“Living such a lifestyle is not an easy task”: Valeria Luongo on documenting a community of nuns in Rome

The photographer gained access to the convent four years ago, building trust and forming relationships with her subjects. Here, she tells us more about the captivating series.

Date
16 December 2020
Reading Time
4 minute read

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While sitting on a bus six years ago, London-based Valeria Luongo noticed a sign for a convent through the window. She started wondering what it would be like to have access to somewhere like that and, as things turned out – a few months after this catalytic moment – Valeria enrolled on a documentary course and was in need of choosing a topic to start working on.

The result of which is A Sisterhood, a photographic documentation of a community of nuns living in the Sisters Ravasco House’s main headquarters in Rome. Beginning the project in January 2015, the series has been in the works for the past four years, documenting the life, relationships and sisterly moments found between the women who inhabited the place – including those who’ve spent most of their life in the community, and those who’ve just joined.

“Surprisingly, getting access to the convent wasn’t that difficult,” she tells It’s Nice That. “The difficult part was getting the nuns to feel comfortable in front of the camera. Nuns are not normally at the centre of attention, and at first they were really shy.” Their apprehension meant that Valeria would need to return more frequently, visiting until they felt comfortable enough in her presence; she built trust, spent time chatting, understanding and sharing, which later transferred into a series of intimate photographs.

A Sisterhood is what the Rome-raised photographer refers to as her first serious project, which arose after studying Anthropology at university – although, she’s always shown an interest in documentary photography. In Rome, it’s quite often that you will encounter a nun, a result of the presence of the Vatican. “However,” she says, “not many people – myself included – were aware of how they actually live or how they spend their days.” This provoked an enquiry of her own, generated by the desire to understand why a modern woman would want to enter into that particular lifestyle. “I was especially curious about young nuns; people who grew up with the same influences as me; passing through the same trends, fashions and historic moments; watching the same movies or cartoons,” she says, to then become part of a completely different lifestyle.

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Valeria Luongo: A Sisterhood. Lowicz (PL), July 2016. Nuns are playing basketball with a group of young Catholics. Sometimes they practice sports together or with other people related to the Church. Playing sport can be uncomfortable because of the religious clothes. (Copyright ©Valeria Luongo, 2016)

As the project evolved, Valeria’s focus steered away from the investigative kind and more towards the relationships found between the women. Not only do they have to become accustomed to living with a large number of women – not least with huge age differences – but it’s also full of strict, traditional and religious rules. “I understood that living such a lifestyle is not an easy task, and they need incredible strength to do so,” says Valeria.

In doing so, she was able to spend time getting to know many of the women in the convent. Francesca, in particular, is one of the youngest nuns there, and initially requested that Valeria could avoid taking photographs of her face – only pictures from behind. “As we were almost the same age, she soon became the nun I would spend the most time with,” she says, explaining how they became friends over time. “She went from being extremely shy to being one of the most confident nuns in front of the camera.” Francesca left the church in 2017, and now works as a teacher. The two are still in touch.

While viewing this series, there’s a certain level of warmth and emotion that transpires through the imagery. Valeria’s time spent with the nuns – and thus with her subjects – is paramount, equating to a beautifully composed and authentic representation of life and relationships within the convent. The basketball image is one of Valeria’s favourites, notably because you could never imagine a nun playing the sport. “I was in Poland covering the participation of the nuns at a big religious event,” she says on the context behind the photograph. “Two of them decided to join a group of Catholic boys in a game of basketball. During the match, Sister Ana twisted her finger and had to bandage it. I think I caught the moment just before that happened.”

Just like the photograph of the nuns playing basketball, A Sisterhood, as a whole, evokes a sense of humanity; the series reminds us of the cohesion and vulnerability of her subjects – not to mention a community that is in some ways alien to much of the modernised world. “Although I don’t have any particular religious belief myself, I am fascinated by the way spirituality can bring people together in such a strong way,” says Valeria, on a final personal note. “Beyond religion, I believe it’s powerful to see the strength of the bond created in a community composed of only women of every day and cultural background.”

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Valeria Luongo: A Sisterhood. Sister Genalyn on public transport in Rome (Copyright ©Valeria Luongo, 2019)

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Valeria Luongo: A Sisterhood. Sister Lorella, Lowicz (PL) 2016 (Copyright ©Valeria Luongo, 2016)

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Valeria Luongo: A Sisterhood. Maurzyce (PL), July 2016. Sister Francesca poses in the wooden village of Maurzysce, Poland during the World Catholic Youth Week. Francesca was one of the youngest nuns inside the community. In 2017 she abandoned the community to go back to the secular life (Copyright ©Valeria Luongo, 2016)

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Valeria Luongo: A Sisterhood. Lowicz (PL), July 2016. An intense moment of prayer in the small town of Lowicz, Poland with people and nuns from all around the world (Copyright ©Valeria Luongo, 2016)

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Valeria Luongo: A Sisterhood. Rome, (IT) March 2018. For the celebration of Easter the Ravasco community organised a performance. The nuns and the novices reenacted the Passion of the Christ. In this photo, Sister Pina is showing the novices a picture she took during the performance. The novices are still in costume (Copyright ©Valeria Luongo, 2018)

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Valeria Luongo: A Sisterhood. Rome (IT), April 2018. Sister Martha is Colombian. After more than 20 years working as a nun mainly in Bogotà she is now being sent to Albania. The Ravasco community has different convents all around the world and nuns are sent and moved depending on the needs. Martha is ready to go but worried because she doesn't know the Albanian language at all (Copyright ©Valeria Luongo, 2018)

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Valeria Luongo: A Sisterhood. A nun is getting ready early in the morning. Nuns are always obliged to wear their ecclesiastic clothes. They only moment in which they don't wear the tunics is when they are sleeping (Copyright ©Valeria Luongo, 2019)

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Valeria Luongo: A Sisterhood. View of Saint Peter's Basilica from the Convent laundry room (Copyright ©Valeria Luongo, 2019)

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Valeria Luongo: A Sisterhood. A young nun enjoys her ride with the bike in Lowicz (Poland) for the first time after several years. Every three years the World Catholic Youth Day is organized in some part around the world. Young nuns are invited to join the event. In July 2016 it took place in Poland. In this occasion nuns are dong activities that that go beyond their normal routine (Copyright ©Valeria Luongo, 2019)

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Valeria Luongo: A Sisterhood. Sister Francesca during a quiet moment of prayer (Copyright ©Valeria Luongo, 2019)

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Valeria Luongo: A Sisterhood. Nuns chatting in the laundry room, Rome 2018 (Copyright ©Valeria Luongo, 2018)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.

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