by Susan Markisz
Working at the United Nations is not completely unlike working at a newspaper, handshakes the equivalent of environmental portraits, quick and easy substitutes for documentary photography. Journalism these days has been reduced to a soundbite, a few minutes in the making and even fewer in the telling.
Throughout the world, in areas of conflict and migration, the UN operates missions and programs designed to help enable people to overcome poverty and war. UN photographers rarely document UN programs, however. The small photo unit serves basically to document what goes on at headquarters, a rather baffling anomaly for a news-making organization. The occasional trip to accompany the Secretary General on his missions, is a necessary thing, no doubt, but falls short of illustrating the programs of the United Nations. The UN relies, instead, as do many newspapers, on freelance photographers doing speculative work overseas, to fill their archives with evidence of what is happening throughout the world.
The United Nations is a fascinating place, although my photographs reflected primarily meeting and handshake pictures, not unlike head shots and real estate pictures that constitute occasional newspaper assignments. These types of assignments aren't satisfying for me, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because of the lack of human interaction, which is as important to me as getting the picture.
Nevertheless, I realized the importance
of these photos to the people who were in them, when a young UN intern
sent me several copies of her local newspaper which had run an article
on her internship and a candid photo I had taken of her with the Secretary
General, along with a box of cookies. And I changed my tune somewhat
this past September, when I was invited to attend a reception for journalists
at the home of the Secretary General, this time as a guest. I made
sure to shake hands with the "SG" long enough for a photographer to snap
my picture, though I might have thought ahead of time, to take the drink
out of my other hand first!
That said, however, I needed to do something else to fulfill the creative and interactive void missing in my daily assignments. When the Millennium Summit ended, I decided to use my free time to find out what else was going on. With only a week left on my contract at the end of September, I meandered through the halls and talked to people about their jobs, travelling to the second and third basements, a universe of distance between the well heeled diplomats two and three stories above, and the men and women in "UN Blue" uniforms who work in trades and crafts below.
Interestingly enough, my quest was met with some skepticism, not from the people I wanted to photograph, but from the "permission bearers," department chiefs who wondered why I wanted to stray from the diplomatic enclave.
While looking into the paper trail at the UN, I found there was no dearth of human-interest stories, that, given the time and dedication, one could do a documentary. (Now there's an idea!)
Former political prisoners told me how grateful they are for the political and religious freedoms they have found in the United States, freedoms that, as a US citizen I take for granted more often than not.
Sergei Nikolayevich Pipchenko, now a pressman with the United Nations, was once a political prisoner in the former Soviet Union. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1980 for 3 1/2 years for his religious beliefs, connections with foreigners, and attempting illegally to cross the border, according to the USSR News Brief on Human Rights published in 1983. Sergei escaped to Glosholm, Finland on a rubber raft in 1985, making news in Finland for his daring escape, and leaving behind a girlfriend whom he has not seen since. After immigrating to the United States with the help of Amnesty International, he legally changed his name in 1992. The end of the story has not been written yet because Serge may yet be reunited with the girl he left behind, for the first time when she visits New York at the end of this year.
The United Nations boasts of a printing plant, which operates 24//7 with four shifts. Schedules and booklets, programs and reports by the thousands, are printed in many languages on a daily basis. The Journal is one such document, which lists upcoming meetings and consultations of the Security Council and meetings of the General Assembly and other councils such as ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) and Trusteeship Council. It is printed daily in English, French, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, and Japanese during the late shift, ready by 6 am, for incoming diplomats and Secretariat personnel to pick up on their way to their desks.
Besides the printing plant, and documents
distribution, there are carpenters and upholsterers, who keep the place
in tip top shape, repairing and reupholstering chairs that are decades
old, making conference tables and wood panelling for rooms rich in cherry
and mahogany, and making furniture that would command top dollar
in the private sector.
In the carpentry shop, I noticed that Sverrir Petursson, a carpenter with the UN since 1991, had four vertical stacks of boxes in helix-like formations on his worktable. He was lining the interiors of the boxes, which he had made, with "UN Blue" velvet, to cradle a crystal paperweight specially made by Tiffany with the United Nations seal, for the Secretary General, who presents them as gifts when he travels overseas. He was also in the process of carving a gavel from solid mahogany, for use in the General Assembly for bringing the assembly to order. The gavel shot is an important historical photograph each year when the Presidency of the General Assembly is ceremoniously handed over to the new incoming President with a gavel transfer that is photographed from three different perspectives in the GA Hall. Because there are usually 1 or 2 other people on the podium at the time of the transfer, only one photographer usually nails the picture because of other people blocking the shot.
Clearly these are not front page stories, nor are they necessarily representative of the United Nations as an organization in the forefront of diplomacy, mediation and solutions to world problems. But, short of that, wandering around the UN gave me an inside view of an organization that while visually honoring only its diplomatic corps, employs hardworking people in a wide spectrum of jobs. Aside from what you might expect to find in any large organization, the UN also has dozens, if not hundreds, of what I would call "sidebar stories" from protocol and pomp, to printers to peacemakers. Journalism may have been reduced to a soundbite, but if we string a few of them together, we might even come up with a story!
Susan B. Markisz
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