The United Nations’ headquarters is at the epicentre of international relations. This past week, the Security Council took up meeting after meeting to decide a course of action amid Ukrainian-Russian tensions. That’s standard for the ambassadors of the 193 member states of the U.N.
But most people not involved in international dealings will never get to see beyond the U.N.’s Visitor Centre.
Alfred Hitchcock was famously denied entry, so he used a guerrilla camera to film Cary Grant entering the U.N. in “North by Northwest.” “The Interpreter,” starring Nicole Kidman, was allowed limited access to the listening booths, but that was prior to the installation of the current facilities team at the U.N., who closely guard the organisations newly renovated headquarters on Manhattan’s far east side.
That same team initially rejected a request from Bloomberg Pursuits, the finance company’s luxury magazine that launched last year, to stage a fashion shoot for business attire inside the building. But Pursuits’ creative team was persistent. They shared the story of one of their most challenging photo shoots to date with Business Insider.
“It was four months with negotiations close to daily,” said Bloomberg Pursuits editor Ted Moncreiff. “First, we said we wanted to do a story on the U.N. and on their renovation. Once we got them to say yes to that, we introduced the idea of a fashion shoot. After that, there was just a lot of legal wrangling.”
“They’re very properly protective of the U.N.’s reputation and they also can’t ever be shown to give favoritism among the member states. I think there were just a lot of very legitimate sensitivities there, on top of the fact that we wanted an all-access pass,” Moncreiff added.
The magazine wanted to be the first to bring readers inside the new U.N., which underwent $US2.1 billion in updates — and is now the first magazine to do a full spread in the building. Vogue made a portrait of former U.S. ambassador Susan Rice in the Security Council for a June 2009 issue, but no publication has photographed as much of the U.N. as Bloomberg Pursuits.
“The paperwork literally wasn’t complete until Wednesday, January 8th at 3:45 p.m. and the photo crew started loading in at 6 p.m. that day,” said Brenda Milis, director of photography for Bloomberg Pursuits.
What really pushed the agreement to the wire was the U.N.’s $4,309 location fee. The business division of Bloomberg Pursuits couldn’t ok the charge without a W-9 form, but the U.N. doesn’t have a W-9 because the international organisation doesn’t pay taxes. Moncreiff cut the check himself for the location on the day of the shoot and crossed his fingers that he would get reimbursed later. (He was, thanks to a different document that satisfied the magazine.)
“It was close,” Moncreiff said. “I really did have this moment where I thought the whole thing is going to hinge on whether I remember to bring in my checkbook that day. I literally stuck a note on my phone. I wrote out two checks: One to ‘The United Nations’ and one to ‘United Nations,’ just in case.” (Without the “the” is correct.)
A team of 14 went to the U.N. for the 17 hours of work split over the two-day shoot. The models came with an appropriately international pedigree. Christina Kruse is German, Alex Manning has a Japanese mother, and Edwin Gill, whose parents are from St. Thomas, fought in Iraq before becoming a model.
Milis registered everyone beforehand with photo IDs. The make-up artist’s case was too big to fit through the x-ray machine, so she had to unpack everything to get security clearance.
“The U.N. staff were unfamiliar with the makings of a fashion portfolio,” Moncreiff said. “They thought the models arrived in cabs all made up in the one outfit that we would just shoot over and over and over again. They didn’t understand that we needed a hair and make-up and wardrobe room.”
“In the beginning it was slow,” Milis said. “It’s interesting that the U.N. employees came up to us like ‘What are you doing?’ They were a little suspicious. Then, toward the end of the first day, it was like we were all best friends. The staff was having their pictures taken with the models.”
Once they started working, the shoot went smoothly, largely because the Pursuits team had to follow a strictly set pre-approved shot list for each room they visited: The lobby, the Security Council chambers, an interpreter’s booth, the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, the kitchen, and the blocky exterior.
They only deviated from the schedule on the first day when they realised they could get a sunny shot of the building’s facade, before a snowstorm arrived the second day of the shoot.
For the most part, everything they photographed was an organic part of the U.N. Their biggest prop was an old-fashioned TV showing a bomb exploding in Syria. “We have some kind of tension happening in every shot,” Bloomberg Pursuits creative director Anton Ioukhnovets said.
“To me, an inspiration came a little bit from ‘All The Presidents’ Men.’ What was interesting there was that it’s people working on some kind of crisis situation. That’s what we had in mind when we went there,” Ioukhnovets said.
“There’s a lot of glory in the U.N.,” Moncreiff added. “But we weren’t seeking to glorify it. There are heroic shots and then there are pictures that anyone who works in an office can relate to.”
You can see that in the balance of the Security Council’s intensity and the quotidian kitchen, with a rotary phone that somehow escaped the billions of dollars in renovations.
Only twice did fashion photography and U.N. policy butt up against each other as the security personnel followed the Bloomberg Pursuits team through the headquarters.
In the public lobby, the model Christina Kruse was wearing a lace skirt with no lining that was basically see-through, although you can’t tell in the final image.
“They gently reminded us that when we go into the Security Council chamber, we should be much more conservative,”Ioukhnovets said, “and we happily obliged.”
Then, the Bloomberg Pursuits team wanted to show the names on the plaques at the horseshoe-shared table in the Security Council to add another layer of authenticity.
They were asked not to, however, because it might show favoritism to have some countries’ nameplates published in an international fashion magazine while others were excluded.
Ralph Mecke photographed the spread, Markus Ebner styled it and Anthony Graneri produced it. The spring issue of Bloomberg Pursuits hits newsstands March 14.
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