HOW DO YOU GET A CROWD OF 189, including princes, prime ministers and presidents, to stand still? You point a camera at them. That’s how Dallas photographer Paul Skipworth corralled a vast herd of heads of state—the assembled leaders of nearly every country in the world—for a group portrait to commemorate the United Nations’ 50th birthday last week in New York City. But when the magic lure of the camera failed, Skipworth says, he had to resort to plain English. “When I told Yasser Arafat to move, everybody laughed,” he jokes. “They said, ‘Nobody tells him where to stand.’ ”
There’s probably never been another class photo quite like it. It took Skipworth, 52 and best known as the head photographer of the last three U.S. presidential Inaugural balls, just 35 minutes to snap 10 exposures of the surprisingly harmonious group, but planning the historic photo-op had burned up 150 hours of his time. Nervous U.N. officials even staged a dress rehearsal before the actual shoot, using staffers as VIP stand-ins (among them: a white-haired, 6’2″ American employee of UNICEF who played the part of Bill Clinton). Earnest bureaucrats sparred for months over decisions such as whether to ask the leaders to sit or stand. (They stood, which lent dignity, even though sitting would have minimized differences in height.) Then there were concerns about how—diplomatically, of course—to separate sworn enemies in order to avoid potential confrontations. “We don’t want Castro standing behind Clinton, giving him bunny ears,” an unnamed U.N. diplomat explained to a reporter.
In the end, Castro, like all the other participants, behaved regally, proudly stroking the dark suit he wore instead of his customary combat fatigues. Directly next to him, without complaint, stood the ardently anticommunist Czech president, Vaclav Havel. After Skipworth ordered Arafat to move, the Palestinian leader ended up just feet away from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. And in the section reserved for leaders of permanent Security Council member states, Chinese President Jiang Zemin gesticulated warmly to his neighbor, Bill Clinton, despite a chill in diplomatic relations between their countries. At one point, to Clinton’s delight, Jiang even appeared to be blowing an imaginary saxophone.
If anything, says Skipworth, the gathering was slightly on the staid side. “I would have liked to see a little more traditional dress,” he says, alluding to the conservative suits chosen by most of the leaders. Only a few opted for obvious fashion statements: South Africa’s Nelson Mandela showed up in a casual, dark print shirt and sunglasses, and Mary Robinson, the radiant Woman in Red, proved that the president of Ireland doesn’t have to wear green.
Since translators, handlers and other hangers-on were kept to the sidelines, Skipworth, who grew up in Louisiana, concedes that once or twice his directions were misunderstood. “People asked me what languages I spoke,” he says. “I said, ‘I do pretty well with Texan, but I’m learning English.’ ” Still, when the time came to smile, there was no confusion at all. To the delight of his assembled subjects, just as Skipworth started clicking, he flipped over a disk he had mounted just below the lens of his Sinar camera. On it was a symbol that needed no translating: a happy face.
ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA in New York City