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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.