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Behind the lens: capturing the WYD ‘family photo’

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WYD pilgrims, chaplains and group leaders pose for a quick photo days before departing for Krakow, Poland. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
WYD pilgrims, chaplains and group leaders pose for a quick photo days before departing for Krakow, Poland. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

How do you photograph several hundred excited but impatient World Youth Day pilgrims, leaders and chaplains?

Quickly, says photographer Giovanni Portelli.

Giovanni was on hand at St Mary’s Cathedral last Sunday to shoot the WYD Commissioning Mass and a group photo outside afterwards.

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But as pilgrims exited the cathedral, he quickly realised things weren’t going to schedule.

“My plan was to have Archbishop Fisher standing at the Mercy Doors, with all the WYD priests on his left and right, but when all the pilgrims started piling up, I knew that I was going to need a bigger ladder or do something drastic!

“I gave the order to split the top step of pilgrims so that the archbishop could be totally visible, and I think my volunteers managed to pull people back so that he could be seen from my angle, but then the acolytes and priests started walking down the instant aisle that I have inadvertently made.

“I was on top of a nimble ladder, and there were about 300 people on my left and right all frantically trying to get a photo with their iPhones. (Hint: your phone camera isn’t going to work here because I’m the one with a ladder).”

With a phone in one hand, Giovanni gave orders to ensure a clear line of sight to Archbishop Fisher.

“I was totally aware that I probably only had 30 seconds left,” he said.

“Unit cohesion at this level just wasn’t going to last any longer.”

With “joyful yelling” from all sides, he stirred up the crowd for maximum energy.

“Pumping up a crowd of this magnitude was an absolute delight,” he said.

“The good spirit and the positive atmosphere is spot on what I remember about World Youth Day in Sydney 2008.”

In a couple of snaps, Giovanni captured what he described as “an iconic, historic and epic photo of the Sydney archdiocese”.

As chaotic as the experience was, he was delighted with the finished result.

“It’s the faces that I love when it comes to big scenes like this.”

Catholic Youth Services director Bernard Toutounji said there was a “tangible excitement and buzz in the air” at the Mass.

“The commissioning Mass was a perfect WYD send off for all the pilgrims and their families,” he said.

“The commissioning Mass was deliberately held as part of the usual Sunday Mass at the Cathedral because this was not only a commissioning by Archbishop Fisher but a sending out by the whole Catholic community.

“The place was packed to the rafters which only added to the feel of this being a genuine WYD event.”

Visit to view the live stream of the main events of WYD 2016 from 27-31 July, or visit the live chat portal to join the global conversation.

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