• PROOF:
  • September 22, 2015

Rare Access Allows a Photographer to Show Us the People Power of Pope Francis

Author
Becky Harlan

As I was walking home from work last week, I saw a man wearing a T-shirt that said “I love Pope Francis.” It didn’t surprise me. Ever since he was elected the leader of the Catholic Church in March of 2013, the pope has been capturing the public’s heart and the media’s attention with his gentleness, his concern for the poor and vulnerable, and his approachability—he seems so down-to-earth for someone who holds the proverbial keys to heaven. I spoke with senior photo editor Elizabeth Krist, who worked on the story “Will the Pope Change the Vatican” with photographer Dave Yoder for the August 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.

What’s it like to have intimate access to the pope? Hear photographer Dave Yoder’s firsthand account in the video above.

Pope Francis greets a crying boy
Not all of the children who are offered up to Pope Francis by their parents are happy about it. The pontiff’s security guards usually take the child from the parent to Pope Francis, as is the case in this image.
All Photographs by Dave Yoder

BECKY HARLAN: How did you react when you were assigned as the photo editor to the story about Pope Francis?

ELIZABETH KRIST: I was intensely excited because the pope is such a fascinating character—so charismatic, so appealing. He seems to have no fear about expressing his feelings, and that’s so refreshing. So I was thrilled to have any excuse to gain more insight into this man, who I think is a very different kind of pope from what I’ve seen in my lifetime.

BECKY: What about the photographer for the story, Dave Yoder—what was his reaction?

ELIZABETH: He was shocked. He had suggested the story to editors here, since he lives in Rome and could see all the changes that were happening. But he didn’t suggest it as a story to shoot himself—he was just saying, “You guys should cover this.” Then the editor at the time said, “Send in a proposal.” And Dave’s reaction was, “What!?” He wasn’t expecting that. He proposed it unintentionally.

Pope Francis greets a family with a small child as they gather in St. Peter's Square
Pope Francis meets the faithful in St. Peter’s Square.

BECKY: Why is Pope Francis’s papacy something National Geographic wanted to cover?

ELIZABETH: There’s such tremendous interest, a deep, personal interest that so many people have even if they’re not Catholic. The pope is commenting on contemporary issues that mean so much to people, whether it’s the environment or personal morality. He goes beyond Catholics and has captured [the] popular imagination—people just want to know more about him.

A nun hugs a priest in St. Peter's Basilica
A nun who works in the apostolic sacristy helps a priest don his robes before a holy mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

In covering the Vatican, Dave is following a venerable tradition here at National Geographic. [Photographer] Jim Stanfield had a story in the December 1985 issue of National Geographic magazine (when John Paul II was pope)—42 pages for the story, and then another 12 pages about the treasures of the Vatican. He spent a year shooting it; he had almost twice the amount of time Dave had. But there’s a huge difference in the two stories—Jim was covering the entire Vatican, the life of the city, but Dave was focused on the Pope and the pilgrims who were so emotional in their desire to see the Pope and to connect with him.

snow dusts St. Peter's Square as people walk through with umbrellas
A rare snowfall dusts St. Peter’s Square during the papacy of Pope John Paul II.
Photograph by James L. Stanfield

BECKY: What situations were crucial in telling this story?

ELIZABETH: Getting close to the pope was the key to [trying] to give our readers insight into what kind of person the pope is. The rest of the press pool is always kept yards and yards away, so our worry was that Dave would not be able to get any images that went beyond a news photo. It was thanks to the generosity of the pope’s personal photographer, Francesco Sforza, who was kind enough to take him under his wing, and to L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, that Dave was able to get so close and see those touching human moments that the pope shared with the pilgrims. That was what made the difference. It’s a question of standing next to the pope instead of standing behind the barrier, behind the guards.

Pope Francis laughs as he walks through a crowd
Pope Francis attends a general audience in Saint Peter’s Square.

BECKY: What qualities did Dave have as a photographer that made this story work?

ELIZABETH: He had a knack for zeroing in on meaningful moments, and for capturing intimacy. He’s very respectful—and he’s unbelievably persistent!

Pope Francis strolls through the Sala Regia
The pope strolls through the Sala Regia after delivering an address. The ornate hall, decorated with murals of momentous events in church history, was built for popes to receive dignitaries.

BECKY: Did this assignment change your view on the papacy?

ELIZABETH: My parents, who grew up in China, were what I would call casual Buddhists. I knew nothing about religion at all. I’ve always loved visiting cathedrals and churches because the art is so stunning, but I was not raised within those religious traditions. It was a challenge for me to try to learn about the Vatican, starting from zero, to better understand the meaning of the pictures.

The pope has been in the news so much—speaking about environmental issues, about refugees, about Catholics who are gay and divorced—that for me it was fascinating to be reading all of these headlines and to be looking at Dave’s images of the pope. I couldn’t help feeling that the pope was genuine. I would see these images of him—so welcoming, so consoling, and so open with the pilgrims—and it just made me feel that I knew him through Dave’s pictures. It really confirmed the impressions that I’d had of him from before.

It was intriguing to me how one person could reverse public perceptions so quickly. When Pope Francis came in as pope, there were negative vibes about the Vatican because they’d been in the news for problems they’d been facing, but he’s single-handedly rebranded the idea of the Catholic Church and inspired many people in the global community, of all faiths, to pay attention to the much more positive side of religion. I’m told that he hasn’t actually changed any church doctrine, so in that sense he isn’t as progressive as people might think, but I admire how he uses his influence as a leader to fight for what he believes in.


See more close encounters with Pope Francis, learn more about the papacy, past and present, and get a 360° tour of St. Peter’s Bascilica in National Geographic’s August 2015 feature story.

There are 11 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Jean-Manuel Traimond
    October 3, 2015

    We are in 2015, and yet there are so many people believing in illusions.
    But the wealth of this so-called Church of the poor, that is no illusion…

  2. Rocio Alvear
    September 28, 2015

    I live the Pope. I agree with his views. I am so happy that he visited the USA. Great pictures. Thank you.

  3. Pia Van Coutren
    September 27, 2015

    I also love Pope Francis!! Iam Greek Orthodox, & went to Catholic school in my early years. I feel Pooe Francis will change the world, because he is so loving, compassionate, he is Godly!! I was in tears whe I watched him approach the children, the criwdd, his heart was flowing with love, unconditional love, & his smile is pure

  4. Ana Smith
    September 27, 2015

    I couldn’t agree more with Elizabeth, Pope Francis is so authentic, warm, charismatic that is difficult not to like him. Fresh air is a institution that refuses to update its ways according to time.

  5. Talia Yates
    September 27, 2015

    He seems so humanitarian to me, that he seems like “the people’s Pope”, on so many issues. The pictures help me be more open to him because they show him so enjoying people in the crowd. Although I disagree with the Catholic Church on several issues, I’ve been fascinated by this man and these pictures. Thank you to all your team!

  6. Mr. David B. Gibson
    September 27, 2015

    I thought the Pope was about helping people find salvation?
    This one has gone astray from the Church and is pushing a Political Socialist agenda.
    Listen to his address to the HOUSE &CONGRESS IN THE USA.
    The Pope did not invoke Jesus Christ as his savior, the Pope did not start the address with Prayer as well as not ending in Prayer, What should we do about this So Called Pope?

  7. Bonnie
    September 27, 2015

    This week, I have been searching for someone to have a heartfelt conversation about Pope Francis. I AM NOT Catholic but I felt “good, warm, and positively emotional during his visit to the U.S. Viewing your photos and hearing you speak (nice tone) was a nice “conversation” for me this Sunday morning. I thank you! I thank God for your talents! I thank you for applying and sharing them!!!

  8. Wu Han
    September 26, 2015

    Great pictures! I like them. How beautiful! How can I open the video?

  9. Christine Garner
    September 24, 2015

    Thank you for doing this story. I had the privilege of visiting the Vatican this past May and could certainly relate to all of these photos. Loved re-visiting them all.

  10. Crystal
    September 23, 2015

    Where can I find more of Dave Yoder’s work? These are great!

Add Your Comments

All fields required.