Laura Husar Garcia has always been fascinated with nuns. While working in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she snapped a photo of them mowing lawns. While living in Mexico and Ecuador, she photographed them outside of convents. In 2002, while working as a photo editor for the Chicago Tribune, Husar Garcia spent a year with photographer Iwona Biedermann documenting the daily lives of nuns inside three convents in Chicgoland; together they created the series “Beyond the Veil: Nuns at Home,” which was funded by the Illinois Humanities Council and exhibited in the Polish Museum of America.
Thirteen years later, Husar Garcia continues to shoot off and on about life inside the convents and doesn’t think her intimate series will ever be completely finished. An edited collection of her work titled Beyond the Veil examines the rarely asked question about what happens to nuns after they retire.
Husar Garcia said the “career” of nuns is often long and arduous: They enter convents as teenagers, and throughout their lives help to build schools, hospitals, orphanages, retirement centers, and churches. The ways in which they provide support to their communities is made even more demanding by their shrinking population.
“Due to the growing shortage of nuns across the country, nuns often work well past the average retirement age, often into their 80s,” Husar Garcia wrote via email. “When they can no longer work outside the convent, they still serve through prayer, making rosaries for missionaries and participating in the daily chores of their convent until they can no longer work.”
Photographed in black-and-white—“There is nothing more beautiful to me than a gorgeous silver print”—the images are intimate, humorous, and poignant in their subtlety. One adjective Husar Garcia said she doesn’t want to be used when describing the work is kitschy.
“My intent was to show the women behind the veils, and also visually tell their stories of humor, love, sickness and grief. To show how similar they are to the rest of the women in the world, that they experience the same emotions as the rest of us.”
Husar Garcia points to one of her images of a nun putting on her veil as symbolic of that idea.
“It’s a simple, everyday moment for her, much like the moment each of us puts on our clothes in the morning,” she wrote. “The difference is that she is putting on a veil which is an external reminder of her lifelong faith. The intimacy of that simple act is something that has stayed with me over time.”
For the most part, the nuns have welcomed Husar Garcia into their world. Although some of them were cautious at first, the more Husar Garcia got to know them and shared her vulnerable side with them, the better things went.
“In order for photographers to capture vulnerability, it’s sometimes important for us to be more transparent. This is when relationships can form with our subjects which enable more visual intimacy.”
Follow Husar Garcia on Instagram.
Previously on Behold: