- Why did you decide to work on You Gave the Virgin a New Heart project?
In 2012 I was living in New York City, investigating different arms of the feminist movement. I sent letters through the US to interview women working across art, religion, and politics. I was invited to visit a community in Atlanta led by Diane Dougherty, an Irish American woman of about 70 years old. She defined herself a Roman Catholic woman priest, and I knew very well—I grew up in Italy— that according to the Vatican, there’s no such thing. Diane was a former nun who had been excommunicated because she was ordained as a priest. I was interested in that, the mechanism of disobedience to power. What was supposed to be a short visit became a road trip with Diane to visit other priests. We traveled from Atlanta to Kentucky by car. I became certain of the importance of feminist spirituality. Since then I’ve also traveled to South America to document the same movement.
I grew up as a Catholic in Italy in the 80s, there was a crucifix in every classroom. At nine we all received our first Holy Communion: I dressed like a nun, but in white and with a large lily in my hands. In the Catholic religion I grew up in, being a believer implied being a sinner with guilt. My philosophical and scientific questions not answered by any of the parish priests, so at 17 I decided that I hated the Church with its dogmas and rituals for ignorant people, and I also hated the very idea of God. I fostered my spirituality instead through Buddhism and art. The women priests were my way back tp entering a dialogue with Catholicism, my history. None of these women tried to convert me back; they had no labels or boxes for spirituality. Dorothy Shugrue, a fearless Irish woman of 77 years old, told me, “Giulia, put new meanings in the old stories. The old stories are so good.” That’s what I’m trying to do.
I want people to address the sexism of society and religion, but showing them new positive possibilities carrying women’s values, and show them the possibility of a transformed Church. This is a shared struggle for women across the major religions. I chose specifically to document the Catholic women priests movement because I have a connection to that history, but also because I want to stress the importance of civil and religious disobedience.
- How did you feel your project fit the Born The Same theme?
Women are half of the population, but every day women’s agenda, needs, experiences, gifts are dismissed and ignored.
84% of women around the world identify with a faith group, in other words, they are religious. I’m asking the viewer: Can a woman really represent the divine? Can a woman be priest, or pope? Or, can a woman really be president? How is it that we have come to accept the natural denigration of women within the practices of world religions? Why our religious leaders don’t stop the violence against women? As women, we don’t even know what religion would look like if there was a true partnership between men and women.
FEMINISM is the radical notion that women are people too. But it doesn’t end here: women are people, and blacks are people, and Hispanic are people, and the old are people, and the sick are people, the blind are people, the handicapped are people, the children are people, the gay are people, and every minority, and every person under the sun not in power are people. The particular injustice of being a woman, is the paradigm that allow us to understand all injustices, everywhere.
When many don’t criticise injustice for fear of losing their privileged positions in corporate, or religious, or political systems, than someone else, maybe you and me, has to be willing to call for justice and equality.
- What’s your point of view on the medium of photography making a real impact on perception and public opinion regarding important social, cultural and political matters?
I believe the best of us are revolutionary people. We don’t do this work for prestige, or simply to self-expressed ourselves. We do it because we feel responsible for our reality and we want to change what’s wrong with it. We want to show other possibilities, build empathy with the most vulnerable people or (why not) build hope for the future, focusing on positive solutions.
The post-modern critics (such Sontag or Sekula) have pointed out how documentary photography has failed saving the world. Literature, poetry, politics, journalism have failed too, but somebody expected photography to do the miracle. It didn’t.
I consider important to read and evaluate all their thoughts, being aware of the danger and mistakes we can do with our work, but I also believe we did have an impact in history (just think of Vietnam). My foundation as documentary photography is in books suck “The civil contract of photography” by Ariella Azoulay.
- Do you think video or multimedia can be more impactful than still images?
I do videos and multimedia too for my work, I’m going to build a web documentary for this project, but I don’t believe they are more impactful. I think they are just additional tools to tell broadly a story over the Internet.
I fell in love with still images and prints. I fell in love with all the limitations of photography, and a multimedia will not make my images stronger. At the end, it’s the strength of still images that I’m looking for. Still images have a way to stick in my mind and shape my memory and visions. They can be iconic, using a word photographers use less and less. Still images have a way to meet me, to stay with me, that it’s unique, and they need time. They need a multimedia 5 minutes long that doesn’t move and doesn’t make any sound. They just want to be watched and can hold your breath for a long time when they’re strong.
- Did you produce the video yourself or did you collaborate with others?
I did produce the video myself.
6. Do you think today photographers needs to expand their skills to include video and multimedia production, or it’s better to work in collaboration with producers?
If you’re working for a media outlet that supports multimedia, it will be beneficial to expand your skills to video or writing. There is a tremendous competition out there today. I don’t want to sound too critical, but I also have to say that film-makers do a much better job with videos than photographers. We should push customers to respect the expertise of photographers in creating still images that have an impact.
Davide Monteleone covered the euro-maidan revolution in Ukraine for the New Yorker, and I’m glad they didn’t ask him to do video as well, they hired the amazing film maker Leeor Kaufman and respecting the talent of each of them, they created an amazing historical record of what happened.
7. Is Women Priests a finished project or there will be more chapters?
I’ve been working on the WOMEN PRIESTS PROJECT since 2012. I have visited 35 communities across United States, Canada and Colombia. Patricia is one of the stories of courage and disobedience I witnessed. The aim of the project is to create an historical archive of this movement; because their ordination is valid (although illicit), one day these women will be remembered as the first Roman Catholic women priests in history. The documentation is composed of photos, video/audio interviews and archival material. It is important to record the lives of who decided to rebel against the Vatican, and what shaped their understanding of the world: mystical experiences, lesbian love, child abuse, grief for a dead son, love for a male priest, working for the secret services, doing missionary work in South America, living the Vietnam War, etc.
I’m planning the creation of podcasts (50 interviews), a Web documentary and a book. I will be also delivering dispatches of the project to religious and political audiences.
I’m doing my best trying to finance the next chapters: Europe and South Africa. Through these additional chapters, we’ll perceive how this is a worldwide issue. Women of different colours and different social status share equal discrimination and share the same dogmas from the Vatican.
Nausicaa Giulia Bianchi is a documentary photographer based in Milan, and You Gave The Virgin a New Heart is part of the Born The Same global tour.