Photograph by Oded Balilty, AP for National Geographic
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The shrine that houses the traditional burial place of Jesus Christ is undergoing restoration inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Photograph by Oded Balilty, AP for National Geographic

I Photographed Jesus Christ's Tomb

Photographer Oded Balilty opened the window and showed the world one of the holiest sites in Christianity.

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, scientists and photographers Oded Balilty and Dusan Vranic were among a team of about 30 people who saw the original surface considered to be the tomb of Jesus Christ. We spoke with Balilty about his experience.

The overview photo of the Edicule lit up in the dark church is stunning. How did you take it?

I like to take the viewer on a tour of an area they don’t know.

So I stood up on the second level of the church and I photographed the same picture at different times of the day. The final photo was the best one because it was done late in the evening.

At night, the church is dark and there is no light. The lights from the construction lit only the Edicule area. It looks like the light is coming from the middle, like a ball of light. The Edicule surrounded by white walls makes for a really weird atmosphere—usually the church doesn’t look like that. Seeing it from above, the light really made it stand out. Your eye and attention go right into the center of the frame. So the light together with a super wide-angle 14mm lens made it look like this.

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A conservator cleans the surface of the stone slab venerated as the final resting place of Jesus Christ.

You and Dusan actually had to go into the tomb to make some of the photos we are looking at here. Describe the setup the two of you did to capture the moment when the inner slab of the tomb was pulled back.

The space was very, very, very small. You could barely stand, especially when there were three people working there. Once they pulled the first stone back [80 centimeters], the place became smaller.

We couldn’t stand on the tomb itself. We stood on a wood structure that the restoration team built for us. We [clamped] the camera high up in the tomb [because] we wanted people to see the entire tomb and understand how it looked.

We hooked the camera up to Wi-Fi because we had to go outside the room. It’s so small [that we would otherwise have been in the picture]

How did you adapt to working in such a small area?

The atmosphere inside the tomb is so fragile. I had one camera clamped above my head and another camera over my shoulder. It was like walking on eggshells.

When I work, it’s usually so different. I walk very fast. I react very fast. I move a lot. I was not able to walk around in the tomb. I stood on a piece of wood. I could take my pictures only from there. I felt like my hands were cuffed. I took pictures from where they decided I would. It was a very weird feeling for me.

I usually use 35 or 50mm lenses—these are my favorite. [In this situation] I had to use wide-angle lenses, which is a totally different way to tell story, but I had no options.

You photographed the scene several times over a period of days. What was it like going into the situation blind?

Usually, I have some idea of what’s supposed to happen in the next hour or coming days. I have my brain starting to sketch, and I try to build some ideas of what I will do.

In here, I didn’t know what the next step was. They let me shoot everything I wanted, but they never told me what I would [be doing] tomorrow. Every time I went there, it was a surprise.

Instead of walking in and [taking] it slow, every time was like breaking news.

Only 30 people had access to see the open tomb. What was it like to capture a piece of history?

I opened a window and showed people something that I don’t think will happen [again] in my lifetime. The most important part of our job is to show people what’s happening on the other side of the globe. I gave them the chance to see it. That’s a great feeling.

The shoot was under a lot of secrecy. What challenges did that present?

I didn’t even know what kind of gear to prepare. I didn’t even know there were two layers of stones. Dusan and I put two [computer] systems together in case one of them didn’t work. We did some tests to make sure the system worked. It was so important because we knew we were only going to have a few minutes to shoot the tomb.

How did you approach this story photographically?

I went the day before just to look. I like to feel a place before I actually go with a camera. I like to put it in my head and return the next day a sketch of where to shoot and what things are better to shoot at different angles.

I'm not only there for taking nice pictures. I'm telling stories. I was trying to put everything together and make it look interesting. I had to focus on the story because there were a lot of images around that caught my eye but they didn’t tell the story. I was trying to focus on the moments and the visuals [of] these humans [that] will never be there again. That was my goal.

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Steel girders supporting the Edicule will be removed when restoration work is completed next Spring.