Interview: What’s it like to photograph Pope Francis?
Paul Haring moved to Rome in 2009 to become the first staff photographer there for Catholic News Service. Mr. Haring covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Francis, numerous international papal trips and the daily action of Vatican life. On Feb. 10, he returned to the United States from Rome with his family. He joined America over the phone on Feb. 27 for a conversation about his career.
Where are you from originally? And when did you start taking photographs?
I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, in Annandale, Va. I’m from a Catholic family, six children, and I went to a private high school in Maryland, the Heights School. I started photography when I was a sophomore there—I started doing yearbook photography. And I did yearbook photography the rest of high school and through most of college. But even in high school, I began working for local newspapers, and I continued that in college as well.
I went to Franciscan University of Steubenville, and I was working for two local papers nearby. I learned the craft of photojournalism just being out in the community, photographing a wide range of assignments. I got my big break in photojournalism covering a water outage in Steubenville. For three days, we didn’t have water. I was a freelance photographer assigned to cover it, and I ended up having to develop the film with a very limited amount of water.
Were you involved with Catholic media at all in those early days?
Occasionally, I worked for my school paper, and then I would occasionally submit a photo to my hometown paper, the Arlington Catholic Herald. I always admired the work of C.N.S. photographers and particularly the photos of the pope that I would see in the Arlington Catholic Herald as a kid.
I was a freelance photographer in the Washington, D.C., area in 2003, and C.N.S. became one of my clients. I was working regularly for them in 2004, and that led to a part-time photo editing position, which eventually became full time. In 2009, I left to become the first C.N.S. staff photographer in Rome.
Tell me a little bit about getting adjusted once you got to Rome and started this job.
It was not an easy adjustment. You start off getting a visa, and there’s quite a few bureaucratic processes you have to do to get established in Italy. I didn’t know the language at all, so first I had to try to learn the language. And for the first month, my wife and I were studying Italian. We went to a school for that.
There were a lot of logistical challenges. The hardest one was that we arrived in August, which was not a good month to arrive because things tend to be closed down in August in Rome, and we had to find housing, which was incredibly difficult. We ended up living near the Vatican. We decided the most practical thing would be to have a walking lifestyle, so I could walk to the Vatican for the assignments.
Last week was the anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, and we’re approaching the anniversary of Pope Francis’ election as well. What was it like as the photographer during the transition?
It was a very, very intense time. From the moment of the announcement of Pope Benedict’s resignation to the election of Francis, it was roughly a month of continuous work. But the election of Francis was such a dramatic and memorable moment. There’s no better theater in the world than that smoke coming out, and the anticipation of a new pope and not knowing who it is. And then the new pope coming out, it’s something like unlike anything in the world.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, was it hard to find new ways to shoot some of the same weekly events?
The papal events largely unfold in the same way each week, but you need to be focused and ready, especially with a pope like Francis who is very spontaneous. You need to be ready for these gestures, ready for these moments that could happen any time. So although there’s a whole routine, even with something like the general audience you still have to keep focus.
Do any assignments from your career in Rome stand out to you as especially challenging?
The international trips can be very demanding. I started doing international papal trips with Pope Benedict; I did two with Pope Benedict. And then Pope Francis, early in his pontificate, did a number of very long trips, and some of them in Latin America involved several countries. Sometimes we were checking in for a few days and then checking out and traveling to a new country. It was very challenging but very rewarding. You don’t sleep a lot on these trips, but there are definitely some opportunities for some good images.
Does any one moment stand out as the most dramatic?
You mentioned the papal transition, and that was a real highlight, being there for Benedict’s last farewell at Casa Gandolfo, and then the election of Francis. These were very dramatic moments for me as a photographer, and moments that I had prepared for for a long time. I had done a lot of thinking about the papal transition and photographing the new pope when he came out. And then, of course, it happened in the hardest way possible: It was raining that night. It was dark. We shoot with long lenses, so these were very challenging photographic conditions. But I think that added to the drama.
Another highlight for me was the 2015 papal visit to the United States. I was the official photographer in the United States, and it was a wonderful trip to photograph, and I had great access. There were a lot of fine moments, both photographically and emotionally for me. Ground Zero stands out, that was very emotional at the monuments and museums there.
What’s your single favorite photo you’ve taken of Pope Francis?
I was proud to have captured the fleeting moment of Pope Francis joyfully reaching out for a balloon. There are millions of published pictures of Pope Francis, but by covering him so extensively, on occasion I felt that I created pictures that broke the mold. This photo was an example of that.