In an unlikely way, the above photograph connects two things that have occupied a fair bit of my time lately – the 2010 UN Millennium Development Goals Summit (which took place in New York on 20-22 September) and a book titled ‘Beauty in Photography’, a collection of essays by the American landscape photographer Robert Adams. Let me explain how.
I‘d read some of Adams’ essays years ago as a photography student, and have long admired his work. He’s one of a tradition of photographers who have focused their attention on the landscapes of the American west. A pioneer of the New Topographics movement, Adams was a teacher and writer before he became a photographer, and has spent over 50 years documenting – and lamenting – the gradual industrialisation of the deserts and the slow encroachment of suburban sprawls.
The MDG Summit last week was attended by over 140 world leaders, and produced a communique re-affirming pledges and commitments to achieve the eight global Millennium Development Goals by the year 2015. Originally, agreed at a similar summit ten years ago, there are now only 5 years remaining for the world to meet the ambitious targets, which include halving the number of people living in extreme poverty, ensuring free access to primary education for every child under the age of five, and eradicating diseases such as TB, malaria and polio. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called on the world’s leaders to redouble efforts to achieve these goals. The UK re-iterated it’s commitments and urged other countries to do the same.
So where does this photo fit in? Well, achieving the MDGs is at the heart of everything that DFID does, and explaining to people how it does this through communications tools like photography and the internet is what I do (see my initial post below). But in an attempt to switch off from my day job I’d recently started reading ‘Beauty and Photography’ on my daily commute. However, my plan to separate work from leisure was thwarted by the opening essay, in which Adams writes about his discovery that the second Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, was an avid landscape photographer. Hammarskjold used to take his Hasselblad on official overseas trips and make photographs of the places he visited as Secretary-General.
I‘d been using the UN’s online Photo Library to source photos of the 2010 Summit, to use on the DFID website. But when I read about Hammarskjold, I decided to look for photos of him as well. Sure enough, just as Adams described, there he is – a Secretary-General from a different and somehow more innocent age. I’ve had a good search on the wider internet to see if I could find any images of Hammarskjold’s actual photographs online, to no avail. But I did find out that he was also a poet and proponent of Haiku, and that a book of his landscape photographs and poems was published a few years back; this afternoon I managed to track a copy down in the US and have placed an order. I can’t wait for it to arrive, and will blog about it when it does.
Dag Hammarskjold died in a plane crash in 1961, while still serving as UN Secretary-General, on a visit to the Congo – a dark moment in the UN’s history for sure. But from what I’ve read about him, it seems that he was an incredibly committed man, and I can’t help feeling that he’d be immensely supportive of the MDGs, and of what the UN has become. It’s without doubt a hugely different organisation from the UN he led in the 1950s. The fact that he could be photographed not only seemingly almost alone in the desert, but actually taking (or having the time to take) a photograph himself, in a way illustrates neatly the differences in scale, stage management and media presentation that have taken place over the last 50 years. We can see that there are two other people in proximity from the disembodied shadows cast on the ground. But there is no sense of a media scrum, or of this being a snatched moment in a ridiculously busy schedule…
In photographic terms, the UN Photo library is an extraordinary source of development related imagery and definitely worth a browse. For all the photos of Secretary-Generals shaking hands with dignitaries over the years, there are also thousands of images documenting the humanitarian and development work that UN agencies such as UNICEF and UNHCR have carried out at the same time. And of course there are archive gems like this one, which date back to the early, post WWII years of the organisation. These archive images, 50 years on, somehow bring home the hope and idealism of that age. The ambition of the MDGs continue that spirit; I hope that they can be achieved.