National Geographic Traveler magazine is celebrating its 30th anniversary this fall. To commemorate this milestone, we asked 12 of our longtime photographers to select their favorite images shot on assignment for Traveler throughout the past three decades. We will be publishing these images, along with stories behind the photographs, throughout the month of November.
Today, we hear from photographer Massimo Bassano about the image above, which he shot for Traveler in 2014.
It’s my third time wandering inside Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. Sioni is a Georgian Orthodox cathedral that bears the name of Mount Zion at Jerusalem. I love this place. The quiet atmosphere. The devotions of the pilgrims inside. All these people praying with intense looks, kissing icons and lighting candles.
It’s quite dark in Sioni, making the general view even more dramatic. Some corners are just lit up by the candles, with a warm yellow atmosphere that embraces [those] who pray.
I wander quietly, embracing gently my camera. I have the wide angle on. I don’t like to take photographs from far away. I don’t like that people think I’m spying on them. I like to “smell” the subjects I photograph. So close that they can see me and accept me. When they accept me without official words, then the photograph I take becomes a real piece of life.
An old lady is going around the cathedral. She does not pray but moves to each votive candle stand to scrape wax. She works incredibly fast and efficient. By the time I notice her and move closer, she’s changed stands already.
I stay in front; I want her concentrated face in my image. The face says so much … I need it, always. One eye into the viewfinder, following her, the other wandering around her to understand if I can have a bigger view. I’m lucky a lady comes closer. Veil on the head, her expression is absorbed in intense praying. I enlarge my angle and recompose the frame. That’s my photograph, I know, I feel it.
The result is quite simple and natural. Following the old lady from stand to stand, she did not care about me anymore. She moved naturally in front of my lens, and the people around her too.
It was all I needed for a natural, essential, real photograph.
Photo Tip: For taking photographs in a church like Sioni, the first thing is to leave out shyness. How can you want to take photographs of people in a church and be shy at the same time? Patience is the important ingredient. Stay inside, being part of the atmosphere, moving slowly, showing the cameras. Nothing is wrong with that; we have to select who can be more available as a subject.
Never spy on people from far away with a long lens, but be close, show that you are looking for a photograph. Being accepted is the main secret. Then you can just focus the attention on [having] the right exposure and composition.
I love to give the atmosphere I see using low ISO and a slow shutter speed, holding the camera firmly. Maybe pushing my body against something like a wall.
Smile at people when they look to you. Not a show but a simple body language in the silence of a church, and be prompt to explain gently why you like that person, that frame specifically. At the same time, understand when it’s a “no thanks.” Then wait for another interesting subject, accepting with a smile that someone cannot be happy. It happens, of course, but most don’t care. Be patient; remember: It’s the first quality of a photographer.
Find out more about Massimo Bassano’s on NationalGeographic.com.