by Susan Markisz
Multimedia journalist/contract photographer

It's not often that I have the undivided attention of Secretary General Kofi Annan. Generally speaking, he divides his time and attention among world leaders and I get to tag along for the ride. But on October 12, I had an unscripted meet and greet of my own, which resulted in a pretty decent portrait and a flurry of memos. The picture became so controversial a few days later, it's a wonder it hasn't been the subject of a Security Council resolution.

It's not as if there aren't already a thousand pictures of the Secretary General on file at the United Nations. I know. I've taken hundreds of them over the past few years. Every time a president or Prime Minister comes to town, there's a meet and greet and UN photographers and the wire services are there to record it for history. UN photographers also have the distinct privilege of recording interviews. That is to say, every time someone from a newspaper, magazine or network shows up to record something for posterity with the SG, so do we. Wire services get to take a walk on that one. That would be a little like the AP photographer taking a picture of the Secretary General while he's being interviewed by Reuters.

Secretary General Kofi Annan won the Nobel Peace Prize on October 12, 2001, an honor he shares with UN staff. It's the best news we've had in New York, at least at the United Nations since the World Trade Center attacks on September 11. It gave some of us at the UN a reason to smile for a day, and take our minds off terrorist threats and anthrax concerns. Naturally there was lots of fanfare about the announcement; every wire service, network and newspaper came to take pictures and get reaction from the SG and theUN staff.

Secretary General Kofi Annan speaks to the UN Staff shortly after the Nobel Peace Prize announcement. At left is his wife, Nane Annan.
UNDPI Photo by Susan B. Markisz


At 4:30, one of the staff photographers at the UN asked me to do his 4:30 assignment. PBS was interviewing the SG in his last appointment of the day and we needed to make a photo for the record. The UN press liaison who had accompanied the PBS crew, suggested that after the interview, maybe the SG would let me be a fly on the wall for a few minutes as he worked in his office. "It's an important day," she said, "wouldn't it be nice to get a portrait of him at his desk." I was cool with that. Candid and unscripted are not exactly encouraged at the UN. We ran the request by his staff who gave us the go-ahead if the SG was willing.

About 20 minutes later, the interview with PBS was over and the SG beckoned me into his office. The first thing I did was to shake his hand and congratulate him on his Nobel Prize. (I was tempted to ask him how he planned to divvy up the remaining 50% of the prize money among UN personnel but decided instead, to ask him about less controversial matters.)


Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his office at UN Headquarters in New York, on the day he won the Nobel Peace Prize, October 12, 2001
UNDPI Photo by Susan B. Markisz

His staff had told me I'd probably have a couple of minutes, tops. The late afternoon sunlight was on the other side of the building; he was lit primarily by a large bank of windows off to the right, and also from the tungsten spots from the ceiling. I was sorry that I hadn't anticipated this opportunity or I would have brought along a different speed film...or maybe an umbrella, or a different lens. I bounced flash for a few frames and shot a few without flash. I could tell he was tired. After a few frames working at his desk, I realized the picture I really wanted was of him looking directly at me.
It never ceases to amaze me how the Secretary General manages to remember everyone's name. He said it was good to have me back at the UN and asked about my family. He started to relax a little bit but was still very serious. I acknowledged that it must have been a very long day for him, and I told him it looked like I'd probably have to tell him a joke. He turned to me and laughed as I pressed the shutter. I left his office a minute or so later having taken about 15 or 20 frames, confident I had gotten a nice moment with the Secretary General. The mixed lighting isn't great, but the moment more than makes up for it.

Several days later, I was reprimanded for taking this picture. Memos flew from one office to the other. "Who assigned this picture?" someone up the chain of command wanted to know. The officer-in-charge wrote in a memo to the chief of the photo unit: "I never assigned this picture" while another asked: Whose idea was it to take this picture in the first place? Had I told anyone about taking the picture? And didn't I understand the protocol involved? I was told to write a memo explaining how the picture had come about. Incredibly enough, I was reprimanded for having had some initiative to take a picture, without the assignment having been on my assignment sheet. Someone suggested I write a memo. Instead, I referred them to the SG.

It seems the SG likes the picture a lot. So do a bunch of other folks. And therein lies the problem. The right people can't take credit for it. The coup-de-grace was that I was told it looked like I was trying to make myself look good. (Do you really think I could make this up???).

I keep hoping things will change. Unlike many news organizations, The UN pays well for photography, even if they don't have a clue as to what they ought to be photographing.

Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is setting up refugee camps in Pakistan. Winter is coming and hundreds of thousands of starving Afghani refugees are expected to cross the border into Pakistan. Yet, nobody from the UN photo unit is documenting UN operations in the Middle East. Instead, the Nobel Peace Prize sits atop a mountain of bureaucracy in New York while office managers argue over a picture credit.

Susan B. Markisz

October 31, 2001



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