I tried to do that subconsciously.”

When people step between the camera and a big white backdrop, they step “out of context” Platon notes. “Whatever their response is, that’s their way of getting used to having their picture taken.” One young asylum seeker from Aleppo, Syria, started crying just before her photo was taken. Says Platon, “It makes you realize how vulnerable so many of these people are, or have been.”

Platon says this was the first editorial project he’s shot digitally: He still prefers to shoot film and then scan it, but the turnaround on this job was too tight. His studio assistants handle all his post production. To meet New York’s deadline, he says, “My team didn’t sleep for a week.”

After the photo shoot, a few subjects were asked to return to New York magazine’s office to do video interviews. In her video, Claire answers questions about moving to this country, and applying to The Juilliard School. At the interviewer’s request, she sang “Torna a Surriento”—though she hadn’t warmed up or prepared, Claire points out. About the interview she says, “I wasn’t nervous, because I thought: They want me, and I’ll just be myself. That’s it.”

Platon, who was born in London, raised in Greece, and is the father of kids born in the U.S., says of the New York story: “This is a celebration. This is a moment when you get to see people as humans, not as statistics.”

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