Vantage Point: Ariel Schalit's exclusive of Pope Francis

 

Any time the pope makes a trip, but especially to a place like the Holy Land, journalists swarm to cover each moment and reflect every papal move in a stream of words and images. In such an intensely competitive setting, it's hard to imagine how anyone can produce significant coverage that truly stands alone. Yet Tel Aviv-based photographer Ariel Schalit did just that with a shot from the biblical town of Bethlehem, one that elicited glowing descriptions of Schalit's exclusive of Pope Francis stopping his motorcade to say a prayer at Israel's West Bank separation barrier, with its graffiti that includes the message "Free Palestine."

A Muslim woman waits for the Pope near the Dome of the Rock, the iconic shrine located at the third-holiest spot in Islam, Monday, May 26, 2014. The mosque complex, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, is at the heart of the territorial and religious disputes between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Francis has said his three-day Middle East visit is largely meant as a spiritual journey. However, both Israelis and Palestinians have been trying to harness the standing as leader of the world's Roman Catholics to bolster their dueling narratives. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

"It is an image that will define Pope Francis's first official visit to the Holy Land," The Guardian pronounced.

"An image which may still be making the rounds years from now," the Wall Street Journal's Middle East Real Time blog agreed. 

Schalit and his Jerusalem bureau colleagues explained how the remarkable photo came to be. 

"These events are quick-paced and highly scripted, with literally dozens of pre-planned stops. Access is often limited, and with so many journalists on the ground, competition is fierce," noted Jerusalem news editor Joe Federman. In planning coverage, he said his first concern was to make sure every stop on the schedule was covered. "After that, we look for ways to be distinctive... The odds of getting something truly exclusive like this are pretty slim. It requires detailed planning, a little bit of luck and lots of skill."

Pope Francis rides a vehicle passing by Israel's separation barrier on his way to a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Sunday, May 25, 2014. Francis called the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate "unacceptable" as he landed Sunday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Palestinian children wait for Pope Francis at Israel's separation barrier near the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the Palestinian West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday, May 25, 2014. Francis called the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate "unacceptable" as he landed Sunday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Planning photography for the papal visit was the responsibility of Dusan Vranic, the bureau's photo editor. In Bethlehem, he checked out the pope's expected route and decided to assign one free roaming photographer and three shooters in the square where Francis would celebrate Mass. But then Vranic picked up rumors that the pope might stop at the separation barrier that the route would pass. The wall engulfs Bethlehem on three sides. "We decided to bring in Ariel as a second street shooter," Vranic said. "We had to have that frame of the wall," if Francis did indeed stop there. 

Hours before the pope's arrival, Schalit got himself into place near the barrier. "I waited there with some local children and Palestinian police and security guards," he said, acknowledging he was doubtful that Francis would stop. When he did, Schalit, who had covered the two previous popes' Holy Land trips, relied on his experience."I just pushed my way to get close to him, as he walked to the wall," he said. "As I saw the graffiti I positioned myself behind him so I can place him in the context of where he is in Bethlehem, Palestine and a wall."

A Christian worshiper holds a cross following a mass held by Pope Francis in Manger Square just outside the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Sunday, May 25, 2014. Francis has said his three-day Middle East visit is largely meant as a spiritual journey. However, both Israelis and Palestinians have been trying to harness the standing as leader of the world's Roman Catholics to bolster their dueling narratives. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Pope Francis walks towards Israel's separation barrier on his way to a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Sunday, May 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Pope Francis prays at Israel's separation barrier on his way to a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday, May 25, 2014. Francis called the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate "unacceptable" as he landed Sunday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Schalit's lens caught Francis' face as he touched his hand to the barrier, as he closed his eyes in silent prayer, as he seemed to read the spray-painted protest phrases. Afterward, many would interpret the moment captured in Schalit's gallery of photos. Palestinians praised the pope's gesture while Israeli officials argued that the barrier had been built to thwart terrorist attacks. A Vatican spokesman said Francis was merely "against the barriers in the world and in our hearts."

Pope Francis prays at Israel's separation barrier on his way to a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday, May 25, 2014. Francis called the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate "unacceptable" as he landed Sunday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

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Pope Francis prays at Israel's separation barrier on his way to a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday, May 25, 2014. Francis called the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate "unacceptable" as he landed Sunday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

 

To see more images by photographer Ariel Schalit, click here.

 

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