New York goes into lock-down every year for the UN General Assembly, which attracts world leaders — and sends photographers like me scrambling.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres and U.S. President Donald Trump (Photo by Enrique Shore)
Every September, New York goes into maximum security mood as hundreds of foreign leaders converge on the city to attend the United Nations General Assembly. During that week, it becomes the most-policed and probably safest city in the world.
It’s amazing how authorities manage to coordinate the security of so many heads of state, involving thousands of bodyguards who speak hundreds of languages. At one point, New York Police expected 189 motorcades to criss-cross the city on a single day. There were traffic jams for sure, and it must have been a logistical nightmare, but it worked out fine.
In the case of the U.S. president, traffic is cut off completely along any route he takes. Vehicles and even pedestrians are barred from those streets. More than 200 concrete blocks were placed in front of buildings, and 48 garbage trucks filled with sand and weighing 32 tons each protected sites Donald Trump visited.
The epicenter of the action is UN headquarters, which becomes a real bunker. No one without credentials can get closer than a couple of blocks from the building, and to enter you need to pass through several airport-style security checks.
Over five days, representatives of 196 countries delivered speeches to the General Assembly. But only the inaugural session was crowded. After that, attendance dropped so that by the fourth day, most seats were empty. It is quite shocking to see presidents talking to a half-empty room, but that is how it is most of the time.
World leaders pack their agendas with meetings and appearances in various forums, so they only stay at the UN for their turn to speak and to hold bilateral meetings with other leaders.
Many organizations hold gatherings in nearby hotels featuring presidents and prime ministers. It is difficult for journalists to keep up with the many activities, and it can be complicated to reach the venues. You need to arrive well ahead of time as there are long lines for security checks. Very often events overlap, so you need to choose carefully what to cover.
It was refreshing to hear world leaders addressing issues of universal interest.
This year, apart from the General Assembly, I covered events featuring Colombian President Iván Duque, White House advisor Ivanka Trump, Microsoft President Brad Smith, British Prime Minister Theresa May, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, Baidu CEO Robin Li, Ford CEO James Hackett, Argentine President Mauricio Macri, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya.
It was interesting to see President Macri and IMF’s Lagarde at the same dinner table, as the following day the IMF announced its largest loan package ever — $57.1 billion to Argentina.
I covered Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and was happily surprised that he spoke fluent English, unlike his predecessor who could speak only Spanish. And it was good to cover a rare press conference with Trump, who seemed to enjoy his unusually long appearance in front of the press.
Earlier, I covered Trump’s speech at the General Assembly, where he said: “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
It was an awkward moment, met with muted laughter from the world leaders in the room. Trump appeared annoyed, and said: “I didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK,” prompting louder laughter. At his subsequent press conference, Trump said “fake media” had stated leaders were laughing at him. “They weren’t laughing at me. They were laughing with me. We had fun.”
The last leader I photographed addressing the General Assembly was New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who delivered a strong speech ending with: “#MeToo must become We Too”.
Ardern called for action on climate change, equality for women and a re-commitment to multilateralism, declarations widely viewed as a direct rebuttal to Trump’s emphasis on national self-interest. It was refreshing to hear a leader addressing issues of universal interest rather than pushing a more narrow political agenda, as most others did.
Enrique Shore is a News Decoder correspondent, photographer and pictures editor with three decades experience covering World Cups, Olympics, presidential elections, summits and the first Gulf War. He was Reuters chief photographer for Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, then based in Madrid in charge of the Iberian peninsula. He later looked after media clients in Spain and Portugal. He is currently an independent photographer, editor and consultant based in New York.