In the social media world of 2015, the words “humbled” and “blessed” get tossed around for the slightest of reasons. On occasion, life slows down and presents the true meaning of these powerful words. This week, on the tarmac of Atlantic Aviation adjacent to the Philadelphia International Airport, I was humbled in the presence of Pope Francis as he stopped his infamous tiny Fiat and blessed Michael Keating, a 10-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. I was blessed to be chosen to document the Holy Father’s arrival into Philadelphia, but it was unexpected.
Since the announcement of the Pope’s visit to Philly, we had initiated contact with the World Meeting of Families in an effort to be a part of the action. We believed we could offer beautiful photos because of our years of experience shooting large conventions, and with multiple photographers, we could capture simultaneous events. Little did we know, the process would be last-minute, challenging, relevant, and powerful. During the week of the Holy Father’s arrival, we were shooting the conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, including the opening ceremony on Tuesday through closing ceremony Friday, but we weren’t confirmed until just 48 hours prior to start of the first event on Tuesday.
I said before that there was nowhere I’d rather be, and honestly, if I wasn’t at this historic event, I’d be regretting it. Luckily, I was told last Sunday, the 20th, that staying in the box over the weekend would be wise, so I found us an Air BnB apartment in Center City. At 5 p.m. Friday, I finally received confirmation to receive credentials for Pope Francis’ landing in Philadelphia. I had to be checked in for the event, however, just 9 hours later — 2:30 a.m. — for security clearances, credentialing, and our police escort to the airport. When I arrived, my credentials were not available, and nobody knew what to do. I have to thank Lizanne Pando, the WMOF Communications and Marketing Director, for answering her cell phone at 3 a.m. to set the record straight, for myself and my co-photographer, the talented Gary Gellman, who was assigned the event with me.
Now, when 40 press get together at this, ironically, unholy hour, you quickly try to find friends, and the camaraderie was evident. In the wee hours Saturday morning, including our police escort by bus, I met several photographers, like Gary, I now consider friends including Jeff Fusco, who you recognize from his many photos in Philadelphia Magazine. In addition, Dario Mobini, a freelancer who’s covered the Papacy and Vatican in Rome, who became instrumental at putting me at ease by giving me some basics of protocol.
When the press busses arrived at the airport, Gary and I were still under the impression to stay on the risers at the scene and photograph the Holy Father’s arrival behind the other press. But around 8 a.m., the event organizer found us and told us were to be by the red carpet. “I’m sorry. Where are we going?” I’m not sure if I said that in my head or out loud, but both Gary and I looked at each other, excited and a little fearful. Even with this escort to the front, multiple Secret Service officers didn’t know who we were, and attempted to place us back with the press. Fortunately, a few other agents reasserted our tarmac mobility. Again, there were so many times this could have gone the other way.
Gary and I were to take opposite sides and split up; I took the close shots of the dignitaries while he documented the Holy Father. As the dignitaries, including local Catholic officials arrived and mingled — Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania First Lady Frances Wolf, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Police Chief Charles Ramsey, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, Independence Blue Cross CEO Daniel Hilfrety, and others.
And then, there it was. The American Airline plane with the U.S. and Vatican flags flying elegantly from the cockpit windows. About 100 feet away, I felt a strange calm come over me, and my typical nerves went away. This is crazy, as I still get nervous at weddings sometimes, so the fact that I was about to document the Pope and I wasn’t nervous can only be defined as faith and “evidence of things unseen,” Hebrews 11:1.
For my fellow photo geeks out there, I even decided to call an audible with my gear choice, trusting my gut and opting out of the typical 16-35mm and 70-200mm lens combo. Instead, I felt I would be more successful with the quite atypical 35mm F/1.4 and a 24-105mm F/4 combo. And how glad I am I did. I chose this because I was warned about the aggressive VAMP, or Vatican press corps, on top of the Pope’s personal photography and videography team, so I needed to be a bit more mobile, and I wouldn’t want a nearly fisheye wide shot that captured press. I wanted a tighter shot, and I needed a lens I could successfully do a Hail Mary with high accuracy. That lens is the 35mm. Even scarier, I never used the 24-105 before on a job. Never.
After a couple of minutes, the Pope was hugging everyone, waving, and getting into the Fiat. I thought that was it as he started to drive away, but instead of turning right around the plane, it turned left toward the crowd. He wasn’t done, and I started shooting the whole Fiat, trying to capture a great look, but I only got the back of his head, so I repositioned to at least photograph his hand, and as I did, the car stopped, and I knew why.
During the downtime that morning, you shoot anything to keep on your toes, get possibly a secondary photo of action at the scene, and in my case, stay awake as I had pulled an all nighter. Between the public, band members and funny photos of other press, I found the beautiful Keating family. I snuck in on a family photo, as the father, Chuck, had lined up the rest of his clan. After I took the photo, the oldest child, Katie, told me she loved my cameras, and talked about photography. She then asked how much they were, and her mom, Kristin, being extra Catholic that morning, scolded her for asking that question, telling her it was rude. It was actually a sweet moment, and I told Kristin I would happily share with Katie. As the 13-year-old’s mouth dropped in shock, I told her to hold the heavy 1dX and showed her how to shoot with back-button focus, and she grabbed a nice shot of the Bishop Shanahan sisters.
As the Pope emerged and walked over to Michael Keating and his family, I was in position to capture that moment. Gary was, too, but everyone else was on the other side of the action. As Pope Francis returned to his motorcade, Gary and I looked at each other, both a little red in the eyes, and me, well, I’m glad the Pope drove away as I could barely see anymore as I was pretty much weeping with a camera to my face as a shield.
Looking back, the uncertainty is part of what made this whole experience so impactful for me, because it highlighted just how unlikely and miraculous every moment was that we witnessed.
My amazing wife Rebecca, and my dedicated work-wife, Stacey, were constantly texting me about seeing me on TV, and I immediately sent the image to Stacey for a quick edit and export. (Great work Stacey.) And off to the Associated Press it went.
The moment started to hit me about 2 hours later when we got back into the city, and I had to get some space and a quick bite. I found the true beauty of the moment at nearby pub on Chestnut, Bru, and didn’t notice until my delicious burger was in front of me that there was a lifesize cutout of the Holy Father about 10 feet away from me that families kept stopping at to take selfies. I have to apologize to the staff at Bru who must have thought I was crazy, crying over this burger in fries. But I couldn’t explain how powerful this moment was, and why I had been chosen, and why I got to be even closer to the real Pope than these families were to a cutout.
The World Meeting of Families experience will forever be with me, and I’m immensely grateful. The way things were going, my team wasn’t sure we’d be anywhere near Pope Francis, and yet, all 3 of us had close encounters this weekend — more to come on that later.
It’s important for me to stress the grace of this moment. I can say with 100% certainty that the actions of the Pope were not contrived. This was a moment of pure humility from a man who seems happier in the arms of the homeless and sick than anywhere on earth.
I hope that my experience can be externalized through my photos and spread the same joy and overwhelming sense of humility I experienced. I want to thank everyone for their kindness during this exciting time for me. But one note from a journalist friend stood out that I wanted to share because it was one of the most amazing things anyone has ever said to me:
“Your picture made such a deep connection with so many. I have been doing this for almost 30 years and big photos happen every few years. Yours is one of them. Bravo.”
Thank you to everyone who made this week a possibility, and to our great city for showing Pope Francis the brotherly love and sisterly affection for which we’re known.
Best, Joe G.