In a four-year project, titled A Sisterhood, Luongo follows the everyday joys and sorrows of women living in service of God
Growing up in Rome, Valeria Luongo often saw clusters of nuns wandering around the city. Hidden from view, however, were the daily lives and rituals of these women, who lived together in highly structured, private communities. In Luongo’s series A Sisterhood, she finds them in full: in play and in prayer; in isolation and in community; in laughter and in tears.
Luongo began following the nuns of the Sisters Ravasco House in 2015, photographing them intermittently for four years. The project was challenging, given the nuns’ aversion to the spotlight. “They are women who don’t want to be at the centre of attention,” Luongo explains. “Every time I pointed the camera to one of them, they would start laughing, super embarrassed. It was like a mask… I wanted to get a bit more of themselves.” After a year with the nuns, Luongo felt these barriers start to break down. “I didn’t want them to feel like they were an object of study,” she says. “With the passing of the time, it was easier because then it was about trust.”
This trust allowed Luongo to tap into the Sisters’ emotions as they went about their religious duties. Though these women live ascetic lives in service of God, they also share moments of playfulness and intimacy. A Sisterhood brings these moments to the fore: a Sister grins at the sight of a birthday cake; another raises her eyebrow at the camera, a fanny pack tied around her waist. Luongo’s series depicts the subtle humanity of women leading devout, self-abnegating lives.
Perhaps the most surprising image is that of the nuns playing basketball with a group of young Catholic men in baseball caps and T-shirts. Luongo captures one Sister mid-jump, arm outstretched towards the ball. The juxtaposition of the nun’s traditional garb – connoting timidity, severity, modesty – with her Jumpman pose makes for a delightful and unexpected moment. This photograph, in its mix of seriousness and silliness, mirrors one of Luongo’s artistic influences: the Italian photographer Mario Giacomelli, whose 1960s series, There Are No Hands to Caress, depicts priests playing in the snow. Giacomelli accentuated the images’ thematic contrast of severity and joy by rendering them in oversaturated black and white: the priests spin their long dark gowns over a bright snowy landscape.
Luongo also opts for black and white in A Sisterhood, unmooring the images from any “precise moment in history.” And yet her stark images centre the nuns’ individual experiences in a way that feels distinctly modern. “I wanted to get more into their lives, their feelings; to get to know them instead of just what they do.”
After years of observing the sisters, Luongo began to understand how difficult a decision it was for these women to take the veil. Her photographs capture the everyday triumphs and challenges of women whose mission is larger than life. “It’s a constant struggle,” Luongo explained. “They are humans at the end of the day.”
Nurit Chinn is a playwright and freelance journalist. A recent graduate of Yale University with a degree in English Literature, Nurit has published work in Wallpaper* Magazine, Off Assignment, and the Yale Daily News.