What do Hosni Mubarak, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Moammar Gaddafi, Margaret Thatcher, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela have in common? They’ve all been photographed by Milton Grant, former Chief of the Photo Unit of the UN.
In an interview on Monday, Grant said, “I am just a simple person who got a great start.”
Much of that “great start” was due to “100% perspiration,” according to Grant, but he admits that a case of “just being there at the right time,” was instrumental in landing him a job at the United Nations.
Grant, 67, a native of Jamaica, discussed his successful career as Chief of the UN Photo Unit, how his Jamaican upbringing and an immigrant’s determination to make the most of opportunities helped him achieve success.
Loretto Leary: You grew up in Saint Ann’s?
Milton Grant: No. From what I can remember and recall we left when I was about 2 or 3 years old. My father was a head master, so he had to go wherever they sent him to go, which meant the whole family had to go where he went.
Loretto Leary: Did your father support your career choice of photographer?
Milton Grant: We had no discussions and I can’t recall having discussions with anyone about what I was going to do. Being a photographer, if I can jump for a little bit, came to me in a very strange way. It was a result of having been stuck with a camera one day when I was attending school and I had to do something with that camera.
Loretto Leary: How old were you when you were given that job?
Milton Grant: That probably was age maybe 13 or 14. It might have been earlier than that because, it was in secondary school and secondary school begins at 11 or 12? I was two years ahead of everybody because of my father. He was a very strict man when it came to lessons.
Loretto Leary: Did he demand a certain level of performance from you?
Milton Grant: Yeah, absolutely. From the whole family, from all the children in the family.
Loretto Leary: What happened with that first experience that made you fall in love with the camera?
Milton Grant: My first job was working in a bank, I was a teller and then I became an inspector in a bank. This was up to age 19, 20. I got married at age 22, so I was pretty much advanced in what I was doing. But then we decided to leave Jamaica and come to the United States. When we came here, we had to find jobs and we had no visas, just a regular tourist visa. A friend told me go by the United Nations, sometimes they take people. So I went. I went to the security guard who was by the gate, this was in the days when you could walk up to the gate and speak to people. He said to me ‘Well I’ll let you go up to the personnel office,’ and gave me a pass and I went up to the personnel office and lo and behold they needed someone to pay the bills. Now here I am, a banker from Jamaica, to the pay the bills, so I just fit right in.
Loretto Leary: Now that’s luck!
Milton Grant: The fact it was the UN too, just being there at the right time.
Loretto Leary: So how long did you initially get the job for?
Milton Grant: It was for two months, then after that it was this one month extension, and one month, one month and it lasted a year. I got an internship. It started at the end of that first year. Then I started to fool around with cameras.A friend encouraged me. He said, “I think you would make a good photographer. You go do it, try, take cameras.” He actually lent me some of his cameras.
Loretto Leary: I would like to return to the educational experience in Jamaica, and your dad. If your Dad had been in a different career would your life have been different?
Milton Grant: Very possible. One of the things you had to do in secondary school, and my memories’ are coming back, you had to do the O levels and the A levels, I did all of that and I was finished.
Loretto Leary: You were finished when you were 16! Two years early.
Milton Grant: Yeah, and he said to me ‘What are you going to do now?’ I said ‘I think I will have to find a job.’ There was no interest in photography at that point! This guy,(the friend) he encouraged me. When I realized I could make money and support my family, I decided to go after it. I went to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, did courses, everything to get my artistic point of view working. That’s where it all started.
Loretto Leary: Did all this happen in the first year working at the UN?
Milton Grant: During the first two years.
Loretto Leary: When you did buy your first camera, what was it?
Milton Grant: It was a Nikon. It was an old Nikon, a used Nikon. I can remember the shop, it was very well known among photographers to buy used equipment.
Loretto Leary: Were there any obstacles that threw themselves in your way and made you think, ‘I can’t do this;’ and how did you overcome them?
Milton Grant: Aside from other workers and colleagues? ( laughs)
Loretto Leary: They were the biggest obstacles?
Milton Grant: They were the biggest obstacles. See I knew that this job at the UN was a fairly prestigious job. It meant being with the Secretary General on a daily basis, meeting heads of state, meeting with famous people, actresses and actors. So everybody wanted that job. I was down on the bottom of the totem pole, way down, maybe even in the ground! One of the things I did was just to lay low, watch the battle take place to see if I would end up the only one who was not dead. It taught me that patience is a very important thing.
Loretto Leary: How did your parents react when they heard that you got the job at the UN?
Milton Grant: When they found out I got the UN job, they were happy for the family that everything would be fine.
Loretto Leary: When they came here to visit you, did you bring them to the UN?
Milton Grant: Yes, they did. Especially for my father, he had a dream that he wanted to be there!
Loretto Leary: Are there other obstacles that the youth of Jamaica face today? Do you think that maybe you were lucky to have a dad who was a head master?
Milton Grant: I knew that remaining in Jamaica would be a tremendous risk to take. If you spoke to a lot of Jamaicans at the time, and they probably feel the same way, there are so many…rooms with no doors. It is there, but there is no door for you to get it.
Loretto Leary: Opportunities were the doors?
Milton Grant: Yeah.
Loretto Leary: Do you think that success equates with emigration?
Milton Grant: It could! I don’t want to make it sound like Jamaica is not a place that I love, because I do, to this day. I am who I am because I am Jamaican.
So it is just part of you, it never goes away. I think that for me, leaving Jamaica was one of those important things.
Loretto Leary: If I put you in a time machine, we can only go backwards, go back to your favorite place and tell me why it is your favorite?
Milton Grant: All of the places that I liked, I am not so foolish to not realize that there are problems that go with them. There is a feeling I get, like in the Middle East, being connected, at peace. You know that this peace is not going to last for too long, it’s going to be interrupted. Some one asked me a question similar to that a few years ago and my answer was Cuba. Nowhere did I go and not feel safe. I never met people so close and so nice. There is also the obvious danger there, from people who have been living in certain conditions.
Loretto Leary: Was it your Jamaican accent do you think?
Milton Grant: I don’t know. There has been a lot of connection between Cuba and Jamaica. There is also the common bond of them being slaves through colonial powers. When I went to the Andes, being in that area was another sense of calm. Yet these places are violent when it comes to geological things. I had to cover one of the most notorious volcanoes and mudslides at Armero, in Columbia, people were buried in mud. There is always this conflict.
Loretto Leary: Where would you not want to return to?
Milton Grant: Somalia, there is no government, there is total chaos.
Loretto Leary: What advice would you give to a twenty something Milton Grant or a student today about achieving success?
Milton Grant: I would tell them to never doubt themselves. You always get that feeling, ‘maybe I don’t know what I’m doing?’ You do!