The UN Millennium Summit:

by Susan Markisz
Freelance Photographer and UN Contract Photographer

It was the Summit of the Century: the ne plus ultra world leadership meeting, an event during which 150 world leaders got to break bread together and make 5 minute speeches in the General Assembly over a period of three days.

Last month, I returned to the United Nations for the Millennium Summit, as a witness to history and histrionics, to politics and pundits.  This year was different from other General Assemblies in that an unprecedented number ofworld leaders converged on UN headquarters in a short period of time, creating logistical problems, potential security nightmares, traffic tie-ups, and an international media frenzy, the likes of which New York has rarely seen.

My last contribution to this space lamented, in part, the lack of press credentials without an affiliation with a large daily newspaper or wire service.  As a UN contract photographer, I get access to places that other photographers, even those from the wire services and large newspapers generally do not. We usually end up making the same pictures, however, because of the way in which the media (and UN photographers) are controlled, and information disseminated by the Department of Public Information.

My UN credentials (all three of them), allow me unparalleled access in the sense that I can go wherever I want, unaccompanied by DPI.  However, that being said, there's a protocol that I've been asked to respect, and that is the list of officially requested photos.  Beyond that, the UN has no need of, nor do they want photographers like me, happily snapping candid moments showing what goes on behind the scenes, unless it's an officially sanctioned photo-op. Many of my pictures will never see the light of day unless they satisfy what I call the "handshake directive." This refers to instructions that a non-photo person has made that the only worthy pictures are pictures of the SG  or other diplomat, greeting dignitaries for a scripted momentary handshake, for the historical record, or for exhibit in the third floor photo display. There is simply no such thing as a feature photo or candid moment at the UN.  It's frustrating to say the least.  I am not a photojournalist at the UN.  But sometimes I just can't help myself.

I decided to go back this time with a different mandate.  I would take all the official grip and grins, and then I'd find out "officially" what exactly people do at the United Nations Secretariat on a day to day basis.

Needless to say I had to do this in a way so as not to upset the bureaucratic apple cart.  For some reason I raised no small amount of suspicion in some departments, as if the mere act of taking someone's picture doing their job, might jeopardize the world view of the UN.  "Why did you say you want to do this?" I was continually asked. 

And so as the General Debate concluded, I spent some time talking to department chiefs, assuring them that it would not be a bad thing to show what people do behind the scenes at the UN.

I found out that there are a lot of unsung heroes at the UN; people who have made their careers, not as career diplomats, but as interpreters and protocol officers, printers and plumbers, locksmiths and librarians, upholsterers and text writers, carpenters and cartographers, all worthy professions in a place that visually honors only its diplomatic corps.


I also discovered some powerful stories that I would not have found, had I not meandered around in the second and third basements:  "UN lifers" I call them.  Some are former political prisoners who made their way to the United States years ago, ultimately finding welcome anonymity in the UN in jobs they have held for a second lifetime (the first being incarceration for religious or political beliefs).   Ironically, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defends these as basic rights, but it might cause a diplomatic scandal if these stories were to come to light in the context of the UN, so these stories are for another day.

Pictures abound in the photo library of ambassadors speaking at the podium, but there's little else to show of who does what to keep the place under spit and polish. I had hoped to do some "Mission hopping" during my tenure at the UN, but that may have to wait for the next Millennium.  In the meantime, this month and next, I'll try to give an inside view of some of what goes on at the UN, besides the usual speeches, handshakes and headshots.  It wasn't fieldwork, but it was a mission nonetheless.

Susan B. Markisz

Next month:
Stories in the Basement:  The Paper Trail and other stories at the UN

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