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Pope’s ‘shooter’ Noli Yamsuan talks of sin, saints, and more

He has shot popes—with a camera, of course.

Veteran photographer Manuel “Noli” Yamsuan Jr. has been a photographer for 42 years and many of those years were dedicated to shooting popes, cardinals, and priests.
For the upcoming visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines from January 15-19 this year, Yamsuan has been appointed as a photographer by the Papal Visit Committee.
Some people have been calling Yamsuan, turning 70 in May this year, as the “official close-in photographer” of Pope Francis during his stay in the Philippines. 
Noli Yamsuan will be taking photos of the pope--for free. Riz Pulumbarit
However, in an interview with GMA News Online, Yamsuan clarified that the Pope’s official photographer is the one coming from the Vatican. 
Yamsuan said he just wants to be called a “photographer of the pope,” explaining that he was not "hired" but only "appointed" by the Papal Visit Committee and he will be rendering his services as a photographer for free. 

'Huge challenge'
Yamsuan expects the papal visit to be a huge challenge because “security is very tight, the schedule is very tight—so I might miss some of the events.”
“The most challenging is to expect Pope Francis to do the unexpected,” he said, adding that in the Vatican, the pope is known for stopping in the middle of a parade to speak to people. Once, the pope was even spotted walking on his own at the Vatican without any security.
With years of experience behind him, Yamsuan knows the photography aspect of the task before him. What he’s more concerned about is being physically able to handle the job that entails long hours of coverage, involving a massive group of people. The attendance for the pope’s public events is expected to run to the millions.
To prepare himself, Yamsuan has been keeping himself physically fit, doing weight training and sit-ups.

On getting good shots
Yamsuan understands that many people are hoping to get close to the pope during these events. However, he said it will almost be impossible to do that.
“Hindi makakalapit basta-basta kay pope, may mga barriers, may security… Tingnan mo na lang, pag dumaan sa harap niyo, swerte na rin,” he said.
He said cellphones can take pictures and record events “but that's about it because in terms of quality, iba yung camera talaga na pangkuha pictures.”
To get very good photos, one needs to invest in good equipment, he said. “Some people say maski ano ang camera mo pwede na, but to get good pictures, you should have a good camera,” he added. For the pope’s visit, Yamsuan invested in a good, long-range Nikon lens, 18-400 millimeters, costing P105,000.
Yamsuan will be using several digital cameras for the pope’s visit. All his cameras are stored in the Archdiocese of Manila’s media office, headed by his wife Peachy.
Yamsuan also holds office in the same room occupied by the media office, but when asked what his official designation there was, he grinned and said, “Guest.” He explained that he takes photos for the archdiocese and in exchange, he gets to have an office there.
He said Peachy has a huge role in how he became involved with the church. Peachy and other former members of the UST publication “Varsitarian” were the ones who formed the late Cardinal Jaime Sin’s information office.
Yamsuan was called from time to time to take photos for the information office until the projects became more and more frequent. 
Aside from being the official photographer of the late Cardinal, he also became the official photographer of the two cardinals who succeeded Sin as Archbishop of Manila: Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle. 
Everything from the sacred to the profane
Having a long and successful career as a photographer, Yamsuan said he has covered everything from the sacred to the profane.

A chemical engineering graduate of the University of Santo Tomas (UST), Yamsuan didn’t start out as a photographer but as a research and development engineer in 1970. However, by 1972, he had the chance to pursue his true passion and began working as a photojournalist for the Philippine Daily Express newspaper.

His interest in photography began during his high school years at the University of Santo Tomas (UST), Manila, when someone pawned to his mother a Japanese camera: a Samoca rangefinder. As the camera was never claimed by its owner, Yamsuan began tinkering with it. He put a film and started taking photos.

“When I saw the pictures, wow, that was it,” he recalled.
He later became a photo editor for Veritas Magazine as well as a photographer for various media outfits such as Lifestyle Asia, Time Magazine, Asiaweek, Metro Magazine, Taipan, and many others including the adult magazine Penthouse.
For accepting the Penthouse project, Yamsuan said he was "scolded" by Cardinal Sin, for whom he had worked as an official photographer for many years.
The cardinal became like a father to him. By the time he became Sin’s photographer in 1974, his own father had already passed away. He worked for Sin for over 30 years until the cardinal's death in 2005. 
During all those years, he documented major turning points not only in Sin’s life but in the nation’s history as well, for Sin was widely known for being a critic of the Marcoses and played a crucial role in the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos regime.
Having documented the revolution is one of Yamsuan’s proudest moments as a photographer; one of his cameras was run over by a military tank. He calls the damage the “scars of the battle.”
Yamsuan is also proud to have covered the two papal visits of the pope-turned-saint John Paul II in 1981 and 1995. Yamsuan likewise covered the canonization of Filipino Saint Lorenzo Ruiz in Rome in 1987.
Yamsuan considers it an honor to have photographed popes, cardinals, and priests. “Not everybody gets to photograph them,” he said. 
He has developed friendships with many of the clergy, especially with Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the current head of the CBCP and a longtime secretary of Sin.
Yamsuan’s works have been featured in many coffee table books such as “People Power,” “Ninoy the Hero,” “Totus Tuus,” “John Paul II We Love You,” and “Scenes of Sin.” 
He has received various awards including Catholic Authors Award (2000), Papal Award for service to the church (1996), Photojournalist of the Year (1977 and 1979). — VC, GMA News