How to Take a Photo of the Pope at the UN

The queuing, scrapping and scurrying behind my papal pic

In the weeks leading up to Pope Francis’ visit to the United Nations I asked many veteran UN journalists for their thoughts on the best way to photograph the Pope’s address to the General Assembly. Most laughed and simply said, “Get here early. Wait. And cross your fingers.”

So that is what I did.

The big news networks had already set up their cameras before 3:00 am

I had no idea what to expect, so I devised a formula to devise a plan. It rested on the maximum amount of I was willing to wait in line. I figured that they would probably start letting in press at about 6:00 am.

I decided that the most amount of time I was willing to wait was 2-and-a-half hours because it was enough time that I might beat most of the other photographers, but it wasn’t too much time that I would be too annoyed if I showed up to a line of people stretching around the block.

So, I showed up at the UN at 3:30 am.

Luckily, I was the second person in a line that grew to over three hundred people.

There were at least three hundred people in line behind me. The line wrapped around the block. Taken at about 5:00 am

So there I was, second in line to get a spot to photograph the Pope. I knew that it couldn’t be that easy though. I was all alone surrounded by large teams of photographers from all the major agencies — Getty had at least ten photographers all competing to get the best spot.

My hunch was right. Things were about to get much more difficult.

Inside the UN

The doors for media opened at 6:15 am. I was still second or third to get through the security tent, but once people were through security everything changed. Everybody started running trying to find where the next line was — the line to get into the General Assembly.

I was next to a group of veteran Getty photographers. I decided to follow them because I assumed they knew what they were doing. Quickly I realized that they were just as confused about the process as I was. After running around for a while we finally found the right door to line-up at in the back of the UN.

I had fallen back to about 30th in line.

The view from my place in line while waiting to get into the other line to get into the General Assembly photo booths. Time: 6:30 am

As the 30 of us stood in line, I learned about the advantage of working for an agency.

Everyone began to group up with the photographers from their agency. Even photographers who had arrived much later in the day were cutting ahead and standing next to old friends and colleagues. There was a very clear hierarchy. The number of photographers ahead of me grew to about 50. Not knowing how many people would actually be allowed into the photo booths, I starting to get nervous.

After waiting for another hour we were let into the final waiting room before getting into the General Assembly photo booths.

Once getting into the final holding room I found that the UN also gave priority to certain groups of press. For example, the Vatican Press was escorted into their private box reserved only for them. Photographers who worked for wires were let into the booths about an hour before everyone else.

Finally, after about another hour-and-a-half the media liaisons started letting in groups of five people at a time to escort to various booths. At this point, lines dissolved and everyone rushed the doors. People were pushing each other to get to the front of the line. There was much screaming and gnashing of teeth — and in some cases gnashing of cameras.

People were yelling at me in multiple languages. I surprised the Portuguese guys who were pushing everyone and pretending they didn’t know what was happening with the excuse that they “no fala english.” To which I responded, “Faz favor espera, foi aqui primeiro!” They just laughed and continued pushing all the same.

20 people trying to fit through the door at the same time. Time: 8:15 am.

This was definitely the worst part of the day. I am pretty sure I heard at least one lens break and after looking back I think I saw a handful of people screaming at each other for damaging various other pieces of equipment.

But I got through.

After squeezing past the Portuguese guys I was escorted into a photo booth in the top right corner of the General Assembly room.

Interior of my booth.

I was pretty happy with the position. I had a spot where I could get a semi-straight on angle of the Pope. I also had my own spot in the corner. I didn’t have to lean over anyone or push people out of the way. Now all I had to do was wait another 90-minutes before the Pope’s scheduled appearance.

Once I was firmly planted in the booth I shouted out to the other photographers, “So who is excited to see the Pope!” A few people chuckled, but most of them were so worn out by the long morning that they didn’t give much of a response.

A guy sitting in the back corner said, “Oh the Pope is going to be here?”

I had about an hour left to wait before the Pope was actually supposed to arrive. So I decided to scan around the room to see if I could find any world leaders hanging around.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel mobbed by greeters right below my booth. Photo by Matthew Ecker
Cuban President Raul Castro chatting with a colleague. Photo by Matthew Ecker
Samantha Powers and the US Delegation. Photo by Matthew Ecker.
Namibian President Hage Geingob hugging the President of Mali Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. Photo by Matthew Ecker
Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sitting alone. Photo by Matthew Ecker

After waiting another hour it was finally time. The Pope was in the building. There was a live feed of the Pope’s entrance and meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the screen in the General Assembly.

The live feed of Pope Francis’ entrance into the UN General Assembly.

There was an announcement saying that the Pope would be arriving soon and the international delegations began to take their seats around the room.

Then a bright spotlight was shone on the rear entrance of the room and the Pope entered the room. The cameras started snapping like a room full of type writers.

Pope Francis enters the General Assembly room. Photo by Matthew Ecker.

As I began taking photos continuously and checking to make sure at least one of them was in focus I noticed that the Pope was emanating a bright white light in my camera’s picture preview. I don’t know if my eyes were just adjusting to the change in lighting between the dark booth and the well-lit General Assembly room, but those robes looked especially bright during that moment.

And so, without further ado, below is the photo that I spent 8-hours waiting, fighting, and yelling to take.

Pope Francis Speaking at the Opening of the 70th UN General Assembly. Photo by Matthew Ecker

None of the above photos have been edited and I have hundreds of other versions. Please do not use without permission. The above photos have just been used as a representation of the photos that I have from the day.

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