Constable: Wood Dale photographer worked for pope's book capturing worldly wisdom
Wood Dale photographer gets the job of lifetimes
Re-enacting a moment from his childhood, Paul Audia steadies an imaginary Eastman Kodak Brownie at his waist to take the first photographs of his career. "Oh, man," Audia says. "That little Brownie and seeing the magic of it. This is cool."
So is being the primary photographer for Pope Francis' international best-selling book, "Sharing the Wisdom of Time."
"Every picture in that book has so much story behind it," says Audia, who lives in Wood Dale and spent months shooting photographs for the book in locations across the United States, Ireland, England, Malta, Italy, Croatia, Spain and Poland. His portraits include a local black woman who overcame prejudice to finish nursing school, a soccer player in Madrid who learned how hard work can overcome frustration, a Slovenian woman who talks about a life worth living as she rolls her wheelchair through the rain, and a Holocaust survivor who lives in Ohio and still works to curb hate.
"I like this book very much because it gives voice to people with years of experience. It lets them talk and tell their experiences," Pope Francis writes in the book's preface. "I also liked looking at the images of their faces."
Most of those images are the result of Audia's work.
"Our sincere gratitude goes to the man behind the camera, photographer Paul Audia, whose gift for capturing the dignity and majesty of a person shines through in each of his photos," reads the acknowledgment in the front of the book.
As a kid growing up in Fairmont, West Virginia, Audia photographed hometown hero and teenage gymnast Mary Lou Retton, who became famous at the 1984 Olympics as the first American woman to win the all-around gold medal.
Audia left West Virginia University early to start his career in radio, where he spent six years as an on-air personality, and worked as a disc jockey spinning disco tunes at nightclubs. But he also studied photography and became a member of the Professional Photographers of America.
He shot high school senior portraits, proms, weddings and ads for department stories and Iron City Beer. "I didn't turn down anything," he remembers. One of his most difficult jobs was shooting photographs for Peabody Coal in a mine 600 feet underground, where lighting was an adventure. They shut down the mine for 10 minutes, and Audia captured three images on film. "The first was shaky. The second was almost perfect. The third was perfect," Audia remembers.
He has photographed Buddy Guy, Billy Corgan and other musicians and fashion models on runways in New York City and on cobblestone streets in Guatemala. "I was the king of bridal for about 12 years," he says. He's captured faces from Barack Obama to Irish fishermen. He shoots video and photos for Access Community Health Network, a provider of health services across Cook and DuPage counties. He tells stories of some of his photos on his podcast. He's married to Bonnie Reid, has two grown children and two grandkids.
"All the things you do previously in your life bring all those skills to that moment of life," Audia says in explaining how he captured images for the pope's book. He was touched not only by the stories of older people but by the help he was offered from strangers in foreign lands whenever he needed directions or assistance, Audia says.
"To me, this book was life-altering," Audia says. "The stories I heard. The people who gave me love."
In 2015, Loyola Press published the first papal book for children: "Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Letters from Children Around the World," which made The New York Times Best Sellers List. Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief of the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, visited the Chicago publisher in 2016. "He said the Holy Father had another idea," remembers Joellyn Cicciarelli, president and publisher of Loyola Press. "And we said OK."
Working with Jesuit groups and Unbound, a not-for-profit global anti-poverty organization with many programs that aid the elderly, the book gathered stories of elders imparting wisdom.
"These people were sharing raw stories and we needed a photographer to capture that," Cicciarelli says. The book's designer, Jill Arena, had worked with Audia before and knew he'd be perfect for the job.
"I try to start out with a blank canvas. I start talking and try to get a feel for them," Audia says of his approach, which is the same for every person he meets.
Sitting next to filmmaker Martin Scorsese at the book's release last October during the pope's synod on youth in Rome, Audia says the director, who tells a story in the book, talked to Audia as if they were old friends about cameras, equipment and actors. Scorsese dropped names as if Audia were part of his Hollywood network. "I know Robert DeNiro, but I don't know Bobby DeNiro," Audia says, laughing at the memory.
The book's chapters deal with work, struggle, love, death and hope. "Sharing the Wisdom of Time" has been reprinted in nine languages in more than a dozen countries. It's a coffee-table art book that reaches a diverse audience, some of whom Audia will photograph today in Michigan City, Indiana.
"I'm going to a prison on Easter Sunday," Audia says. "Several of the prisoners carry the book with them."