Monday, January 5, 2015

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The man who shoots popes

Veteran photographer Noli Yamsuan Jr shares his wealth of experience through years of shooting papal visits and his expectations from the Pope Francis coverage

A.G. De Mesa
Published 9:00 AM, Jan 04, 2015
Updated 11:44 AM, Jan 05, 2015

MANILA, Philippines—Noli Yamsuan Jr has fixed his lens on every pope who has visited the Philippines since the 70s. The veteran photographer’s unassuming gait and jolly personality doesn’t show the wealth of experience he has obtained through years of news coverage and shooting side by side with some of the world’s best like Susan Meiselas, Eddie Adams, Raghu Rai, and Ian Berry.

His office reflects his passions. A shelf is dedicated to the cameras he has accumulated through the years, along with some of the press badges and IDs he has gathered over his 40-year career as a photographer. Another shelf is dedicated to his scale models that he himself crafts. Scattered around his room are collections of his works, photobook collections, and various awards and recognitions. Most notable of them is his Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice certificate and medal, a cross of honor given to those who have served the church.

As he prepares for Pope Francis’ Philippine visit from January 15 to 19, Yamsuan tells us how he built his career, his advice to the new generation of photographers, his lifelong work, and why he won’t stop shooting.

How do you prepare for an assignment such as shooting the Pope? Do you prepare yourself mentally, make a shot list, or just rely on your instincts?

Basically it’s instincts, since I was disciplined in shooting the news. In the newspapers, when you come in the morning, you do not know what your assignment will be and when you go to your assignments, you don’t know what will happen. It was a very good training for me. But when I got this assignment for the first time, I was nervous as hell! Imagine, I’m the one who is going to shoot the Pope and I’m the one assigned to be the nearest to him. Otherwise, that’s it. Other folks actually question why I don’t get nervous or why I don’t do any special preparations. I’m way past that. Nowadays, I don’t get nervous anymore. There are a number of times I’ve been on assignment shooting in Rome. I’m ok with that now. All the years I have in photography, it starts to numb, which is good. It means I’m not worried about anything. I never plan my shots, I take pictures of what is happening in front of me.

Would you describe your style as something journalistic, street photography, or documentary photography?

To an extent, I guess what I do is to find out what is going to happen. The first time I took pictures of an ordination, I checked what was going to happen. I don’t want to run around chasing a moment happening away from where I am. What I do is to pre-position myself especially during liturgies. For other assignments, I just let my instincts work. I put street photography into the assignments. Those are the pictures that you will be happy to see afterwards. I never plan anything. I try to put myself on the right position or at least I try.

This would be the third time that you will be photographing a papal visit, what do you think would be different this time? Are you expecting anything new with regard to the people who will be there or the at least with the Pope?

What I’m half expecting is he will do something that I won’t be expecting! (Laughs) This Pope is different from all the others. All the popes, they follow a certain protocol or how to do it. This Pope, he will follow, but when he gets the chance, he will do something even if it is out of the way to do something else. That’s why I told my colleagues to watch out and take pictures as much as they can. I’ve said before and I will say it again, “Be there, take pictures of what you see, and show it to me later.” You’d never know because Pope Francis is very unpredictable!

There was this one time, during a procession in the Vatican, he went off the motorcade to go to a sick elderly woman. The person who got the image was an amateur but he was there and he was prepared. That’s how it is supposed to be.

The challenge I think is how I will make Pope Francis stand out from the others. The things he will do in his itinerary is not different from what the other popes have done. What I’m praying for is that I get something unique. I’m hoping he does something really different. Remember Pope John Paul II, when the kids were singing, he started twirling his cane around. Moments like that are what everyone should be on the lookout for.

Speaking of which, the photographs of the crowd during the 70s and 80s, hardly anyone was carrying a camera. During the ‘95 visit photographs, a few were already holding point-and-shoot film cameras. For this year’s visit, most likely everyone will photograph the event.

Actually, if there are 6 million people going to the event, there are 6 million photographers in that area.

How do you think your images would stand out then?

I will be places where they can not be. That will make me stand out. During the first visit, I was the only Filipino photographer inside the cathedral so I was already standing out but still, not because I’m there my job is done. You have to find something or some composition. You have to put photography into the picture.

Do you have any tips on those who want to shoot the Pope during his visit?

The problem is how you are going to get close? There will surely be a lot of people. Perhaps when he passes by with the motorcade, otherwise there is a slim chance. The security will be strict. Besides, you don’t need to be really close, the interesting photos will be how he will interact with the people.

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