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March 28 2012

My worst shot

Photographers are generally proud to show off their best shots, but what about their worst? Jane Bown, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and others reveal all

My best shot: The one that got away

For five years, G2 has been asking photographers to tell us the story behind their best shot. But what about their worst? Jane Bown, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and others reveal all

Tom Hunter

Every summer I go with my family to Kingswear on the River Dart in Devon. One day in 2010 we were out on the lawn when suddenly it was as if a tower block was obscuring our view. It turned out that it was a huge ship called The World, where rich people live; it was incredible to see this huge dwelling being pulled by tug boats.

At 5am the next day I heard a huge foghorn, and we scrambled out of bed to see it leave. It was a phenomenal sight but I don't think I got the exposure right. I was fumbling with my old-fashioned plate camera and only got a single shot because I'm so slow.

Normally, I am very calculating. I spend a long time working out what to do. I took this picture randomly and don't know what to do with it now; it lurks in my library, a lost opportunity.

What I love about photography is that sense of a real time and place, an in-depth relationship with the real world. But I've always found it frustrating, too. Every time I've wanted to take a snapshot in a beautiful squat in Hackney, or of Travellers, it never looks as I hoped, but sloppy or messy instead. That's why I've gone against what photography is all about in some ways: by using a big camera, getting the light right and making it look as I want it to. I see the world through rose-tinted glasses and that's the way I want to show it.

There are millions of pictures like this one all over the internet and they're not really saying very much apart from: "Wow, this looks funny." I've made my niche and this isn't it.

Jane Bown

In 1967 I was living in Sevenoaks, Kent, when I somehow found out that Marc Chagall was going to be visiting Tudeley, which was close by. A young woman had drowned in a boating accident and her father had donated a stained glass window to the church in her memory. It was a Chagall design, so he came to the village for its unveiling.

I really wanted to photograph him, so I went along and was about to do so when the people with him told me not to. I wasn't pushy, and had a rule that I would only photograph people who wanted me to. I've been in situations where you're not meant to take photographs, or where the press were held back: when [Liberal MP] Jeremy Thorpe came out of court in 1979 the policemen were all standing there – so I went in under their feet to get a shot.

I was allowed to shoot Chagall later that day but it wasn't the same. Before, he had been coming up the path towards me, looking like a very sweet and beautiful man with white hair. The pictures afterwards were boring. They were all standing there waiting for me to do it. It was no good at all.

Ed Ruscha

This was taken when I was researching my Twentysix Gasoline Stations book in the early 1960s. I found the car on the old Route 66 in a desolate area of Arizona that featured a Navajo rug store. Other than the gas stations, I didn't take a lot of pictures on that trip. Here, I had an urge to swing the camera sideways and get something else.

This picture has all the traits of a well-rounded photograph: there are the jack rabbits on the fence, which make it look as if there is movement; the car that's really dead, including the tumbleweed to one side and the beat-up old licence plate; the sky is totally noncommittal; the horizon is mute. In a photography class, people would discuss how these different elements have come together to make it work. It possesses all the signifiers – and that's the very reason it fails.

I feel like it's my worst photograph. It's too perfect with its phony Americana. I have never used it for anything. But at the same time I'm wondering if that car is still there, rusting away.

Terry O'Neill

There aren't many people I have really, really wanted to photograph during my career, with two exceptions: Marilyn Monroe and Bob Dylan.

In 1986, my pal Eric Clapton introduced me to Bob in London. I wanted to take a strong portrait of him that was both immediate and honest. I think we all want to look into those eyes and discover something about him. There's still a mystery after all these years about who he really is, and I wanted to try to find that.

It takes time to build up a rapport where you feel confident you'll get the shot you want, but to my disappointment, Bob didn't want to play ball. He wouldn't pose without Eric by his side; he even took to wrapping his head in a towel to hide from the camera, which frustrated me.

To this day, I'm not sure why. Perhaps he was just shy. But it was a real shame for me: there's a depth of character to his face that would have come across strikingly on film. But it was not to be.

I guess there is always the one who got away. In my case, there's two.

Jillian Edelstein

In 1990 I photographed Gregory Peck for Time Out. It was at a London hotel and I thought I'd be able to photograph him from all angles. But he pointed with a long finger directly into his left cheek, which sagged inwards, and said in his American drawl: "I can only be photographed from this side."

Perhaps I shouldn't have listened but in our short, intimate interaction, I felt obliged to respect his wish. After all, he'd been around the block a few times; he knew his best angle. I was young and probably a bit nervous. But I've learned with time that it is incredibly important to direct your own shotAnother time, I photographed Spike Lee and .I must have loaded the film incorrectly: when I went to the dark room, I didn't have an image. He was furious, but did finally agree to do more. Because I was so embarrassed I took something simple; in those photographs, he's very unsmiley and slightly cheesed off.I once visited Portugal with an anthropologist who was doing some incredible work on rituals. We were staying in a rural village, and there was this extraordinary story: a woman had been beaten up in a field in a dispute over intermarrying in different districts. We picked up another woman who was going to visit her in hospital, and I remember seeing this very weather-beaten, agricultural woman standing there with her feet rooted to the ground and a cat in a plastic bag in her hand. Everybody was having to move very quickly, so I never got a picture – but I can still see her in my head to this day.

Martin Parr

Ninety nine per cent of the photographs we take are failures. They might have documentary value, or fulfil an assignment, but they won't stand the test of time. That's what makes it interesting, otherwise why be a photographer?

I wanted to show two pictures, a good one and a reject, to illustrate the weaknesses of the dud. I took them at last year's Port Eliot festival, where I was doing a pop-up exhibition, producing a show each day. They were shot at a disco at midnight; by 11am the print was up on the wall.

The image where the woman has her arm up in the air is the final one. Everything came together: she was photogenic and doing the right gesture; I had balanced the ambient light with the flash, which takes a few frames. The frame before isn't bad, but it's not as good. It typifies the dilemma of photography: you do lots of not-bad ones, but often the good one doesn't happen at all.


I had an idea that all our leaders are presented to us through a veil of propaganda. I went to see Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the UN, and said I wanted to show our leaders up close and personal. In 2009 I was given unprecedented access.

I shot around 110 world leaders and, fortunately, there were no technical mistakes. Ahmadinejad was the biggest surprise. On the first day, he made one of the most controversial speeches ever given at the UN, and a large proportion of the auditorium walked out. As he left the stage his supporters swarmed him, patting his back and shaking his hand. There were about 150 people pulling him in different directions. I elbowed my way into the middle of the scrum, grabbed both his hands, looked into his eyes and said, "Come with me, I am going to take your picture." As I gently pulled his hands, miraculously he started to follow me to my studio.

I was expecting to get that dictatorial menace he had shown in his speech. But he suddenly realised that, not only was he about to sit for the most intimate portrait of him ever, the crowd was also watching. They were all cheering; he lost his composure for a second and started to laugh. What I got was him trying to regain his composure. It's the most sinister leer I've caught on film.

It was a missed opportunity, in the sense that he was trying to gather himself and deal with the embarrassment of performing in front of all those people. On the other hand, it gave me something I would never have expected. No one thinks of Ahmadinejad as a man with a hint of a smile.

Taryn Simon

I rarely have a camera on me. I don't take images regularly and I've never been interested in capturing the moment. The act of photographing is always the last step in a long process of research, writing and organisation. And it's a big camera on a tripod with a lot of lighting - not something that can easily be by my side.

In An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, I often didn't know what the site I was photographing looked like before arriving, as I was seeking subjects that were unfamiliar. The visuals only existed in my imagination, through my research and years of gaining access.

For this image, I planned to scuba dive and discover the point where submarine telecommunications cables, carrying more than 60m simultaneous conversations, reach land after crossing the Atlantic, from Saunton Sands in the UK to New Jersey. I went to the US point of arrival and opened the manhole they come up through: it was heavily piped, dark, uninteresting.

This is the room where they leave the manhole. When I took the picture I thought it was a failure. I had anticipated a murky, underwater image with cables peeking out from a heroic finish line on the ocean floor. Instead, I ended up in a banal room with a few dinky cables climbing the walls and a shabby guard rail. But the simplicity is what I later appreciated: instead of a fantastical feat, there's a vulnerability. You sense that 60m conversations could be easily interrupted – snipped – by a hand and scissors. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 06 2011

Platon and the many faces of world power | Emily Kasriel

Platon has photographed leaders from Obama to Ahmadinejad. The sitter can wear a mask, but a mask can be revealing

There aren't many jobs which demand that you perform for a few crucial seconds. Competitive sprinting perhaps. There are even fewer where, in those brief moments, you must establish an intense bond with your "collaborator". Photographing 100 world leaders as they rush through their meetings at the United Nations is one of them.

When you leaf through Power, the latest book by the British photographer Platon, the portfolio of portraits of political leaders reveals individuals, almost exclusively men, who look sanitised, even saint-like, as if they aspire to be elevated above us mortals. What becomes apparent is that in those precious moments of a portrait sitting, Platon has been able to establish a deep connection with his subjects that allows him to glimpse beyond the carefully constructed aura of power.

Platon, born in 1968 in London, has won many international awards for his work. His images of celebrities have graced major magazines such as the New Yorker, Time, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, and he now lives with his family in New York. When he talks about his work and his motivation, he exudes an intensity, as if his time with you is also fleeting. He told me that his role is to cure the amnesia of the world's societies. He has a desperate urge to stop time and record the existence of a world leader or a protester in Cairo's Tahir Square, and feels his images allow him to capture an essential essence of their being.

Not surprisingly, convincing so many world leaders to collaborate with a photographer took a little persuasion. "By the time I meet them I have been dealing with their entourage for quite some time, be it 10 Downing Street, the Kremlin, the White House or the United Nations". And Platon admitted that when Vladimir Putin entered the room to be photographed, the process of intimidation had taken its toll. "The hardest thing for me is to let go of this intimidation and be human. You feel so inadequate, and at this stage you want to bow". He is only able to achieve success by cultivating a disregard for authority. "At night I think about how I control my anxiety and focus it. If, for example, a president raises an eyebrow, this is a major event for me, and I have to catch it. The moment is everything. I need to be the most alert person on the planet. I send myself into an intense physiological state so I am hypersensitive from the moment I shake their hand".

Looking through this array of global leaders from Barack Obama to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who face each other in the book), I was prompted to think about the way that power expresses itself in the face. Does the newly elected president slip straight into the mask of power, or does it take time for the face to be transformed? And when a politician loses power, does their face change again? Platon told me of the moment when he captured Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Ivory Coast. "He had complete power, and he was in ecstasy: his eyes half closed, almost like a kid who had had too much lemonade, on a high from sugar." But that look wasn't to last. Months later, after losing a bloody civil war, Gbagbo's image was splayed over newspapers: depressed, unkempt, sitting in a bunker with his wife, waiting for opposition forces to remove him.

Meanwhile, George W Bush was more challenging. Platon told me that Bush demanded to be represented as a guy "who is happy, and not a snarler". If you look closely at the finished portrait, you can see that Bush is smiling, but with a smile that does not extend to his eyes. In a portrait the sitter can wear a mask, but a mask can also reveal.

All the people who Platon has photographed are used to being in control. Yet for a fraction of a second Platon is the one with power. He decides when to push the button determining which momentary truth is captured. Many of Platon's images will become icons, permanently representing these figures in history. When we look at these images, the power is transferred to us: we know their history, we know which ones are dictators and tyrants. We are able to read into their carefully constructed expressions even more than their eyes might choose to betray. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Power: portraits of world leaders by Platon – in pictures

Gallery: Photographer Platon's new collection of images, Power, provides glimpses of what lies behind world leaders' carefully constructed auras

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