Interview: The Pope's Photographer

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"Serenity and Simplicity:" One of Giansanti's photographs of John Paul II

A longtime photographer of Pope John Paul II, Gianni Giansanti was just 22 when he took his first shot of the just elected and virtually unknown Karol Wojtyla as he emerged above St. Peter's Square from the last conclave which ended on Oct. 16, 1978. Having just bid farewell to the photogenic figure who helped launch his career, Giansanti, now 48, recalls with a lump in his throat that it was John Paul himself who assured him that his own Vatican career was really just beginning:

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Q: As a Rome native, did you grow up gazing at popes?

A: My first memory was being on my dad's shoulders in St. Peter's Square right after John XXIII died. But I really didn't follow popes that closely until John Paul II.

Q: When did you realize that this Pope was a special figure, especially for you and your fellow photojournalists?

A: Right away. In the first days of the papacy, he went to visit a hospital outside of Rome, which was already a sign this wasn't going to be a Pope who would be standing still. But you also understood from the way his face changed expressions, the way his eyes moved that this was a figure who was going to give us photographers a lot to work with.

Q: He almost always came out looking so good. Did John Paul suffer from the sin of vanity?

A: No, it wasn't vanity at all. But he did understand the importance of image. He was very much a modern pope in this sense.

Q: Tell us about the image that TIME chose as the cover for the commemorative issue following John Paul II's death.

A: It was an uneventful visit with seminarians in Rome in 1994. I was looking for something close-up, but John Paul didn't like to pose for portraits. At that moment someone had just made a funny comment and that expression that he has, almost like a Mona Lisa smile, came across his face just as the light was striking him perfectly. It is the most beautiful photo I ever shot of him. It is a straightforward image, but in it perhaps you can see the essence of John Paul, the serenity and simplicity of the man.

Q: What's it like working on a papal event or papal trip where you know a piece of history is unfolding: John Paul's first trip to Poland in 1979 or his trip to the Holy Land in 2000?

A: Those are the most rewarding moments of this job, when you lend your eye to others who might not be there, and perhaps add your point of view and whatever talent you have to give to the people who might not be there a sense what is happening.

Q: Do you only cover the Vatican?

A: I don't specialize in anything. I've done special series on Africa, on auto racing, on soccer players. I've done plenty of portrait work—anything that captures what it means to be human.

Q: Did you spend much time privately with John Paul?

A: On the planes, he would come back to chat with the photographers, and he would always joke that the reporters were giving him a hard time. He was very simpatico.

Q: Any other personal memories with him?

A: One time in 1996 at an exhibition of photographs inside the Vatican, I went over to thank him on behalf of all my colleagues for having always given us so much in our work over the years. He looked at me and said "You are young, you will photograph other Popes." Through all his illnesses, he always continued to offer himself out to the public, and to us. But I could never stop thinking about what he'd told me. And even more so now.