These images offer a unique look behind the scenes at the United Nations

U.N. officials meet in the Delegates' Lounge, a coffeeshop and bar where diplomats would frequently gather that was closed for operation since the pandemic hit in New York in September 2021. (Jaclyn Licht)

Many years ago, I snagged a gig working for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) helping them select images from assignments they’d given to photographers to create a mini database of photos that could be used repeatedly. This brought me from one part of midtown, right off Sixth Avenue and near Times Square, to a very different part of Midtown, down by the iconic U.N. building.

Midtown Manhattan, at least back then, was a bit of a dead zone — unless you were a tourist soaking in Radio City Music Hall, the Christmas windows at Macy’s or Saks Fifth Avenue

The area around the U.N. building was, by contrast, a different universe. I remember closed-circuit cameras everywhere, which gave it a very strange vibe. You knew you were being watched, closely — important people and organizations with global ramifications frequented the area. Definitely an odd place in one of the most consequential cities on the planet.

Then there was the U.N. building itself. Just about all of our familiarity with that building comes from highly staged press events. So, when photographer Jaclyn Licht got in touch with me with a project that pulled the building’s veil back just a smidge, I thought it would be great to pass it along to our readers here on In Sight.

Licht sent me the following thoughts on her project:

“United Nations headquarters is an office like many others: There is tedious desk work, obligatory social gatherings, plenty of humor and the occasional feeling of burnout. After four years of working at the U.N., I set out to document the day-to-day life of U.N. affairs — from the library basement to the press briefings and corridors. By unveiling ordinary moments in extraordinary circumstances, I aim to humanize a veiled institution.”

“This project, “Unveiling Diplomacy,” began during the omicron lockdown — a survey of empty hallways and lonely desks. But as the conflict in Ukraine erupted and covid restrictions eased, the U.N. once again was abuzz with activity. I therefore documented the reemergence activity around the building as diplomats, journalists and staff repopulated the once-barren building.”

“Simultaneously, I was struck by the unprecedented number of protesters who gathered outside the U.N.’s walls in those early days of conflict. At first, the protesters — many of whom were of Ukrainian heritage — came in large waves at a steady pace. Two months later, numbers dwindled; I came to have regular casual conversation with the same three protesters who stood alone each day, usually wrapped in blue and yellow flags, outside the gates near East 45th Street. As diplomats sat through meetings upon meetings in the Security Council to negotiate settlements to the conflict, the protesters stood outside the impenetrable glass walls of the building and asked, ‘Do they even know we’re out here?’

I am eager to use these inside views of U.N. headquarters to publicly reveal the intricacies of bureaucracy and diplomacy. I also, however, firmly believe in the importance of spotlighting the grass-roots action happening right outside its doors. I aim to use my images to bridge the gap between the inside and outside of this building; in doing so, I hope to provide deeper understanding of all the actors who work tirelessly to build global peace and security.”

You can see more of Licht’s work on her website.