Taking the time
Jerusalem -- If you want to know people’s secrets, you need time. You can’t just show up, snap some pictures for a few days and expect that people will open up to you. Especially if they are the guardians of the Tomb of Christ who have been in the Old City of Jerusalem for the last 800 years, the Christian group with the longest continuous presence in the Holy City.
As a news agency photographer, you don’t usually have the luxury of spending lots of time on one story. You usually go in, cover what needs to be covered and move on. Especially at a busy place like the Jerusalem bureau. I’ve been with AFP for 30 years and this is the first time that I got to spend weeks on a single story.
The idea came one day as I was walking the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem last October. I’ve been the chief photographer for Israel and the Palestinian Territories for four years and when I can, I regularly go to the Old City. The winding streets always make for good features.
On this day, I was snapping pictures of tourists on Via Dolorosa when I saw a group of several dozen people all wearing the same T-shirt that said 800 years on it. Intrigued, I asked them what that was about. They told me they were marking 800 years since Franciscans, a group of related orders within the Catholic Church, first came to the Holy City.
Franciscans are today a group of orders within the Catholic Church and they are one of the three churches who are the guardians of the Tomb of Christ. The tomb is the place that Christians believe Jesus was buried for three days before he was raised from the dead. Most Christians believe this place to be a tiny grotto in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Intrigued, I approached the Franciscans with a request to do an in-depth feature on them. They were hesitant at first. They are quite private and when I told them that I wanted to shoot beyond what most people usually see, to document scenes from their daily lives, they didn’t answer. But then I was at a party and learned that my friend Cyrille Louis from Le Figaro Magazine had the same idea. We decided to combine forces and after some gentle persuasion, the friars finally agreed.
I spent two and a half months on the story, shooting whenever my busy schedule allowed it. When you do a story like this -- when you try to get a real feel for you subject, to go beyond the surface -- confidence is key.
You need to have their confidence. I came many times just to talk, with my camera, but without taking a shot. The Franciscans saw me many, many times and with time they just got used to me and I got glimpses of things only they see.
As a result, I got some fantastic material and I think I managed to convey a nice, textured portrayal of the Franciscans.
In Jerusalem the group is divided into two parts. There is a group of 15 friars that lives in the Holy Sepulchre, which takes care of the tomb, leads prayers and processions. They are the ones that most tourists will see when visiting the church.
Visitors to the Holy Sepulchre see but a section of the space allocated to the Franciscans. They have their sleeping quarters, a kitchen, a meeting room, and sacristy. The main function of the friars of the church are the prayers, the processions and the welcoming of worshippers. And of course taking turns with the Greek Orthodox and the Armenians in taking care of the tomb.
That’s where the time spent gaining trust also paid off. Visitors to the Holy Sepulchre know -- to see the tomb, you usually stand in line for more than an hour, to spend less than a minute inside. I got to be inside for an hour and a half while it was cleaned. That doesn’t happen very often.
Aside from the Franciscans in the church, there are about 80 friars who live in a convent 200 meters away from the church. They pray as well, but they also perform a lot of social activities. The convent is the headquarters of Franciscans in the Holy Land. From here, they manage the various holy places where they have a presence in Bethlehem, Nazareth, but also in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Cyprus and the island of Rhodes. They manage some 1,200 employees in the entire Holy Land.
The convent is huge. Like everything in the city, it’s very old, has lots of floors and there is lots of activity. You have friars working in the garden, where they have grown medicinal herbs for centuries (unfortunately since I worked during the winter, I didn’t get any shots of this). You have friars baking bread in the bakery, friars smoking porc from the swine that they buy from a kibbutz; a tailor making the brown robes that they wear. It’s basically a small city inside.
You have friars who are in charge of the archives. This is the most important and secure place in the convent, because it contains some priceless documents, some dating to the 13th century, like, the agreement from the Mamluks, who were then in charge, that the Franciscans could remain in Jerusalem. There is also a sword from the 13th century that’s used to knight the knights of the Holy Sepulchre.
The friars keep themselves busy. They own around 400 apartments in the Old City and are in charge of renovating them and keeping track of the upkeep. They use the apartment to keep a presence of Christians in the Old City, so they let people live in them basically rent-free, just paying the city taxes.
Spending so much time with them meant that I got access to thing that no journalists have ever had before and having fantastic shots.
Like the nice shots I had of the friars playing sports with students at the Terra Sancta school in the Old City.
Or the shots of retired friars who live in the infirmary on the last floor of the convent, spending the last moments of their life so that they could die close to Jesus’s tomb.
Or the shots of them visiting people living in the Old City who are too infirm to go to the Church to receive communion.
There were also the natural, unguarded moments of daily life. After lunch and dinner, most of the friars go to a large lounge, where they can have a coffee, play cards, chat. It’s a very nice atmosphere and it’s a side of them that you wouldn’t otherwise see.
Or right before the meal, when they pray. No-one could take a picture of this moment before me.
This was one of my favorite assignments. I ended up having incredible access. Who but the friars has spent an hour and a half in the Tomb of Christ? Or seen how the Franciscans play basketball with children at their school? Or how they relax after lunch? You need time to get shots like this. Lots of time.
This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.