How I shot the Pope

In 1984 I covered a papal tour: the visit by Pope John Paul II to Papua New Guinea. It was my first experience of competing with genuine Italian papparazzi. The accompanying Italians dressed stylishly and had charming accents,  but they were as aggressive and competitive as any photographers I have ever worked alongside.  At every photo opportunity they would just wade in through police lines in their efforts to get closer.The more authority-compliant Australian press just looked on open-mouthed. But then we realised that if we were going to get any pictures that didn’t include the back of the head of an Italian photographer, we’d have to get in amongst them.

As a result, each day the police would ramp up the security surrounding the Pope. Barriers were put in place. They were ignored. Then they increased the number of police in the cordon. When this didn’t work, they brought in dogs and dog handlers. When even these were ignored, the police called in the army. Gradually, we found ourselves being forced further and further back…and all because of these excitable, pushy Italians.

The last photo opportunity of the Papal tour was a visit to St Josephs’ Hospice in Port Moresby. By this time most of us were despairing of getting anything worthwhile. Some had actually given up. Inside the hospice we were coralled on a mezzanine floor high above a ward full of dying AIDS victims. The light was marginal, the distance too far for effective flash use and under the circumstances flash would have been inappropriate. It was now that I realised the effort of lugging my heavy Nikkor 300mm 2.8 and a sturdy Manfrotto monopod, had been worthwhile. If I remember correctly the exposure was 1/30th of second wide open. I didn’t expect much attempting to hold a 300mm lens steady at such a slow shutter speed. Of the dozen or so pictures I shot in a burst with the motor drive, only three or four were sharp, and two of these had subject movement. But amongst them was this moving photograph of Pope John Paul blessing one of the dying.

Pope John Paul II blessing the dying, St John's Hospice, Port Moresby

Pope John Paul II blessing the dying, St John's Hospice, Port Moresby

After this, I knew there would be only one more opportunity for pictures as the Pope left the hospice. This time security was the highest. A shoulder-to-shoulder line of soldiers blocked any chance of pictures. Disillusioned, one by one the photographers packed their cameras away and headed off. Something told me to stay. At best I thought I might be able to get off a few frames in a wild “Hail Mary” (the sometime desperate, but often succesful tactic of shooting with the camera held up high above your head, a rather appropriate description in the circumstances) over the top of the troops. I felt a little foolish hanging on. I was the only photographer left and the rest were now relaxing over cold beers back in the bar of the Port Moresby Travelodge. And that is where I wanted to be.

After half an hour, there was a flurry of excitement as the Pope emerged from the hospice between the ranks of soldiers. I prepared for my unaimed high-angle pictures. Then all of a sudden, to my delight, the soldiers all pulled out cameras and broke ranks. And there right in front of me, unobstructed, close enough to touch, was the Pope. He was so close I had to lean back hard to fit him in the frame…and I was using a 35mm wide angle lens!

Is there a lesson here? Tenacity pays off? Maybe. All I know, is that for me, I find it very difficult to walk away from a shoot until I’ve extracted every last picture from it.

Pope John Paul II leaving St John's Hospice, Port Moresby

Pope John Paul II leaving St John's Hospice, Port Moresby


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Filed under Australian, News, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls, Stock photography

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