What it’s like to photograph the Church’s shepherd

“They look like the Mafia,” said a fellow U.S. photographer as the Vatican pool rushed into the basilica in Washington, D.C., during Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 visit to the United States. Dressed in black suits and a bit disheveled, the small group of Italian photographers who regularly cover the pope for the world’s major wire services seemed like a rough crowd. 

A year later I moved from Washington to Rome to join this rough crowd as the first CNS staff photographer to cover the Vatican. As I soon learned, the Vatican Mafiosi are actually friendly people and great photographers. There is no event too serious for some humor or a quick espresso to lighten the long hours spent working side by side. 

I try to photograph every public event the pope holds. (See In Focus, Pages 9-12, for a look at Haring’s favorite images.) This serves to inform readers of Pope Benedict’s work, while also increasing my chances of capturing a distinctive and memorable moment, not just the typical image of the pope waving from the popemobile. I like to show the pope interacting with ordinary people, such as when he kisses a baby or greets a young person. When the pope is captured in less formal circumstances, more of his personality is revealed. Some of the best opportunities to take more spontaneous pictures come when the pope travels outside the Vatican. 

I’ve learned not to despair when the photo position I’ve obtained seems less than desirable. I’ve done some of my best work in what I thought were awful positions. The pinnacle of my despair was covering Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Jewish synagogue in Rome. There seemed to be no planning for this event as photographers and print reporters were all thrown together in a disorganized area behind side columns in the synagogue. As the pope and Jewish leaders arrived, I was standing on a bench shooting from at least 25 feet behind the columns, which blocked the hope of getting a photo of them both together. But midway through the event, the pope and rabbis changed positions and I was able to capture their personal interaction. 

As a Catholic, I feel a special sense of dedication photographing the Vicar of Christ. While rumors persist that we have a stern pope, I hope that my coverage of Pope Benedict has shown Catholics a broader view of this gentle and cheerful man leading the Church. 

Paul Haring is a Catholic News Service senior photographer.