Noli Yamsuan, Cardinal Sin’s ‘official’ photographer: ‘I could smell the aftershave lotion of the Pope’ | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

YAMSUAN said Pope John Paul II’s first visit to the Philippines was so tiring and frenzied, but the pleasure was very visible in the Pontiff’s face. “Gustong-gusto niya talaga ang mga Pilipino.”
YAMSUAN said Pope John Paul II’s first visit to the Philippines was so tiring and frenzied, but the pleasure was very visible in the Pontiff’s face. “Gustong-gusto niya talaga ang mga Pilipino.”

Tucked in a dark shelf somewhere in the Archdiocesan Office of Communication of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila in Intramuros is a mint-condition back issue of Penthouse magazine.


Fact: The late Jaime Cardinal Sin had laid his hands on it, read one specific article and gave the accompanying photos a thumbs-up.


Now before anyone raises a kerfuffle, the feature written by Jennifer Landey was about Holy Week-related customs in Central Luzon, particularly the bloody penitencia rituals of Catholic devotees wanting to atone for sins.


And the cardinal cared to see it only because his official photographer, Manuel “Noli” Yamsuan Jr., took the pictures that went with Landey’s story.


One particularly graphic close-up shot showed a large nail being driven into the foot of a penitent.


MOTHER Teresa and Cardinal Sin share a plate of Skyflakes crackers. Yamsuan is proud of this photo as it showed how humble the so-called Living Saint of Calcutta was. “Whenever we picked her up from the airport, she carried only a small tampipi.”

“It was the 1970s, and Penthouse at that time was into bizarre photos. I remember another article where the magazine showed corpses floating along the Ganges River,” Yamsuan said.


The photographer said it was his US-based agent who pulled strings so his work would appear in the world-famous rag.


Despite the irony of a cardinal’s close-in photographer taking pictures for Penthouse, Yamsuan said Sin’s sense of humor had always been as considerable as his girth, and so he kept his then “unofficial” job until the cardinal passed on in June 2005.


(Yamsuan was eventually “inherited” by Sin’s successors, Gaudencio Rosales and Luis Antonio Tagle.)


THIS Noli Yamsuan photo served as basis for the sculptures of President Cory Aquino and Cardinal Sin that now stand at the corner of Roxas Boulevard in front of the Manila Hotel.

Yamsuan’s unique relationship with the cardinal is chronicled in the coffee table book “Scenes of Sin,” without a doubt the most famous compilation of photos taken in his career.


First released in 1999, it is a collection of photos that Yamsuan took of the church leader from his consistory before Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1976, where Sin was named a new cardinal, until the time he grew weak from illness and withdrew from observing the country’s sociopolitical landscape.


Yamsuan did not apply for the position. In the mid-1970s he was a photographer of the Philippine Daily Express, covering various assignments from sports to fashion. Express executive editor Enrique “Pocholo” Romualdez eventually assigned him formally to cover Cardinal Sin.


His future wife, Corazon or “Peachy,” was then working with the media center of the Archbishop of Manila.


POPE John Paul II loved the Filipinos, and the crowds he visited loved him back. Behind him, a fan climbed up a roof for a priceless balcony view



Yamsuan said the new cardinal was initially self-conscious, and would pose every time he saw the photographer in front of him.


“Kasi probinsiyano, mahilig magpa-picture,” Yamsuan said of the Jaro-based church leader. “Eventually he got used to me to the point he was not aware of whether I was there or not, and even assumed that I was there when I wasn’t,” he added.


Since people always saw them together, they always regarded Yamsuan as the official photographer.


“Sige, okay na rin,” he thought, and the title stuck.


There were perks, of course, such as being assigned by the Catholic Church of Manila as the official close-in photographer of Pope John Paul II during his first visit to the country in 1981 for the beatification of Blessed Lorenzo Ruiz.


THESE two pictures, Yamsuan said, illustrate how President Marcos and Cardinal Sin did not see eye to eye. “Marcos said ‘this way’ and the cardinal said, ‘no, the other way.’”

“Actually, they had no choice, since I was the only one na matiyaga to take photos for the Church,” he said.


The schedule, however, was grueling. The itinerary included the cities of Cebu, Davao, Bacolod, Legazpi and Baguio, as well as Morong in Bataan.


“All those different places and I was riding at the back of the Pope’s plane. Malaki ang eroplano, so minsan kaka-take off pa lang, nagla-landing na naman. It was a nice experience. (Future Inquirer columnist) Rina Jimenez was our writer, chronicling everything for the Church,” he recalled.


CARDINAL Sin’s official photographer hobnobs with his boss’ chums–President Fidel Ramos and President Cory Aquino.

There were also motorcades to Malacañang, Tondo, the Araneta Coliseum, Quezon Memorial Circle and Luneta.


Yamsuan said the Pope’s first visit was tiring and frenzied but the pleasure was visible in the Pontiff’s face, especially when he saw how much the crowds loved him.


“Gustong-gusto niya talaga ang mga Pilipino. People welcomed him everywhere we went. His presence was magnetic, electrifying. Some people would not even see him at all but were satisfied knowing they were where he was,” the photographer recalled.


Imelda and the Pope


Yamsuan smiled when he suddenly remembered a hilarious footnote about the first papal visit of John Paul II.


Then first lady Imelda Marcos wanted to put herself within the camera frame so badly that she followed the pontiff everywhere.


As in, she would get in the way? “Oh, yes! You bet,” said Yamsuan.


The photographer said the Pope was actually displeased that Malacañang made a big fuss about turning what was supposed to be a simple pastoral visit into a state visit.


The Palace insisted that since the Pope was a head of state, it was only right to elevate John Paul’s appearance into a state visit.


“According to Cardinal Sin, the Pope was not very pleased at the bureaucratic reaction. Pero ’yung mga tao naman, wala ka nang mahihingi. Their reactions were so spontaneous,” Yamsuan said.


He echoed the common sentiment within the Church hierarchy then that the dictatorship considered the Pope an instrument for good publicity, given the emerging reports about the government’s human rights abuses and uncontrollable foreign debt.


“Kumbaga sa atin, pumapapel ang Malacañang,” Yamsuan said.


During the Pope’s provincial tours, Mrs. Marcos rode a separate plane that would leave a venue earlier and arrive at the next just in time for her to stand among the throngs of the faithful at the tarmac of every local airport the Pope landed in.


Yamsuan said members of the foreign media would place bets every time John Paul’s plane was about to land. Imelda’s presence was announced by the pink umbrella hovering just above the heads of those waiting at the airport.


“Ten out of 10 times the plane landed, the pink umbrella would be there. Everyone would ask, ‘Did you see the pink umbrella?’ Foreign photographers would wager whether the pink umbrella would be there—but once we were out there, they totally ignored her,” Yamsuan said.


All photographers had to be at the foot of the stairs when the Pope stepped out the airplane, because “you have to catch the papal wave,” Yamsuan said.


Greater luck


All things considered, the photographer probably had greater luck than Mrs. Marcos in getting near the Pope.


“I could smell the aftershave lotion of the Pope. I was that close. There was no time to get emotional, though, it was still all about taking pictures.”


Once, a harried Yamsuan complained to writer Jimenez how tired he was of the coverage.


“Sana isang beses lang ito,” he told her.


“Oo nga, eh,” Jimenez replied.


Little did both know that a second visit was to happen 14 years later. Yamsuan, Cardinal Sin and Pope John Paul II would be old fogies by then.


That period also saw the beginning of sporadic visits from Mother Teresa, then dubbed as the Living Saint of Calcutta, who established homes for the deprived in several spots in Manila like the Del Pan area in Tondo and Tayuman in Sta. Cruz district.


Yamsuan said he would know about the visits only because Cardinal Sin would tell him to rush to the scene.


Mother Teresa, he recalled, was humble and gentle. Despite this, Yamsuan still managed to irritate the nun.


“Why do you like taking pictures of ugly women?” he quoted her complaining one time.


“Nabuwisit sa akin, but in a nice way. Lagi kasi akong biglang susulpot sa tabi niya to take photos,” he said.


Cardinal Sin, he added, forged a genuine bond with the two global religious figures. Yamsuan believes Sin’s peculiar role in nation-building was most likely a divine plan.


“He was right for his time,” he observed.


The cardinal eventually evolved into a vocal kibitzer who made in-your-face comments about the Marcos regime. Yamsuan felt that Romualdez “tolerated” his photos, as these provided the Marcos crony paper a close glimpse of Sin at work.




Yamsuan found himself at the crossroads after Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.’s assassination in 1983.


He was on top of Sto. Domingo Church taking pictures of the crowds, but none appeared in the paper he worked for.


“Bakit ’di nagamit? Ang gaganda naman, andaming tao. ‘Exactly,’ one editor said. ‘Mas maganda sana kung anim lang ’yung tao sa libing.’ I started thinking it was time to go,” Yamsuan recalled.


The father of three described the days that followed the assassination as “dark,” saying there was so much uncertainty on whether the Express would close, and he would have to scrounge for another job.


But Yamsuan said he worried more about the cardinal then, as there were fears that disgruntled officials might try to “get even” with Sin for all his noise.


“That was more of my concern. In my case, I don’t take sides, I only take pictures,” he added.


But then, everyone figured that since Cardinal Sin was getting a lot of attention from the foreign press, who in his right mind would try to hurt him right after Ninoy?


Good thing that Jaime “Jimmy” Ongpin, who would become future President Corazon Aquino’s trade secretary, and Vicente “Ting” Paterno, a future senator, put up Veritas news magazine. Yamsuan quit his job at Express and joined the new team as photo editor.


In less than three years, the Edsa uprising followed.


Yamsuan said it was a well-known fact that Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile called Cardinal Sin and reported that he and his men were holed up in Camp Aguinaldo and were “afraid that the loyal soldiers of Marcos might attack them there.”


“Siguro si Cardinal na ang nakaisip na delikado sina Enrile dun. He called up Radio Veritas and asked the people to come to Edsa,” he added.


“Sina Enrile kasi and (his wife) Cristina were very close to the Cardinal before. Lalo na si Cristina,” Yamsuan added.


That Cardinal Sin played a major role in overturning the dictatorship could not be disputed. Yamsuan said it probably helped that Sin felt a genuine affection for Cory.


“When you talked about Cory, his face brightened up. Mahal talaga n’ya si Cory,” he noted.


Yamsuan then whips out a copy of “Scenes of Sin” where the cardinal and the President were photographed together in front of the Luneta grandstand with their right hands raised.


“See these? Iyang picture na ’yan ang naging batayan ng mga monumento nila ngayon dun,” he said, referring to the statues of President Aquino and Cardinal Sin at the corner of Roxas Boulevard in front of the Manila Hotel.


Relaxed coverage


Luneta was also the scene of Pope John Paul’s second visit in 1995 in time for World Youth Day.


Yamsuan said his coverage by then had become more relaxed.


“Mas maganda na ang diskarte ko. I knew what to do and what pictures to take. I was happy about the coverage, walang masyadong biyahe,” he said.


Yamsuan said the Pope was adamant about getting to Luneta by car for the youth day event, until his assistants made him watch the television coverage of the situation on the ground.


“Even the bishops had to leave their vans and walk to the venue. He agreed to ride a helicopter only after seeing the crowds on television. He was like Pope Francis, he had to be with the people,” he recalled.


At that time, however, John Paul was already sick and had difficulty moving about.


Yamsuan remembered seeing a “very tired-looking” Pope after he celebrated Mass at the University of Santo Tomas campus. But when the pontiff saw and heard the screaming crowd waiting at the parade grounds, it was as if a light was lit from within.


“Nabuhay na naman,” he noted.


John Paul’s death in April 2005 was a devastating episode for Cardinal Sin, his photographer said.


Yamsuan explained that Sin already felt an affinity with the Pope when he was still Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland.


“The cardinal told me sila ’yung naging close. Either they were roommates or were roomed next to each other at the conclave where the Polish cardinal was eventually chosen the next Pope,” he said.


Cardinal Sin desperately wanted to leave for the Vatican when news spread over cable TV that Pope John Paul II’s condition was deteriorating.


“It was Fr. Soc Villegas who told me how Cardinal Sin wanted to leave, but hindi puwede talaga. He also wasn’t able to attend the conclave that chose Pope Benedict XVI. It was Cardinal (Ricardo) Vidal who attended,” the photographer said.


During that period, Cardinal Sin’s poor health also made it difficult for his close-in to take photos. “Naaawa ako sa itsura niya.  I remember a jolly guy with a booming laugh. All the time we were together, and then he got sick. I also didn’t think he wanted me to take pictures, so I exercised self-censorship,” Yamsuan said.


After the cardinal died in June 2005, his photographer would always hear comments about how his presence was missed, especially in the context of national events.


“People would ask, what if Cardinal Sin were still alive? What would he say about this and that? Since then we have had three different cardinals who are three different people, and they will do three different things, so hindi mo masasabi ’yan,” he said.


Favorite memory


Yamsuan’s favorite memory of Cardinal Sin happened right after the Church-sponsored media team that covered his consistory in Rome returned to Manila.


Among the new cardinal’s well-wishers in Villa San Miguel were the parents of his fiancée Peachy.


Yamsuan said his future in-laws got shocked when Sin suddenly announced how he plans to officiate the wedding of his photographer to their daughter.


“You know, I will marry Noli and Peachy,” he recalled the Cardinal’s matter-of-fact statement.


“Isn’t that the best pamamanhikan in the world?” he exclaimed.


(Note: Noli Yamsuan is the first cousin of reporter Cathy Yamsuan’s father-in-law, the late Bernardo San Juan Yamsuan.)