The man who shoots popes
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.
What other challenges do you see? You already have 40 years of experience, is there anything else that you haven’t done or seen?
Now I’m 69, my age is the one creeping up on me. I try to keep [myself] in [good physical] condition. I guess that's basically my preparation. I do weights, sit-ups, and other things. Sometimes, I walk around the house and carry a dumbbell with me and I try to raise it up from time to time just to be in condition so I can keep my camera up all the time.
You have been in an age where film is the norm. Now digital has taken over. How has your photography changed due to technology?
Well during the film days, I have to carry a bag of film and I’m still worried that I might run out. When a Nat Geo photographer was here, he carried with him a case full of film. I told him, “In my case, those days are gone." I think digital is the best thing that happened to a documentary photographer or photojournalist because we don’t have to worry about film anymore.
But of course, quality of pictures cannot compare. I still prefer film if you ask me. Back then, I had to bring tungsten film, daylight film, different ISO of film but now, I can change all of those things in camera, on the fly. To be honest, I now find digital a lot more convenient.
How about your equipment, what were your cameras or lenses you always use and bring with you?
I learned photography with a Nikon and I’m still using Nikon now. After 42 years, non-stop. All my coffee table books were shot with a Nikon. I started with the F, F2, F3, F5 and then from there I started dabbling with digital. Digital was needed when we were preparing the website of the Archdiocese of Manila. The speed was needed as we don’t have time to have the film processed, print, and scanned. With digital, I’ll just upload it. Whether I like it or not, I had to shift to digital. My first digital camera was actually quite slow. After taking a photo, I had to wait a bit before the image shows up! (Laughs)
How about lenses and other accessories? You had to carry multiple cameras back then. Do you still do that now or have things changed in the way professionals work?
Actually, when I covered the Ali vs Frasier fight, one photographer there was a German photographer with 6 cameras. I found out that the reason he had 6 cameras was to have every distance and length covered. If the subject is close, he has a wide angle lens; if it is far, he has a long lens, and other things. That is one lesson learned.
When I also started shooting for an agency in the States, I learned why foreign photographers shoot a lot. They also shoot for their own images for stock photography agencies...and they can sell it to different editors and publications. I applied that lesson and that’s the reason why I got different editorial works. That’s how I landed an editorial with Penthouse many years ago. The editor of Penthouse saw my work and contacted my agent. They like my work so much, they just didn’t buy my images, they placed me on an assignment and that pays a lot more.
From that point on, I started bringing 4 bodies, each attached with a 24mm, 35mm, 105mm, and 180mm. Nowadays, I still have 4 camera bodies but in my bag I only have two bodies and I rotate with 3 lenses. A 20-24, 18-200, 80-400. The last one is expensive but I need that to shoot the Pope! (Laughs)
Aside from photography, do you have any other passions?
Scale Models! I find it quite strange, I shoot mostly for the church but I like scale models of military vehicles and other things. I have been doing this since grade school. It has been my hobby ever since, even before I started photography.
Here is how my life with photography started: when I was in grade school, a neighbor of ours pawned his camera to us – a small one that takes 35mm film. On a whim, I bought some Neopan 400 BW and used it. When I saw the results, boy was I hooked!
You have 40 years of experience. What advice would you give to journalists, to young or aspiring photographers?
I’ve noticed that a lot – not all – but there are a lot of photographers or what you can call "photographers," [who] just want to hang an expensive camera around their necks. They don’t know how to make good pictures. If you want to shoot and if you want to be called a photographer, learn how to shoot. It’s not a question of having the most expensive camera and you’ll be great, no sir! Give yourself the right to own a camera.
There are photo groups that get together and show their big lenses but you don’t even see them use it.
Just recently, there was a recollection with Cardinal Tagle in UST for the committees of the papal visit. I was tasked to take photographs of the event. I have a D60 with an 18-70 lens, that is my carry-anywhere camera, I always have it in my car. I produced the images needed. That’s it. One camera, one lens. Back then I was always a one camera, one lens type of guy. If I want to take a portrait, I move close. If I need to take a wide angle shot I move 3 steps back. I learn to get by with what I have. That’s what I tell young photographers. Just because your friend has a 400mm lens that doesn’t mean you get a 600mm lens! For all you know, you don’t have a use for it!
Is there anything else you want to do or achieve regarding photography? Anything you want do or pursue?
I'm not sure. I want to do a book; well I’ve started it already – National Geographic style or documentary photography approach. I’m sure you are familiar with those who push carts on the train tracks. I do a one-on-one with some of those guys and I visit him every chance I can. They call themselves “tulak tren” because they literally push their own train carts on the rail. I’ve been shooting that for two years. I wish I can turn it into a book. It’s a passion project; a personal one.
In fact, I already did something similar like that when I was shooting for Veritas Magazine – “Dying in Tala” in Tala Leprosarium. I stayed there for one month and lived with the lepers. I just lived with them and took photographs. I learned about them, how they lived and how they died. During the course of shooting, some of the people I was shooting died from their leprosy.
That’s what I really want, W. Eugene Smith type in-depth work. When I was shooting the tulak tren people, I was a bit afraid since they might be wary of me so what I did was I went there, I had a camera on my neck but I was not taking pictures. Until one day, one of the guys there asked me why was I not taking photos. I told them, “I want to be friends with you guys first,” and that started it. Whenever I go there, they let me shoot. They let me go to their houses and they let me ride their carts.
So that dream is to turn that into a book or a legacy you want to leave behind?
Actually, I didn’t plan on anything about it, I just wanted to take pictures.
So it was curiosity then?
Not really. I think it would be a good story to tell. Well, when I was working alongside foreign photographers, all they talk about is the story! So it is what I want, that good story and I do it out of passion. Hopefully an exhibit but we’ll see.
The thing about legacies is it is like the right of way when you are driving: If you do not have it, unless somebody else gives it to you, you don’t deserve it. You get the right of way when somebody stops and gives it to you. You don’t demand it!
Well, I think you will be remembered as the photographer of popes. You have been doing that and photographing for 40 years. Do you think you’d ever see yourself stop?
I’d probably do it until the battery runs out! (Laughs). I’m sure you’ve never met a photographer who never takes a picture even when on an assignment right? If you see a picture, you will take it. Even if I have a cane on one hand, I’d probably have a camera on the other and making images. W. Eugene Smith got sick one time and when he recovered, he took that signature image of his daughter and son walking into the wilderness. I won’t ever stop. It is what keeps me going.