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Rome and the Election of Pope Francis

March 18, 2013 1 comment

Last week I went on a work trip to Rome, my first visit in nearly 20 years, for one night only. So imagine my surprise to find myself there, totally by coincidence, the same night that a new Pope was elected…

Of course I knew that it was a possibility, but I figured that it was pretty likely that I would miss the event itself due to being at the office, and that it would be enough, perhaps, just to visit Saint Peter’s Square and see the pilgrims and the curious waiting for that magic puff of white smoke.

After I finished my day’s work and was dropped off next to the Forum, I snapped a few shots and then checked into my hotel before a look round the old quarter.

Statue of Julius Caesar and Santi Luca e Martina, Roman Forum

Statue of Julius Caesar and Santi Luca e Martina, Roman Forum

I took my new mini tripod out with me, and had the smaller Lumix LX7 in place of my normal Canon 7D, it being a work trip. It was raining and I got some nice shots of the Pantheon and the Piazza della Rotonda in the rain.

The Pantheon and Piazza della Rotonda, Centro Storico, Rome

The Pantheon and Piazza della Rotonda, Centro Storico, Rome

Then, as I meandered around in the area of the Piazza Navona, bells began to ring, and, sensing something might be amiss, I started walking in the direction of the Vatican, 1km away and on the other side of the Tiber. As I walked, a quick check of Twitter confirmed that white smoke had indeed been sighted, indicating that the Cardinals had selected a new Pope after several rounds of voting.

Learning this, I hurried through the back alleys of the Centro Storico towards the Tiber. Once out onto the riverbank, the evening rush hour traffic was besieged with pedestrians crossing haphazardly across towards the Ponte Vittorio Emmanuel II, which was blocked to vehicle traffic and was now full of Romans, tourists and pilgrims walk-running across to the Borgo Santo Spirito, the wide avenue leading to Saint Peter’s Square and the Vatican. There was a palpable sense of excitement and urgency, as all knew the square would fill quickly now that the word was out.

Romans rush to Saint Peter's Square

Romans rush to Saint Peter’s Square

I entered the square, where tens of thousands were already present, a sea of umbrellas interspersed with roving camera crews interviewing anyone they could find to fill airtime while they awaited the coming announcement. I managed to make it inside the main crowd barrier, undergoing a cursory bag and body check, and then I was in, amongst the faithful and the merely curious (I definitely fall into the latter category).

Worldwide media in Saint Peter's Square

Worldwide media in Saint Peter’s Square

Then the waiting began. I tried to fill the time with taking pictures of the Swiss Guards on ceremonial manoeuvres, and by putting my LX7 on the tripod, held in aloft in my head to get overhead pictures of the crowd. Typically for being in the middle of a historical event in the 21st century, everyone was in possession of a mobile phone and/or camera, and of course this meant that the 3G network folded. I tried in vain to share a photo or two with the folks back home.

Romans await the announcement of the election of Pope Francis

Romans await the announcement of the election of Pope Francis

The Crowd Awaits the Announcement

The Crowd Awaits the Announcement

Soon enough, the balcony lit up, the red curtains parted, and French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran made the formal announcement we had all been waiting for: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum… habemus papam!” – “I announce to you a great joy… we have a pope!” The new Pope was announced as being Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina, a Jesuit, who would be the first pope to take the name Francisco (Francis). This thrilled the crowd as not only was he the first Jesuit, the first South American, and the first Pope Francis, but he shared the name Francisco with the current star of the Roma football team – surely a good omen. Some Argentineans nearby waved their flag around like they had just won a football match.

One of the things that struck me that night in the Vatican was that when the announcement was made, and when the new Pope appeared for the first time, a sea of camera screens appeared in the audience: it seemed virtually everyone (myself included) was recording the event despite the TV cameras and press doing a much better job of it. Charlie Brooker was right, we have turned into a world of passive recorders, drones with phones. I realised that this would not have been the case in 2005 – as digital cameras were not nearly as pervasive – and the iPhone had not yet been released.

Habemas Papam

Habemas Papam

After a time, the papal rug was hung over the balcony, the Cardinals appeared along the side balconies, and the red curtains parted again to reveal the new Pope Francis. He waited a while for the crowd’s raucous applause to die down, and then began simply “Brothers and sisters… good evening!” He was disarmingly humble, and the crowd ate his words up, rapt with attention.

Pope Francis makes his first public appearance, Saint Peter's Sq

Pope Francis makes his first public appearance, Saint Peter’s Sq

Catholic Priest listens to the first address of Pope Francis

Catholic Priest listens to the first address of Pope Francis

When his address was concluding, I was mindful of a dinner commitment with a colleague that I was almost certain to be late for, and I knew that this square would take a while to empty, so I moved towards the edges. Soon enough everyone had the same idea and the sheer number of people trying to get out of the north side of the square through the colonnades turned into a somewhat dangerous crush, as the barricades were rammed on the other side with latecomers who hadn’t managed to get in, and the guards were slow to open the gates.

Latecomers held back behind the barricades

Latecomers held back behind the barricades

After a hair-raising 10-15 minutes we managed to squeeze out of the gates and into the street, where I saw two groups of nuns from the same order bound up to each other and, squealing like schoolgirls, proceed to jump on each other and group-hug. Pretty sure I will never see that happen again.

Returning to the main avenue, a stream of people left Saint Peter’s the way they had came, nuns and all.

Saint Peter's Square empties after the announcement

Saint Peter’s Square empties after the announcement

Three nuns, Via San Pio X, the Vatican

Three nuns, Via San Pio X, the Vatican

Although I am not religious, I felt incredibly fortunate that the first night I happened to be in Rome in 20 years coincided with the historic announcement of the new Pope. It’s not often you get this sort of chance to see history in the making, up close, and it’s humbling when you think of the relatively tiny number of people in the history of the Catholic Church who have actually been present to witness these announcements.

I only wish I had brought my big camera. The LX7 is a great little camera but no match for a proper DSLR with a good lens on it.

If you’ve made it down here this far, I will “reward” you with my own compilation of amateurish home video from the night:

The next morning I had an hour or so to look around the Centro Storico again before going to work, so I checked out the Pantheon again, before heading back to the Forum and the Colisseum. This short taster definitely whetted my appetite to return to Rome armed with more time, a proper camera, and my trusty travel companion and soon-to-be wife.

Rotunda of the Pantheon

Rotunda of the Pantheon

The Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill

The Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill

The Arch of Constantine

The Arch of Constantine

The Colisseum of Rome, East Side

The Colisseum of Rome, East Side

Of course, as usual you may find more photos from this set over on Flickr.

[From the Archives] Obama Inauguration, January 2009


From time to time, I will use these “From the Archives” posts to highlight some of my photography from the period before I started this blog in late 2009. These photos have been publicly available on Flickr for some time but they have never before been featured on this blog. I hope you enjoy this blast from the past!

Four years ago (give or take a day) I was on a brief trip to the US that combined my grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration in South Carolina with a road trip up to Washington, D.C. to see the historic inauguration of Barack Obama to the office of the President.

Although as campaign volunteer for Clinton way back in 1992 I had met the then-Governor-Clinton and later had been invited to his first inauguration (along with untold numbers of other campaign workers), for one reason or another I never made it up to DC. So Obama’s was my first inauguration, and it was quite the event. Hundreds of thousands of us rose in the predawn darkness, frozen solid by the time we even got to the Mall at 4:30am, happy that we had made it into the closest “public” area to the Capitol, but reasonably sure we were still only going to be seeing Mr Obama on the TV screens as there was little hope of actually being able to discern him in person.

Obama Inauguration 09

As the actual swearing-in was not until noon, we waited for seven hours in sub-freezing temperatures, bundled into every item of cold weather gear we could scrounge, standing on space blankets to try in vain to stop the cold from seeping up through the frozen soil on the Mall, watching the sun come up.

Obama Inauguration 09

Obama Inauguration 09

It was a fun day when all is said and done, though, because the crowd were so energised, it was like a festival. Of course there was a huge African-American contingent, as would be appropriate for the inauguration of the first black president, and everywhere you looked people flashed beaming smiles at you, black, white, or otherwise.

Obama Inauguration 09

Obama Inauguration 09

At some point in the morning they rebroadcast Stevie Wonder performing “Higher Ground” at the pre-inauguration concert from the previous day and this really got everybody fired up. From then on, as the sun began to impart the tiniest amount of warmth, the Mall took on a festival-like atmosphere.

Obama Inauguration 09

Obama Inauguration 09

Soon enough it was time for business, and the thrum of excitement ratcheted up as the TV screens showed Obama waiting to be shown out onto the terrace of the Capitol. The rest, as they say, is history….

Obama Inauguration 09

Obama Inauguration 09

Obama Inauguration 09

Of course, once the (flubbed) oath of office and the speech finished, there were upwards of 1.8 million people in and around the Mall who had to find some way of getting away, and after trying in vain for an hour or so to find a Metro stop that wasn’t completely ram-jammed, we decided to walk back over the frozen Potomac to Virginia so that we could pick up transportation there. It was worth it though, to have been there and been part of the event.

Obama Inauguration 09

The next day I returned to the Mall as I had some free time, and saw them cleaning up after the festivities. If anything the ground looked even more desolate and frozen than the day before.

The Day After: Cleaning Up After the Inauguration

The Day After: Cleaning Up After the Inauguration

After a short tour of the Capitol building (during which I tried in vain to see if we could get out onto the platform to pretend to be taking the oath) the few tourists who decided to brave the cold for the second day in a row all seemed to drift down towards the White House, where we knew Obama was settling into his first full day in office…

The White House

Of course, that was a different time, and a lot has happened since then. We are not so hopeful and bright eyed as we were four years ago, and in many ways we are more divided. But maybe the President can conjure up a little more of that Obama magic today…

Seething as I am asked not to take pictures on my own street!


I just dashed off this fun little missive to the location manager, sub-manager and Brent Council Film Office contact for the location shoot that is going on across the road from me right now. Try to gauge my mood here.

Update 30 minutes later – wow, that was quick, they have replied to my letter – see the bottom of this post.

To whom it may concern, 
 
Hi, I live on [my] Road, and, having been on a film set before once or twice, was naturally interested to see a location shoot rock up on my humble street (despite lorries loudly arriving post-midnight last night).
 
Whilst on the way to do some shopping I whipped out the iPhone to do a casual snap of the film crew in action, to show my absent girlfriend later, when I was approached by one of the gentlemen from [Security Firm Name] who asked me not to take a photo. I was standing on the public pavement at the time. 
 
I am a photographer on the side and am, as you will see, very protective of photographic rights. I’m going to get pedantic here, but you need to hear it.
 
I explained to him that I had every right to do so, as I was on public land (see http://www.photographersrights.org.uk/page6/page6.html) and furthermore he was a visitor on my street, not the other way around. 
 
He tried to explain that there was a “custom” of not taking photos of film crews, which was a new one on me. I said he did not have the right to ask me to stop – not even a policeman’s badge, much less a high-viz jacket, would give anyone the right to stop me taking a photo from a public place – and he demurred that I had the right to take the photo, but then he had the right to wave his arms around in front of me (which he did not do) in order to prevent the photo. I admit that this is technically true, but he would have been harassing me if so and the police might have got involved. I was called “argumentative” for sticking up for my rights. Damn right I am. 
 
The point of all of this is that you are filming in a public environment, and so am I. You have a permit, I don’t need one. For your information I took an oblique photo (not video) of the crew, no cast members, and nothing plot-threatening (to be honest, rom-coms are not my cup of tea). But that is not material. As long as I am standing on public property, I could have had my professional camera out, shooting right into the action, and been within my rights. 
 
I understand your desire to protect copyright and prevent plot details leaking, and I am excited to have this sort of action in my street, but your desires do not outweigh my rights, and I am not going to be cowed by some guy because he happens to be wearing a vest. 
 
Thanks
Luke Robinson

This was the admittedly very conciliatory and friendly reply, sent within thirty minutes. Fair play, I am a bit less seething now.

Hi Luke

Thanks for your email.

You are quite right, we have no right to stop anybody from photographing on the street, we only try to avoid flash photography or sounds ruining our shots, but that’s all, and this is usually just a request.

I am surprised that any of my security crew would have stopped you from using a camera in the street, only to ask you to be careful not to use a flash or something similar.

Please accept my apologies if this has caused you any inconvenience at all, I can assure you that this is just a misunderstanding, I will ensure that this does not happen again.

Open Letter to the UK Home Office about the Imminent Closure of the IRIS E-Gate System

December 12, 2011 2 comments

Forgive me for a temporary diversion into non-photographic territory.

For those of you aren’t one of the nearly 400,000 UK-based frequent travellers who use the IRIS system, it is a rare case of something that takes a good deal of pain out of travelling internationally. It is an automated system installed at several UK airports which allows registered users to gain entry to the UK merely by looking into an iris scanner. If you are like me and are A) a frequent business traveller or B) a non-EU citizen, this is a life saver. IRIS lets me breeze past hour-long queues and I am often at the baggage carousel before the bags have started coming out.

However, for one reason or another, the system has never quite taken off. I have an inkling that it’s down to the fact that the need for pre-registration has put a lot of would-be users off, especially when the registration offices within Heathrow and Gatwick have been keeping increasingly erratic opening hours, and unfortunately with the austerity measures it now means that these offices have largely been closed. Word has been seeping out that the programme’s days are over, and that the machines will only be run until such time as they malfunction or start to need maintenance, at which point the system will be shut down.

I was upset enough about hearing this that I have written to the appropriate address within the Home Office. If you are upset about this as well, I would urge you to do the same.

To: irisinfo@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk

To whom it may concern:

I write to express my displeasure at the imminent closure or retirement of the IRIS e-gate system.

I am an expat US citizen who has lived in London for many years. I will not be eligible for a UK passport until late 2012, but I have an Indefinite Leave to Remain visa and a US passport. I am a frequent business traveller, and because of the IRIS system, I have saved countless hours I would have otherwise stood in a queue.

With the staff reductions underway at UKBA, and the resulting pressures on the remaining border agents, surely this is not the time to be adding to the numbers of people having to queue for inefficient manual checks?

However, if the retirement of IRIS is a fait accompli, and it is only a matter of time until the system is decommissioned, then may I enquire what are the planned alternatives for frequent non-EU national travellers such as me?

I am thinking along the lines of one of the following suggestions:

  • Addition of non-EU expats to the e-passport system – This would seem to make sense considering the sizeable investment in the e-passport infrastructure throughout the UK airports
  • Alternative automated biometric e-gate system – I have heard rumours of a facial recognition technology, and again I would suggest that this be extended to cover non-EU nationals
  • Separate queue for longterm visa holders / resident expats – In past times when the IRIS machines have been malfunctioning, I have occasionally seen an “IRIS queue” spring up at an adjacent border desk, for people who would normally use the IRIS machine. Surely this could be a low-cost alternative solution in which you have a dedicated queue for long-term residents (people on ILR or work permits) who simply needed identity verification rather than the lengthy entry interrogation posed to tourists and other temporary non-EU visitors?

Lacking any of the solutions above being put into practice, the prospect of once again joining the non-EU passport queues fill me with dread, and make me re-think my need to travel at all.

Thank you for your time and consideration,
Luke Robinson

Great photo report from the London riots by AFP’s Leon Neal

August 12, 2011 3 comments

I just wanted to share this post from AFP’s Leon Neal, a snapper I have been lucky enough to talk with on many occasions via Twitter (where he goes by @TabascoKid). Very scary stories (and brilliant shots) of what it was like to try and cover the London riots of August 2011 from a press photographer’s perspective:

http://www.leonneal.com/blog/2011/08/12/london-riots-august-2011/

It’s definitely worth a few minutes of your time to check this out.

All I saw was this pretty awesome rainbow…


Tonight, many neighbourhoods in London are on fire, and it seems more trouble is popping up all around, Harlesden being the closest to where I live in Queens Park. Most of the trouble seems to be in Hackney though, well east of us.

But when we looked over that way all we saw was a pretty wicked, horizon-to-horizon rainbow.

Looking East towards the Hackney Riots...

Guess there’s still stuff to be happy about in London, after all.

No terror arrests in 10,000 police stop-and-searches


A really interesting article in today's Guardian about the total pointlessness of the Section 44 stop-and-search tactics the police have employed against all manner of innocent people in the last few years – including many, many hapless photographers. Even the Government's own man, David Davis, is calling this what it is: lunacy. 

More than 100,000 people were stopped and searched by police under counter-terrorism powers last year but none of them were arrested for terrorism-related offences, according to Home Office figures published today.

The statistics show that 504 people out of the 101,248 searches were arrested for any offence – an arrest rate of 0.5%, compared with an average 10% arrest rate for street searches under normal police powers.

The figures prompted the former Conservative home affairs spokesman David Davis to call for the controversial policy to be scrapped.

"This astonishing fact of no terrorism-related arrests, let alone prosecutions or convictions, in over 100,000 stop and searches, demonstrates what a massively counter-productive policy this is," said Davis.

Hopefully statistics such as this, together with Home Secretary Theresa May curtailing the police's Section 44 powers, mean that we photographers will be free to move about – and photograph in public spaces – without fear of pointless police harassment.